Roger Smalley, AM, has passed away at the age of 72. Gone too soon, certainly for me. This story is my personal experience of this amazing musician and teacher, including some things I had wanted to say to Roger in person but did not get the chance. Other sites with the usual life story details for Roger and some very interesting insights are linked at the end in an ever-growing list (updated to 8 June 2016).
At the beginning of my first term at university in 1979 I turned up to the composition class at the University of Western Australia, full of anticipation and excited at the prospect of finally getting some composition instruction. Roger had just taken on the responsibility for teaching the composition majors as John Exton was away on leave (Exton was also away the following year). He seemed shocked to discover this small group of students who thought they could specialise in composition straight out of high school and insisted we all re-enrol in some other major subject and take a half-unit for two years called something like Compositional Techniques. At the time I was a bit put out but soon was enjoying the course as it was in these tutorials that I really learnt how to think like a composer, things you just don’t get in the classes on harmony or ear training (important though they are). Or, at least, I thought I was learning to think like a composer, but what would that be, anyway?
So we joined other first year students in these tutorials. After a while my naturally analytical mind found its stride and it soon became evident I was in my element. Roger used a whiteboard to analyse melodic shapes, for example in the Bach Two-part Inventions, Bartok’s Mikrokosmos, and Gregorian chant. Later we tackled twelve-tone note rows from Schoenberg & Webern, and music by Stockhausen and many others. It was a revelation. In between tutes I spent endless hours pouring over scores, covering them in pencil marks, humming them and playing them on the piano. However, the little creative assignments were a struggle (and still are, though they’re much bigger pieces nowadays).
When I first met him Roger’s sight-reading at the piano was mind-boggling. Then I began learning a lot more about piano playing from a variety of sources (which should be the subject of another blog one day), and my ear for the sound of the piano began to develop. I knew Roger could play anything but the playing was a bit ‘bashy.’ The wonderful British soprano, Jane Manning, many times toured Australia and performed and taught masterclasses at UWA. I’ll never forget that, when a student made a remark in awe of Roger’s pianistic gifts, she said something to the effect that “back home (in Britain), Roger would be quite average as a pianist.” That was in 1980.
So how did he later become such a wonderful pianist? Strictly speaking I don’t know the answer to this question but I always wanted to ask him and I have a theory. At UWA we were so fortunate to have a steady stream of world-class performers and teachers dropping in, due to the influence of Sir Frank Callaway, head of the Department of Music (as it was then known). You don’t travel many thousands of kilometres just to give one recital so, unlike other conservatoire-like institutions in the northern hemisphere where I was led to believe such teachers would arrive on a train, give a masterclass, and then get straight back on the train, our visitors would stay for weeks. This meant students could have private lessons and even chat with these top musicians over lunch or breakfast. I suspect this is what happened with Roger. In particular, he may have found some inspiration from Lionel Bowman who gave masterclasses and performances around 1980 and 1984. Bowman, from Stellenbosch University in South Africa, had a way of teaching how to produce a really lovely sound on the piano and a way of easily mastering difficult passage work (neither of which, incidentally, is found in the book and video about Bowman’s teaching).
Roger certainly did not play like Bowman at any time. He had his own style but I wonder if the improvement in his tone may owe something to Bowman, and perhaps also to other visiting pianists, because the change over a year or two was quite marked. He went from a super sight-reader with a pretty ordinary sound to a pianist of high distinction.
AS A COMPOSITION TEACHER Roger was not stuck on any particular school of composition. He exposed his students to almost everything you could imagine and then some. I’ll have to dig out my list of required listening for the third year class unit, but please believe me when I say it was an awesome list: Cage, Berio, Messiaen, Riley, Reich, Ives, Stockhausen, Bartok, Schaeffer, Varèse, Boulez and many more.
It’s a cliché I know, but so true of Roger, that he always sought beauty in music. Beauty may be in the ear of the listener, or the mind of the musical thinker, and this perhaps explains both the wideness of his musical stylistic range and his depth of understanding of anything he played. Aside from assessing student works I never heard Roger say a bad word about any composer or any genre of music. He could tell the great music from the ordinary and could have told you why, but didn’t. He wasn’t about to tell you what you should like or dislike.
One thing I did wonder about at the time, though, was why we did not get more study of Australian (read: eastern Australian) music. Roger’s expertise and interest was more in the USA, Asia, and especially Europe and the UK. But in hindsight I think that was a great thing. I’m a fifth-generation West Australian on my mother’s side, and my father was from the UK. For most of my growing up years I rarely saw a non-caucasian face until I started Uni. Since then I’ve always thought this country, and Perth in particular, would have been the most awful backwater if it were not for the many waves of immigrants from many countries coming to live here. They bring us all sorts of benefits, too many to list, and Roger is an outstanding case in point. If we’d had an Australian in his role would we have learnt about Berio and Boulez? Or Terry Riley?
Having fallen out of the contemporary music loop I lost track of Roger after he left his abode in the Perth Hills locality of Parkerville, which coincidently is where I grew up and where I now house sit. Upon hearing he had been awarded the Member of the Order of Australia (AM) in 2011 I sent congratulations but got no reply, which is not all that surprising. Then last year on Margaret Throsby’s ABC radio programme someone mentioned Roger was ill and living in Sydney. Idly I wished I could get on a plane but that wasn’t possible.
