Roger Smalley, 1943-2015

In 2013, I had the great pleasure of reviewing Christopher Mark’s Roger Smalley: A Case Study of Late Twentieth-Century Composition (1); a work that was fifteen years in the making. I was impressed by Mark’s innovative use of a 1997 as a ‘cantus firmus’ from which the analysis in the book grew. I was largely unfamiliar with Smalley’s work, which is likely due to a east-west divide in Australian music (Smalley spent much of his creative life in Western Australia).
I heard about Smalley’s death through a Facebook post, and thought I’d quote a few points from my review which show why his music deserves to be better known. Smalley largely avoided the trap of being an ‘Australian’ composer, and instead was content to write to circumstance. His music was not ideologically pure, instead he created schemes to serve his interests, and let his ear be the guide.
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Smalley’s move to Australia in the mid-1970s to become composer-in-residence at the University of Western Australia seems to have precipitated a stylistic shift, away from Moment Form, text pieces and conceptual purity toward a more comfortable relationship with consonance. While Mark attributes this change to Smalley’s relocation, he acknowledges that ‘it could be argued that the changes in his language could only have come about through the radical change in perspective that going to live on the other side of the world afforded.’ Mark footnotes that ‘it is a moot point whether migration to a different non-European country—for example, the USA—would have allowed this to the same extent’ (p. 150). However, both Mark and Smalley note, perhaps tongue-in-cheek, that this stylistic change came about because of the inexperience of Australian performers and audiences, who were not taken by Smalley’s earlier style. From the mid-1980s, Smalley began to rework the music of nineteenth-century masters, most notably Chopin. Raiding the music of the past was not new for Smalley (the Missa Brevis and Missa Parodias from the mid-1960s were based on the keyboard music of John Blitheman), but now he had sufficient skill for the development of borrowed material over longer spans.

While the analyses often seek to explain compositional processes, Mark is careful not to ignore the implications of a work for the listener, taking Smalley’s advice from the first chapter: ‘don’t get bogged down in musical technique for its own sake, and allow the music to go where it wants’ (p. 6). Mark is also not bothered by Smalley’s deviations from his pre-compositional schemes:

Musical works are valued not for the closeness of their correspondence to compositional theories … they are valued for the quality of their invention and their internal cogency. It would make better sense to view such theories as enabling devices … setting up ‘rules’ that it will be often more productive to break than to observe. (p. 96)

This statement could apply to much twentieth-century composition, and it neatly encapsulates Smalley’s method, which requires strict schemes at the conceptual level in order to free his imagination in working out the details.
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For more about Smalley’s music, go to his website or the Australian Music Centre.

References

  1. O’Sullivan, Alexander. Roger Smalley: A case study of late twentieth-century composition [Book Review] [online]. Context: Journal of Music Research, No. 38, 2013: 84-86
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