The music world has marked the passing of British/Australian composer Roger Smalley this month. Smalley died from Parkinson’s on 18th August 2015. He was well known in Western Australia because he was lecturer of composition at the University of Western Australia for three and a half decades and among other things founded the WASO 20th Century Ensemble. In 2004 he was proclaimed a State Living Treasure.
Vincent Plush in The Australian credited Smalley with putting Perth, the most isolated capital in the world, on the musical map.
WASO artistic planning manager Evan Kennea who studied composition under Roger Smalley agreed.
“Through his association with WASO, his brilliant music, his significant academic career, his exceptional performances and recordings as pianist and his inspirational support of young and emerging talent, Roger Smalley was a galvanising influence on the music world of Perth,” Kennea said.
Smalley’s funeral was on 26th August in Sydney, his home since 2007. Several eulogies were shared including one by WA French horn player Darryl Poulsen which has been reprinted below with permission. There was a request made that any floral tributes at the funeral be replaced instead with donations to the Australian Music Centre – a fitting tribute for a man whose life was all about music.
Darryl Poulsen read this eulogy at Roger Smalley’s funeral celebration in Sydney on 26 August 2015.
My name is Darryl Poulsen. I am fortunate to have been a friend and colleague of Roger Smalley’s for more than three decades. I was his academic colleague at the University of Western Australia, and have performed with Roger many times over those years.
There are many people who have been a large part of Roger’s life, and I would like to acknowledge some of them here. Roger’s family: Rachael and Davey, daughter and son; their mother and Roger’s former wife Sarah; and Peter, his brother. They have all, from afar in the United Kingdom, been a very special part in Roger’s life. I had the good fortune of meeting a number of his UK family, either over there whilst on tour with Roger, or at special occasions here in Australia. I was struck on those occasions by the obvious love and affection between them, undiminished by the many thousands of kilometres separating them.
Roger lived for many years in Western Australia, and no doubt there are many colleagues and friends there, many of whom are not able to be here today.
Finally I would like to acknowledge Roger’s partner Pattie Benjamin and her children James, Sarah and Tim. They have all been a significant part of Roger’s life here in Australia. Pattie has provided unfailing support to Roger over many years. Support which has endured both the good times as well as the challenging times, such as his several recent bouts of ill-health. This enabled Roger to focus on his music, providing him with both a secure domestic base, as well as a keen interest and support, in all aspects of his musical career.
To all of Roger’s family and friends, I extend my deepest sympathies.
To talk about Roger the person, one has to talk about Roger the musician, for they really were one and the same. Composer, pianist, chamber musician, conductor, educator, and music critic: Roger was all of these, and his contributions to each were distinguished.
Extensive details of Roger’s background and achievements are readily available elsewhere, so I shall not use this occasion to recount them here. Suffice it to say, the list of musicians with whom he studied; prizes won, both as composer and performer; prestigious commissions; and significant honours and awards speaks for itself.
A self-effacing person by nature, the honours and awards are all the more appropriate recognition of the profound importance of Roger’s contribution to the arts.
Prior to coming to Australia, Roger was enjoying much artistic success in the UK and Europe. Fate of another kind, however, visited him, in the early 1970s. Professor Frank Callaway, then Head of Music at the University of Western Australia, contacted Roger during a visit to the UK seeking a meeting with him. Sir Frank, as he later became, was indefatigable when it came to enticing distinguished, talented international musicians to visit his Music Department in the most isolated capital city in the world, Perth.
The rest of that story is now history. Roger accepted Frank Callaway’s invitation for a three-month composer in residence position at UWA, arriving there in 1974. Three years later, he returned to Perth to take up an ongoing academic appointment at UWA. Naturally, his work as composer and performer was closely linked to his academic work. Roger spent three and a half decades at UWA, during which time he became a Professorial Fellow.
One can only begin to imagine the initial cultural readjustment Roger must have had to make when arriving in Perth from London. It seems however that, ultimately, this geographical and cultural displacement provided Roger a unique opportunity to seek new musical inspiration.
One such example was the stimulus he derived from his interest in visual arts, especially paintings and installations. His collaboration with artist Brian Blanchflower inspired the piece: Diptych: Homage to Brian Blanchflower, which, I am advised, Roger considered one of his finest. A similar collaboration with the printmaker Lesley Duxbury, also resulted in his piano quartet, both named and structured, after her artwork Crepuscule.
In Roger’s own words, he described the influence of visual art in an interview with William Yeoman:
‘….. up until the time I moved over here [Perth], I had never written anything at all with a visual stimulus. All of these pieces have been written here. So I think that being in a country where landscape and vastness and distance are all part and parcel of existence, obviously awoke a side of me which hadn’t been obvious before.’
Looking back now, one must acknowledge that Australian music is indeed the richer for the foresight of Frank Callaway all those years ago.
I would now like to offer some brief reflections on Roger. Two colleagues, Alan Bonds and Cathie Travers, recently shared their thoughts and recollections of Roger with me. Alan Bonds, violinist/violist, reminisced with me about Roger, when he first arrived in Perth, and when Alan himself was an undergraduate student in a number of Roger’s classes. The following are a few random recollections:
Although Roger’s interest, and indeed reputation, was firmly based in electronic music, we were all amazed that he would be interested in playing in regular chamber music sessions. Sight-reading substantial works, piano quartets and quintets, of Schubert, Schumann, Brahms etc., we were astonished that Roger would not only sight-read anything, but also play flawlessly. His intuitive grasp of music made for an enthralling experience for his musical partners.