Roger was the most important mentor I’ve ever had and I regret not having had the chance to tell him that. Among many other fine music teachers he is one of two that I really thank my lucky stars for. Without them I really don’t know how I would have progressed as a musician. The other was Brian Michell who took me on as a piano student at UWA (see http://www.mixmargaret.com/brian-michell.html) This is not to say that I compose even remotely like Roger or play or teach piano at all like Brian, of course. But they were vital at the time.
The clarity of Roger’s music was always an inspiration to me. This I’m sure has some relationship to his own clarity of thought in the understanding of the music of others. In tutorials he could delve into the most intricate complexities of Stockhausen and yet also illuminate the sophistication behind apparently simple music. (My relationship to Roger is a small mirror to Roger’s relationship to Stockhausen in that we both did paid professional music copying for our mentor. I did the hand copying of Strung Out and some of The Southland, and computer copying of a lot of the Concerto for Contra-bassoon.) It seemed Roger could, by studying a score, get into the mind of a composer and know what they were thinking. Or, as he said to us, one could understand what they might have been thinking. That, I would suggest, is a rare and valuable skill.
After two years of intense study in the half unit I was awarded an ‘A’ and was allowed to enrol in the full unit for third year composition (it was a four-year degree). But it was thought I should now have the benefit of the experience of another composition teacher, probably to get a different perspective which, on the face of it, made sense. But my new lessons consisted entirely of having excerpts read to me from little books on Zen or Taoism. Whether that was really a contributing factor in my downturn I will never know but it was around then that I began to struggle mightily with a major depressive illness.
I can clearly recall standing on the top floor of the music building where the practice rooms were, looking at a street light pole in the distance near the residential colleges. Despite repeated efforts I was unable to keep my gaze fixed on the pole for even one second. In music I could not remember more than two notes in succession, which you’d have to say would be pretty important, no?
Why I did not seek help is one of those mysteries of young people. To this day the condition has never been diagnosed but I did very gradually heal up completely, over a period of more than ten years.
Being in this debilitated state was a huge fall for someone who’d so recently topped the class for their ability to analyse music. I’d been able to figure out the form and many other details of a piece in a few seconds flat from skipping through the pages. Or just from listening to it once.
At some point I was allowed to resume study with Roger but by then I was in very bad shape and was not able to complete my composition degree until many years later.
Mental illness has been a background, and sometimes foreground, subject in much of my own output, even before I started uni. Student works had titles like ‘Two Worlds’ or ‘Visions’ and programme notes mentioned ‘the abyss.’ Works currently in progress deal with the relationship between the conscious and the subconscious.
A final regret is not getting around to showing Roger or Brian, or anyone else at UWA for that matter, a little 4 minute piano solo I composed when I was sixteen years old. Think “Moonlight Sonata meets Cavatina from The Deer Hunter” (and about the same length but composed a year before that film came out). The style was so traditional that I didn’t even think it was a good piece of music. How crazy is that? So they never heard Androgyne Prophecy, which I now regard as a very good piece indeed.
By a strange coincidence it was only eight days before he died that I used Spotify to search for Roger’s music, the first time I had ever used that site. I was researching the site while thinking how hard it is these days for anyone to make a living from music unless they teach. How ironic then that I found Roger’s Pulses and his recordings of John White’s piano sonatas there, free for anyone to listen to without payment.
Roger Smalley was a great musician whose memory is worthy of a great celebration which I so earnestly hope will happen. What a pity that he was not much more celebrated during the course of his career. I hope his long piano duo partnership with Cathie Travers will be remembered for many years to come. Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring for one piano four hands is a memory I will always treasure.
I am so grateful to have had this personal connection with Roger. Others I hope will write of his work with performing ensembles and conducting, his compositions, his innovations in electronic music, improvisation and free improvisation, and the many other composers and pianists he taught.
Updated 8 June 2016
Another blog of mine about the Smalley concerts by Decibel on 7th June 2016 and the Fremantle Chamber Orchestra on 6th December 2015: 2016/06/08/all-smalley-concert-at-state-theatre/
All-Smalley concert on 7th June 2016 by Decibel, for Tura: www.decibelnewmusic.com/intermodulations.html
There was also a review of the Decibel concert by https://au.news.yahoo.com/thewest/entertainment/a/31795960/decibel-honours-smalley-legacy/the next day in The West Australian newspaper:
Cathie Travers on her long professional and personal relationship with Roger
An insightful 2007 article by the pianist Mark Coughlan, a piano student and later teaching colleague of Roger and formerly Head of the UWA School of Music
19 September 2015: echonewspaper.com.au/roger-smalley-1943-2015
19 August 2015: www.aco.com.au/blog/post/vale-roger-smalley-1943-2015
In classical music circles you may one day come across other M D Joneses. One M Jones also did a MusB at the University of Western Australia, in guitar and other fretted instruments. Another also has a Bachelor of Music in composition, from somewhere in the eastern states (of Australia).