An Interview with Roger Smalley

Written by: William Yeoman

This interview took place in June 2007 in Perth, Western Australia, just before Australian composer and pianist Roger Smalley’s departure for Sydney, where he now resides. Smalley, a major figure in the Australian music scene, had just retired as Professor of Composition at the University of Western Australia after a three-decade association with that institution.

Roger Smalley. Photograph:

Part One: the Teacher

You first came to Perth, Western Australia, in 1974. Why?

I never had any thought in my mind like “Oh, I must go to Perth”, or even Australia, but this was due to Sir Frank Callaway who, apart from being foundation Professor of Music at the University of Western Australia, was also the president of various international music organisations. He was constantly travelling around the world, and wherever he landed he would seek out people to visit the university, initially for a short-term residency. I was based in London at the time, and was pretty disenchanted with the scene from the point of view of making a living, as opposed to any aesthetic considerations. I mean, there was plenty of interesting music being played, but nobody was making anything out of it. So when Frank suggested coming to Western Australia, I thought why not? And they were offering what seemed like a princely sum of money in those days.

Then a game of musical chairs ensued, so to speak?

Everybody thought the visit went well, so Frank applied for a research fellowship for me. I came back to Perth in 1976, and three years later David Bollard, who was the piano teacher on the staff, left to join the Australia Ensemble in Sydney. So I moved into his position. Then, a few years after that, the head of composition retired early, and I was suddenly moved sideways and found myself teaching composition.

Teaching people to compose is a much trickier thing than teaching them to play an instrument. When you’re teaching the piano, for example, you’ve always got the composer’s text in front of you. You can point at things and say “Look, that says piano, why are you playing it forte?”, whereas when you’re looking at a student’s composition, it’s much less clear as to how you approach it. You obviously can’t judge it by the same standards that you would a piece by a recognised composer. A student composition is generally an exercise, someone flexing their muscles to try to gain some basic techniques. Which I think is independent of the kind of music they actually want to write.

Which is what?

When we interview prospective composers who want to get into the music department, and ask them what kind of music they want to write, they say “Oh, like John Williams”. Or sometimes it’s even “I want to write music for video games”. I tell them it doesn’t really matter what kind of music they want to compose, because the techniques you need to be able to do it are virtually the same as they were for Brahms or Beethoven. It’s a question of getting from A to B in the most succinct and meaningful kind of way.

Do students appreciate that you need to get this basic grounding before you can be so specific about what kind of music you want to write?

They generally don’t to begin with, but by about halfway through the first year it begins to dawn on them, and things steadily improve from there.

Improve? So you don’t get people saying “Oh this is too hard” and just giving up?

Technically speaking, you might have about a dozen people doing composition, and typically you get a bit of an exodus, after two or three weeks. A couple of them will just disappear. And that’s because they realise it’s not what they thought it was going to be. So they go off and do something else. But the ones who stick at it gradually get the message. I mean, Schoenberg liked to have people for four or five years just doing the basics before he let them out to write their own music. But we’ve got to come up with something by the end of the first year in the university course which is examinable and demonstrates something concrete. So you can’t spend weeks analysing one bar of a movement of a Beethoven sonata; you’ve got to find some way of engaging the students’ interest and feeding their imagination. If they’ve got an imagination. Music is not just about technique: it’s about having imaginative ideas and then having the technique to actually realise them. So in recent years I had been moving away from giving students too many technical exercises and trying to come up with projects which will stimulate their imaginations, but which can be related to the music of other composers in different ways.

Part Two: the Performer

How did moving to Perth affect your performing career?

In England I was known as an interpreter of contemporary piano music, and that’s what I was always asked to do. Of course, I was familiar with much of the classic piano repertoire, but I never got the chance to play it in public. Until I came to Perth, when I found myself asked to accompany visiting artists and doing things like Rachmaninov’s Cello Sonata or Schumann’s “Dichterliebe” or six recitals with Jane Manning covering the history of vocal music from Purcell to Cage and everything in between. Suddenly the range of repertoire I was playing on the piano broadened enormously. I can remember thinking “Dare I say that I’ll do these things?”, but I stood up to every challenge that was thrown at me.