Although coming with the extreme intellectual tendencies of the Cologne and Darmstadt Schools, he still enjoyed playing the beauty in the music of Schubert and Brahms. He was just a great musician who importantly, knew where he came from.
Studying and playing the music of the Second Viennese School with Roger was a formative influence. In particular, performing Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire with Jane Manning and Roger was unforgettable, the performance was transformative.
Interestingly, like Stockhausen, Roger also discovered that humans make better music than machines. He wrote very challenging music. Roger was a modernist through and through, and he held his faith to the end.
His teaching was as rigorous as it was spontaneous and inspirational. He had a unique ability to see into the very heart of the music, and communicate it.
Cathie Travers offered the following insight into Roger’s influence at UWA:
Roger was not an especially good ‘piano’ teacher in the sense of helping to develop an advanced instrumental technique. But he was a great teacher about music. His sight-reading skills were fabulous. At the piano, Roger automatically started collecting and collating information on the elements of the score and the way the musical structure hung together [or failed to do so, as the case may be]… his hands responded to the flood of musical information pouring out of his brain, and his fast physical responses meant his read-throughs of complex scores were astoundingly accurate. He tended to drive a car in a similar manner: information in, and quick response reactions out; it could be a bit harrowing in the passenger seat of the car though.
I think it’s fair to say that his fascination with musical structure informed his every moment of existence as a musician, whether he was performing, educating, arranging or composing.
My own first recollection of Roger goes back to 1981. Returning to Australia from studying and working in Europe, I first met Roger when enrolling as a postgraduate student at UWA. I was extremely fortunate to have had Roger working with me performing in a number of recitals and chamber music concerts, as part of my postgraduate program.
No sooner had we commenced our musical projects, Roger decided to expand the horn literature by writing a new work for me. This was Echo IV. Written for horn and tape delay, it was the last in a series of works for solo instrument and tape delay. This was the pre-digital era, when electronics were still largely analogue.
Performing the work set considerable challenges. In particular, mastering the logistics of a tape delay system, comprising two reel-to-reel recorders stretched some distance across the auditorium, syncing the resultant time delay with an independent click-track, was fraught with unanticipated irregularities. So much so, that on the day of the premiere of Echo IV, it was decided to prerecord the two echos, which would then be played back with the live horn, and click track.
This too, however, proved challenging in performance. Synchronisation of the click-track and the recorded tracks parted company, leaving me with the invidious choice of deciding to play with either one or the other, rather than all together, as the composer intended!
Technological limitations of the day were never an impediment to Roger’s creativity. I remember Roger very distinctly saying that future advances in technology would one day make the playing of this piece, as well as other similar works, easier to realise. He was right of course. Some years later, with the benefit of the arrival of digital delay devices, we were able to perform Echo IV again, this time without click track, and more in the manner that the composer had conceived it.
Eventually, I joined Roger as an academic colleague at the University of Western Australia. During this extended period, more new works were commissioned and premiered.
A notable occasion with Roger was a tour we undertook of the United Kingdom, and Western Australia. Aptly called ‘Crossing Continents’, it was an innovative composition and performance exchange between British and Australian musicians. The concerts featured new works by British composers Dorothy Ker, George Nicholson and Adrian Moore, together with music by Roger, and James Ledger from the University of Western Australia.
Of particular note was the recognition Roger received in the UK. Interested musicians and public simply appeared from everywhere, seeking out Roger Smalley, even as we performed and gave workshops in some of the smaller places like in Surrey, for example. The reverence for Roger and his music was palpable.
Despite his long illness, I do not recall Roger ever complaining. Even in recent times, the world of music still occupied his being. The radio in his room at Lulworth, permanently tuned to ABC Classic FM, broadcast without interruption. I am sure that the presence of this music went some way to transport him from the terrible illness which had overtaken his body.
During a recent visit, I was able to talk with Roger about a composer whose music I had just heard performed in Vienna. The composer was the French Canadian, Claude Vivier. Interestingly, Roger’s body moved in recognition of the name as it was spoken. In a few precious but muted words, Roger was able to share with me his enthusiasm for Vivier’s music, and also relate the common ground they both had with Stockhausen. It was like a brief moment of musical conversation with the old Rog., I knew so well.
Two years ago, I had the good fortune of attending Roger’s 70th birthday celebration. At that event, I was asked to offer a few words about him. I chose to conclude my comments with a quote, which I would like to share once more. The musical idea expressed in the quote, in my opinion, deeply reflects the very essence of the Roger we know so well. The quote, from the journal, The Listener of 12 August 1971, is Roger in his own words, describing the compositional process of his work entitled Beat Music which premiered at the 1971 Proms concert with the ensemble Intermodulation:
‘I am continually trying to get away from the feeling that I am composing the music, and closer to the sensation that the music is composing itself. This sensation, which I experienced more strongly than ever before while writing Beat Music, is extremely difficult to verbalise, but I could describe it as the feeling that if you descend deeper and deeper into the materials of music until you reach the smallest and most insignificant-sounding object (say a C natural so low that it is no more than a click every second), you will merely have to disturb it slightly with the point of your pencil – push it around on the manuscript paper a little – and it will release the most phenomenal amount of energy.’