Roger Smalley 1943-2015
Roger Smalley passed away in Sydney on 18 August 2015. In my experience he was the most comprehensively gifted of all my contemporaries who were studying and working in the UK from the early 1960s. A pianist of incisive brilliance with a wide and eclectic range and a composer of modernist outlook, high intellectual rigour and an already distinctive voice, he was also a committed commentator and mover in support of the new dispensation which was taking hold of British musical life as William Glock took control at the BBC and the London Sinfonietta became established. Roger displayed then an extraordinary energy and ambitious confidence.
I knew him first as a pianist, who as a student at RCM, was exploring the mainstream repertoire in a highly original way, often seeking out works which usually lacked advocacy, such as the Schumann Allego, Op 8, Liszt's E major Polonaise and Dusseck's Elegie harmonique while he was also presenting a wide range of progressive 20th century piano repertoire with the Second Viennese School at its core. He also had a fondness for peripheral figures such as Ireland and I recall him taking some delight in preparing a BBC recital of pieces by Edward Macdowell at a time when he was also working towards UK premiere performances of many of the Stockhausen Piano Pieces.
We performed together just once during our time at the Royal College of Music, in Debussy's Six Epigraphes antiques. My own acquaintance with new music was sparse at that time but an opportunity to perform Tippett's Sonata No 2 for the composer's 60th birthday in 1965 stimulated my confidence in tackling non-tonal music.
The first work of Roger's I played in public was the set of Five Piano Pieces and we presented our initial joint performance in 1967 with the first performance of David Lumsdaine's Flights, in a live BBC Invitation Concert broadcast. In that year he wrote the highly elaborate Missa Parodia I for me, a work which keeps the performer at full stretch throughout, technically, emotionally and intellectually. It was a huge challenge to prepare and because I ran out of very limited time in relation to its first scheduled performance at the 1967 Dartington Summer School, Roger played it. My own first outing with this work was another live BBC occasion in May 1968. Hearing the recording of the concert again now, I am proud of the performance and struck by the eloquence and strength of utterance it displays. It would be wonderful to hear it again in the hands of a young virtuoso of today!
Subsequent to this period, Roger explored performance and composition for instruments with electronic treatment, often involving improvisation, chiefly through the group Intermodulation, and our paths did not cross again until after he had begun
living in Australia where his life took a different direction. It has often been noted that removing oneself into a new environment offers the likelihood of a new
invention and so it was for Roger in Perth.
The first major composition to result was the monumental Accord for two pianos written in 1974-5 which we premiered in a concert for the Park Lane Group at London's Purcell Room in December 1975, when we also included the first UK performance of Berio's Memory. Critical reaction was immediate and unequivocal. In the Guardian, Meirion Bowen wrote that “the two-piano repertoire includes a fairly limited number of obvious master works. To this list must now be added Roger Smalley's Accord...” In the Times, Paul Griffiths wrote that the work “seems to be a culmination of what he has achieved in the past few years. It is an engulfing experience for the hearer...” I regard the preparation and subsequent performances across the UK (for the Arts Council New Music Network) which we gave of the work, together with the Schubert A flat Variations, the Three Pieces of Ligeti and Debussy's En Blanc et Noir as among the most satisfying artistic collaborations of my career. Roger saw Accord as a new beginning and the point from which his subsequent work sprang and it is fortunate that our performance of it was recorded. There was a move by NMC some years ago to reissue this on compact disc, but the master-tape could not be located. It should now be technically possible for a transcription to be made from the original LP to preserve a remarkable document. The performance may be found within the Archive on the writer's website, www.savagepianist.com, together with other related works and performances.
By this time Roger was firmly centred in Australia, though commissions continued to be forthcoming from the UK, notably from the BBC for both the Symphony (1981) and the Piano Concerto (1985) and the Fires of London for The Narrow Road to the Deep North(1982-3). However, at some point his association with his publisher Faber Music, ceased. Roger never spoke of this to me and I have found no reference to it in published interviews. There can be no doubt that association with a major publisher is decisive not only in presenting a composer to the public but nurturing his creativity. Among Australians, Peter Sculthorpe, Carl Vine and Matthew Hindson have become house composers at Faber, while Brett Dean has flourished at Boosey and Hawkes. For all of them, the association with a major publisher has assisted in gaining commissions and international attention and a resultant reputation based on a comprehensive view of their creativity and output. For Roger there was an unfortunate fracturing: in England he is known best by reputation for his early work in the avant-garde of his time whereas in Australia, he is most known for his works for the concert hall, often for traditional combinations, particularly the later chamber music which displays a strikingly mature mastery and is virtually unknown in the UK.
In 1980 I had the opportunity, at Roger's instigation to spend time as visiting artist at the University of Western Australia. At short notice I had to cancel just before going. Just as with Roger some years earlier, the stress of earning a freelance living for a family in the UK while attempting to maintain distinctive professional activity was taking its toll. I had to accept that I had missed a perhaps unique opportunity to experience Australia, only to have an invitation to work for a term at the Elder Conservatorium within the University of Adelaide the very next year. In turn this led to my appointment to the Queensland Conservatorium in Brisbane from 1982. As for Roger, the subsequent experience of living and working away from the UK were transformational. However, the move did not translate into further collaborations between us, given that we were at opposite ends of the country and caught up in the musical life of our respective cities.
It was not until 1990 that I visited Perth to contribute to the Festival which featured music by Tippett, who attended throughout, just before he came to Brisbane for the major week-long event I had organised. It was on that visit that I made the acquaintance of the then recent Chopin Variations which Roger had written for Ian Munro. This is a strikingly original piece on several levels. It is not written on a “theme” so much as on the entire Mazurka of Chopin (op 24, no 4), with explorations of its structure and material going on throughout. It also covers a wide emotional span, beginning in an atmosphere of truculence and caricature and gradually expanding toward an ending of lyrical loneliness, all within no more than 10 minutes. I was most taken with it and first programmed it in a concert in Brisbane in 1992, (just before playing it for the BBC in London) when Roger came as guest of my short-lived Griffith University Ensemble and collaborated with the group in his Ceremony II. Writing to me afterwards he said: “This was the first time I had actually performed in Ceremony II and I found out at first hand how tricky it is! ...the result was one of the best performances it has had...” On that visit Roger also worked with student groups on his Strung Out and the Scriabin transcriptions.
Every creative artist is focussed on how to speak to the sensibilities and emotional world of his listeners. Composers do not usually draw attention to the means by which this happens. It is true that Beethoven made no organised attempt to suppress his sketches and notebooks, which give invaluable evidence of his creative process but others such as Brahms systematically destroyed such material. Debussy too destroyed most of his sketches. Roger, however was highly unusual in retaining and publishing such detailed analytical material on his works and set great store on such processes being thorough and rigourous. This informed his creativity in a highly personal way. His music is characterised by a powerful energy and fantasy which was subjected to systemic treatments in terms of process within both a particular locality and the overall shape of a work. In his Times review of the premiere of Accord in 1976, Paul Griffiths perceptively perhaps alluded to this duality when he wrote of “a phenomenal inventive capacity constrained by obsession. The result is an atmosphere of nagging volubility which is at once disturbing and tantalizingly seductive.”
Now that Roger is gone, his music must speak for him and provide his legacy. This requires more dissemination of his works, and it is to be hoped that the material to be found in this Archive will play its part in building a wider and enduring reputation of a remarkable creative force.
Copyright Stephen Savage 2018