What about chamber music?

In those days I was also in a piano trio called the Arensky Trio, and we did a lot of Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart – that kind of thing. We played inPerth and Fremantle, and toured around the state as well, playing various centres. Then, in the late ’90s, came the Australian Piano Quartet, which lasted for about eight years. I enjoyed that enormously. We covered pretty much the whole piano quartet repertoire, and commissioned quite a few pieces as well. Gordon Kerry and Ross Edwards wrote works for us; I wrote a piece as well. We toured nationally for Musica Viva, as well as playing locally.

So you came from one of the world’s great cultural centres to what was then one of the most isolated cities in the world and your performing career blossomed as a result?

Yes, I hadn’t expected it, but that’s what happened. And now I’m at the point of winding down on the performing a bit, because it becomes ever more onerous to get your technique going again when you’re not playing seriously. I feel I’ve done enough practising for one lifetime!

Part Three: the Composer

Did the move to Australia also change the direction of your own music?

As a composer, of course it’s very difficult to say what effect coming to Australia has had, because there’s no way of knowing what I would have done if I hadn’t. What did happen is that, if you look at my catalogue of works, the first couple of years in Australia were pretty much barren. Not because I wasn’t doing anything, but because I wasn’t sure of my aesthetic direction. There were an awful lot of unfinished pieces, pieces that were just started and sort of fell apart – although recently I’ve been drawing material from these and working them up into new pieces. But at the time I was trying to re-orient myself and find my way in this new environment. The kinds of audiences which one had in England were extremely knowledgeable about contemporary music in general, whereas the audiences here had no such background. This turned out to be a plus: in London you’ve got several audiences – an early music audience, a contemporary music audience and so forth – whereas here you’ve basically got one audience that will go to most things. And despite people always saying to the contrary, I think they enjoy them all. So I was searching around for some way of trying to connect with the people here, and the first piece that I completed was a music-theatre work called “William Derrincourt”, based on the autobiography [“Old Convict Days”, Sydney 1892] of a convict who was transported to Tasmania when he was 16 and eventually made his fortune in the Goldfields. That was a breakthrough from a point of view of musical language: I’d been a single-minded avant-garde composer up to that point, but with this work tonality suddenly reinstated itself. For example, there’s a scene which requires the singing of “God Save the Queen”, where it was necessary to write for voices that were not highly trained. Factors like this came together to re-orient my music language towards a more straightforward and easy to assimilate style without compromising the sense of its basic integrity.

There are other pieces which I wouldn’t have written if I hadn’t moved to Australia. When I first arrived here in 1974, I listened to the records of didgeridoo-playing in the music library and was absolutely fascinated by the richness and complexity of it all. So I made a tape piece in the electronic studio, called Didgeridoo, which is about 8 minutes long and is entirely derived from a recording of a didgeridoo, treated electronically and superimposed on itself – all those kinds of things. Then I used the sound of the didgeridoo in quite a number of other pieces. Particularly in writing for the cello, where the bottom string has many of the attributes of the didgeridoo.

In my oratorio “The Southland”, there are two didgeridoos – the only time I’ve used them in a concert work. The oratorio was the result of a 1998 commission from the Australian bi-centennial authorities to write a piece for chorus and orchestra. It’s one of the biggest pieces I’ve ever done, and has probably had more of an effect on more people than anything else I’ve ever written. I still meet people today who were in the first performance, and it seems to have left a deep impression upon them. That performance was given by the WA Youth Orchestra and a huge choir from the conservatorium – Richard Gill was the conductor. Apart from the two didgeridoos, the work also requires a gamelan ensemble comprising about a dozen players and a folk-group comprising flute, violin, accordion and guitar. Surprisingly, it’s been done twice since. I also used various texts for the work, including a poem by the Aboriginal writer Jack Davis, an Indonesian poet and assorted folksongs. Musically, there’s a kind of development: in the first movement you have these drones from the didgeridoos and the harmonic series building up; in the second, you go to the gamelan, which uses pentatonic material. The third movement goes into major/minor tonality before the final movement utilises contemporary musical language. So there’s a simultaneous historical expansion paralleled by the evolution of the musical language.

