The British-born modernist who made Perth and Sydney his home passes at 72.
The British-born, Australian composer Roger Smalley has died at the age of 72 after a long battle with Parkinson’s disease. In addition to his work as a noted composer, Smalley was also recognised as a distinguished pianist, particularly acclaimed for his interpretations of contemporary music as well as music of the Classical and Romantic periods.
Roger Smalley was born in Swinton, Lancashire, England in July 1943. By the early 1960s he was at the Royal College of Music in London where his piano teacher was Antony Hopkins while for composition he studied with Peter Racine Fricker and John White. He went on to further tuition with Alexander Goehr at Morley College before making a commitment to the modernist movement that was uppermost in Europe at that time.
In 1965 he attended Pierre Boulez’s Darmstadt summer course while in the same year and the following he was part of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Cologne Course for New Music. In 1966 Smalley was a prizewinner in the Gaudeamus Competition for interpreters of contemporary music and he won the Harriet Cohen Award for contemporary music performance in 1968.
In 1969, Smalley and British electronics composer Tim Souster formed the pioneering live-electronic and improvisational group Intermodulation, touring worldwide over the next five years and performing the works of Terry Riley, Frederic Rzewski, Stockhausen and others as well as their own compositions.
Already a significant figure in the European contemporary music scene, Smalley’s hugely influential impact on modern music in Australia would begin when he moved to Perth in 1974 at the invitation of Sir Frank Callaway to teach music at the University of Western Australia. What was originally a short term residency would bloom into a life-long connection to Australia. In an interview with Classical Source in 2007, Smalley shared the inauspicious origins of his move Down Under. “I never had any thought in my mind like “Oh, I must go to Perth”, or even Australia,” Smalley said. “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?” Initially in a two-year research fellowship position at the UWA, Smalley would go on to teach both piano and composition at the institution.
As well as having an unquestionable influence on the Australian music scene, Australia also changed Smalley’s work, with influences from Aboriginal music and culture, as well as references to South East Asian music, percolated through his compositions. He was also hugely influenced by visual artists, such as fellow ex-pat Brian Blanchflower. Extremely active as a performer in Australia, Smalley toured the nation with the Arensky Piano Trio in the 1970s and 80s, with the Australian Piano Quartet in the 1990s as well as numerous engagments as a soloist. Ironically moving from one of the world’s great cultural centres to one of the most isolated cities in the world afforded Smalley the opportunity to perform a far broader range of repertoire to the European modernist compositions he had become known for performing.
As a young composer, Smalley was awarded the Royal Philharmonic Society Prize for his orchestral work Gloria Tibi Trinitas. His first Piano Concerto, a BBC commission for European Music Year (1985), was the recommended work in the annual UNESCO International Rostrum of Composers in 1987. Important commissions have come from the ABC, the BBC, West German Radio, the Perth International Arts Festival, London Sinfonietta, Australian Chamber Orchestra, Australian String Quartet, Grainger Quartet, Fires of London and Australia Ensemble. His music has been recorded and released on several labels including ABC Classics, Tall Poppies, Melba Recordings and the British new music company NMC.
In 1991 he 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 and was proclaimed a WA Living Treasure in 2004. After almost 35 years in Perth, Smalley moved to Sydney in 2007 where he would continue to compose prolifically, and in 2011 his significant nation-wide contribution to Australian music was recognised when he was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia (AM).