Australian Composer Roger Smalley has died aged 72

This article originally appeared in the West Australian
on the 18th August 2015

Leading Australian composer Roger Smalley — who influenced two generations of musicians as a teacher at the University of WA — has died in Sydney at the age of 72 after a long battle with Parkinson’s Disease.

The British-born Smalley was renowned as a rigorous composer, pianist and academic who said he would much rather challenge his listeners than compose a soundtrack for people’s moments of relaxation.

His concertos, sonatas and symphonies were performed by ensembles across the world from the BBC and London Sinfonietta to the Australian Chamber Orchestra, Nova Ensemble and the WA Symphony Orchestra.

Born near Manchester, England, on July 26, 1943, Smalley studied piano with Antony Hopkins and composition with Peter Racine Fricker and John White at the Royal College of Music, London. As a young composer, he was awarded the Royal Philharmonic Society Prize. He was the first English pianist to perform the works of Karlheinz Stockhausen with whom he had a long and close friendship.

Early in his career, Smalley became part of the new contemporary music movement in London. He performed with an electronic music group called Intermodulation, which was part of the burgeoning new music scene of the late 1960s and 1970s.

In 1968, he was appointed the first Artist-in-Residence at King’s College, Cambridge.

It was his expertise in new music that led to an invitation from UWA music professor Sir Frank Callaway in 1974 to take up a a three-month composer residency and set up new music laboratories on the campus. That led to his return two years later to take up a permanent position in the music school.

Smalley composed works over a wide range of styles and configurations – from concertos and sonatas to symphonies and chamber music works.

His work is probably just as well-known in England as it is in Australia, with the English group Continuum Ensemble releasing a CD of his chamber works in 2004. The WASO has also released a CD of his works. In 1989, he became the first artistic director and conductor of the WASO’s 20th Century Ensemble which he continued to conduct until 2000.

Music reviewer forThe West Australian , Neville Cohn, said Smalley was a major figure in new music at UWA for the more than 30 years he worked there primarily as associate professor of music.

“He was not only an imaginative and significant composer, he was a teacher of stature,” Cohn said. “At the same time, Roger was a fine concert pianist whether in recital or as concerto, equally effective in the classical repertoire as in cutting edge new music.”

Smalley moved from Perth to Sydney in 2007.

Smalley was not a composer whose recordings sit comfortably in music stores alongside what he called “dinner party music” – three-CD sets of popular classics, New Age or chill-out music.

“There is a strong feeling about the place these days that music is something you have burbling around in the background and to relax to, ” he toldThe West Australian in 2008.

“It’s not that I don’t want to appeal to the listener. I do. I don’t want them to turn off but I like to write music that has some kind of content to it. Something that you can latch on to and follow in the way of a musical argument that keeps the brain stimulated rather than “chilled-out’.”

Smalley drew much of his inspiration from his love of the visual arts. One of his best-known large-scale works was his 1991 Diptych – Homage to Brian Blanchflower in honour of the great WA abstract artist.

His award-winning 2006 piece Footwork (originally known as Birthday Tango) was commissioned for the ACO by Barbara Blackman, the former wife of painter Charles Blackman.

“I go to an awful lot of exhibitions and sometimes I see something that gives me a feeling that I can adapt into some kind of musical structure,” Smalley said.

More often than not, though, it was a case of one composition feeding into another in a long daisy chain of musical ideas.

In 1991 Smalley was awarded the Australia Council’s prestigious Don Banks Fellowship in for his contribution to Australian music. He received the Australian Government Centenary Medal in 2001, was proclaimed a WA Living Treasure in 2004 and appointed a Member of the Order of Australia in 2011.