You’ve also been inspired by visual artists working here in Perth.

Yes, like Brian Blanchflower. He came out from England a couple of years after I did, and his style underwent a considerable change as well. He started doing all this work about the sea – waves and fish and so forth. He wasn’t doing just paintings and drawings, but installations as well, using skulls and things found on beaches in the south. Other works were inspired by the heavens, by going out to extremely remote places and looking at the stars in the sky when there was nothing to diminish their brilliance. He did these paintings called Canopies, which were just Hessian squares taped onto the walls without a frame. I wrote an orchestral piece which was commissioned by the WA Symphony Orchestra called Diptych (Homage to Brian Blanchflower) – this was because he had made some pictures called Diptych (Homage to Varèse) and Diptych (Homage to Xenakis). In fact, this was one of the reasons we got on together: he was very keen on modern music, particularly of the textural variety – Ligeti, Xenakis, Varèse – because it parallels the complexity of his canvasses. Some of which are absolutely huge – 7 metres long by 2 metres high. So I wrote this piece, which is in two movements. The first is based on an installation using objects found on the seashore, while the second is incredibly dense. Blanchflower would work for weeks superimposing more and more layers, so the music gradually builds up layer by layer, ending at the point of greatest complexity.

Then another artist that I’ve been inspired by is Leslie Duxbury. She does very small mezzotints – they’re scratched onto metal plates with a very fine needle, so although they’re small, they have an incredible amount of detail in them. I wrote an orchestral piece called Close to the Edge, which is in seven movements, each of which has the title of one of these little engravings: ‘Lighthouse’, ‘Boat’, ‘Seashore’, ‘Flotsam’, ‘Horizon’ and so on. Further to that, I also wrote a work for our piano quartet which is based on an installation of Duxbury’s in which she had 15 little boxes, each with a one-word title, arranged in three rows of five on the gallery wall. My piece is in three movements, each having five subsections, the mood suggested by the titles of the little boxes. I haven’t done anything for a while based on the visual arts, but it’s interesting to me that up until the time I moved over here, 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.


You seem to be engaging more and more with tonality, with traditional forms. Are people going to see that as a kind of mellowing?

Oh yes, that’s inevitable. I’ve parted company with the kind of avant-garde thinking that I espoused before I came to Australia, but I’m not apologetic about it. I think my music still has the same depth and complexity to it, in spite of the fact that it has a more engaging surface. I still consider myself to be a serial composer. I think of musical elements in very precise terms rather than in just general emotional terms. I mean, I lived through that whole period in the 60s, in London, one of the places where it really was all happening. Boulez was the chief conductor of the BBC Symphony. Stockhausen’s Gruppen was performed at the Proms. There were the Roundhouse concerts. There was Merce Cunningham. And John Cage. So I get a bit fed up with these born-again types here in Australia producing this rather anodyne, easy-on-the-ear music and then slagging off the ’60s and ’70s as though they were some kind of aberration instead of being an absolutely necessary stepping-stone to the next thing. That does annoy me from time to time.

So you see tonality as being simply just another resource for the composer?

It is a resource, and a very rich one, depending on how you look at it, and capable of many interpretations. Of course, a lot of my music isn’t always that straightforward or easy on the ear. Sometimes, when I listen to things I’ve written I think “Oh wow, that’s a lot more complex than I thought it was!”. But I think I stay just on the right side of being communicable!

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