All-Smalley concert at State Theatre

Since Roger passed away in August I’ve been to two concerts featuring his music (see near the end for the Fremantle Chamber Orchestra’s concert).

It was great to be in the audience last night (20160607) for a Tura concert consisting entirely of music by my mentor, Roger Smalley (1943-2015). The Perth group Decibel performed five works in the first of their first Scale Variable concerts in the Studio Underground at the State Theatre Centre (in Western Australia). Most of the music was  composed in the UK before 1976 when Roger moved to Australia to teach composition at the University of Western Australia.

What a delight this was! Though I recognised some of the material I had the feeling I was hearing it for the first time, or with new ears. After reading the great programme notes (by Cat Hope) I realised that some things had found their way into later works, so mystery solved.

These are pieces rarely heard with some probably not performed for decades. The members of Decibel and their friends went to a lot of trouble to assemble or recreate the materials needed, beginning with tracking down some lost items.

The first work was Didjeridu, for four channel tape, composed when Roger was Composer-in-Residence at UWA during his first visit here in 1974. From the programme: “[the work] uses source materials extracted from an LP that is still housed in the UWA library, featuring traditional music from the Mornington Peninsula.” I happened to sit next to Jenny Wildy, who was the music librarian at the Wigmore Music Library for nearly forty years. She said “I know that LP!”

Transformation (1968 rev. 1971) is for piano and live electronic “ring-modulation.” I thought I’d heard Roger using ring-modulation in another work, but I don’t recall it sounding like this. Adam Pinto’s masterful rendition of this virtuosic work was exciting, and the ring modulation was a revelation.

Impulses (1986) for ensemble treats ideas from an earlier work, Pulses. Full of pulsating, of course.

Another piano solo with ring modulation is Monody (1971-72), “the first of Smalley’s pieces to feature ring-modulation as structural, rather than colouristic and decorative role.” This was quite a mesmerising performance by Stuart James.

Decibel gave us the Australian premiere of Zeitebenen (‘time levels,’ 1973-75) for live electronic ensemble and tape, a major 45 minute work which made up the entire second ‘half’ of the evening. A large and varied work. I feel so privileged to have heard it, and I was impressed with how the composer managed the long time frame.

Before coming to Perth Roger was part of Intermodulation, an important electro-acoustic group of four composer/performers, for which he wrote this music. “Decibel is not unlike Intermodulation in its make up and intent… thus the program is dedicated to compositions for acoustic and electronic instruments… Decibel is a world leader in the integration of acoustic instruments and electronics, the interpretation of graphic notations and pioneer digital score formats…”

On 6 December 2015 I went to another really wonderful concert by the Fremantle Chamber Orchestra in the Fremantle Town Hall but I didn’t get around to blogging about it at the time. They gave a great rendition of Roger’s Footwork (2006, also known as Birthday tango) in a programme of mainstream works, and it was very well received. I’ve misplaced the printed programme and there’s nothing about it on their own website. Unlike last night’s concert there was no restriction on photos.

FCO Town Hall concert

Fremantle Chamber Orchestra on 6th December 2015, playing Roger Smalley’s Footwork

So that’s my five cents worth; I don’t write full-on music reviews. There is a little more about the Decibel concert at http://www.decibelnewmusic.com/intermodulations.html Perhaps the whole written programme will be put online, too? It has a lot more detail. (Hint, hint to Cat Hope.)

There was also a review of the Decibel concert the next day in The West Australian newspaper by : https://au.news.yahoo.com/thewest/entertainment/a/31795960/decibel-honours-smalley-legacy/

For more about Roger see my first blog about him from August 2015 and the many comments on it at http://mixmargaret.com/blog/2015/08/19/vale-roger-smalley-a-great-australian-musical-intellect/ At the end of that blog I’m adding more and more links to performances and articles about Roger, including the Decibel concert and any reviews I find.

Vale Roger Smalley, a great Australian musical intellect

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).

UWA School of Music in 2012. Photo by MDJ

UWA School of Music in 2012. Photo by MDJ

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).

Sir Frank in the Callaway Auditorium with gamelan. Photo by MDJ 2012

Sir Frank in the Callaway Auditorium with gamelan. Photo by MDJ 2012

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.

UWA School of Music in 2012. Photo by MDJ

UWA School of Music in 2012. Photo by MDJ

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

Author of this blog: Mix Margaret D. Jones
www.mixmargaret.com
www.mixmargaret.com/blog
www.facebook.com/MixMargaretDylanJones

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 the next day in The West Australian newspaper: https://au.news.yahoo.com/thewest/entertainment/a/31795960/decibel-honours-smalley-legacy/

Cathie Travers on her long professional and personal relationship with Roger
www.cathietravers.com/page16/smalley.html
www.cathietravers.com/2014pdf_frames/Remembrance_2.pdf

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
www.australianmusiccentre.com.au/article/from-west-to-east-roger-smalley

Other articles

19 September 2015: echonewspaper.com.au/roger-smalley-1943-2015

19 August 2015: www.aco.com.au/blog/post/vale-roger-smalley-1943-2015
www.abc.net.au/classic/content/2015/08/19/4296113.htm
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roger_Smalley
www.australianmusiccentre.com.au/artist/smalley-roger
www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/11823573/Roger-Smalley-pianist-obituary.html

Disambiguation
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).