Roger Smalley interviewed by Andrew Ford
Originally published in Andrew Ford's Composer to Composer - conversations about contemporary music (Allen & unwin 1993). This is an edited and slightly longer version of the interview.
AF: Why do you think there has been such an extraordinary explosion of musical styles in the twentieth century? Do we know any longer what terms such as 'modern' or 'avant-garde' mean?
RS: Well it's difficult to say exactly what's caused it...it must be different from composer to composer. In Mozart, say, or Brahms, there's a relatively small stylistic evolution, but what has happened now is that there are composers in whose works there's a definite break between a first style and a second style, or maybe even a third style. But this also happened back in the 1950s amongst composers who had started as tonal composers and then underwent some form of conversion, and rejected or disowned or even burned all their early tonal efforts, pronouncing themselves to be serial composers. My generation started off from that point; we were serialists from the word go. The sort of music that was attractive to me to begin with...not because it was serial but because it was what I liked...was Webern and late Stravinsky.
AF: Well, Stravinsky was in a sense the model for all those other composers who changed to serialism, wasn't he?
RS: Yes, I should have mentioned Stravinsky, actually.
AF: It's always seemed to me that of all the composers who might have suddenly taken up cudgels on behalf of a Webernian aesthetic, Stravinsky was one of the least likely. I'm talking from the standpoint of his music of the 1940s...works such as the Symphony in C. Who would have predicted his change?
RS: Who indeed? Mind you, I think that a lot of the works he wrote in the 40s were weak, and he realised that himself. Of course he had [Robert] Craft to nudge him, but I still think that he felt that if he were going to re-establish himself as a composer in the new world, so to speak, then he would have to change, and Craft simply showed him the way. I can remember among the first works of new music that I was really struck by were Stravinsky's Movements and Agon...which is still my favourite of all those late pieces. And with Webern, it was the String Quartet and the Piano Variations, which I used to play. I wasn't attracted by their technical sophistication, because I didn't know how they'd been composed. All I had to go on were the little articles in Tempo, which would have a few musical illustrations with numbers written over them. So I was never really a serial composer in the Webernian sense... I've hardly ever written a piece which was based on a 12-tone row...and one of the reasons for that was that I didn't really know how they manipulated it all. I knew a lot of new music...the Webern, the Stravinsky, some Stockhausen, Berio's Circles and so on...because I heard it at the BBC Invitation Concerts when I was a student. And of course the ideal thing would have been to go one's next composition lesson at the Royal College of Music with a score of Circles and say to one's teacher, 'Here, explain to me how this is put together'. But the point was that there was nobody there who could do it.
AF: Who were you studying with?
RS: Well with Peter Racine Fricker The alternatives would have been Herbert Howells, Gordon Jacobs or Philip Cannon. I went to Fricker because I knew he had at least composed some 12-tone music. But he was as up in the air as I was about all this new stuff. So I had to try to find somebody else.
AF: So you went to Sandy Goehr.
RS: Yes, but he didn't say anything about serialism. He was teaching evening classes at Morely College which were for all-comers, and included some budding composers. We learned an awful lot about musical structure. Sandy taught in the Schoenberg manner, which is to say you analyse the classics, and then if you've got anything original to say it will come out. We analysed Bach chorale preludes; Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven symphony movements; the Diabelli Variations. The one serial piece that we looked at in detail was the Schoenberg Variations for Orchestra, but Sandy's approach to that was to look at it without ever referring to the fact that it was a 12-tone piece. You can look at all the musical techniques...they're quite classical, they're just applied to a more chromatic idiom...but you don't have to get into the serial procedures. I think Sandy felt that it was so easy to get seduced by the idea of putting numbers all over the score, and to imagine that this explained something about the music.
AF: It tells you where the pitches come from.
RS: Yes, but that's about all. The first composer whose music I understood the inner workings of was Peter Maxwell Davies. I was very impressed by that music...the early Peter Maxwell Davies.
AF: You mean works like Prolation and so forth?
RS: Not as early as that. I've never actually, to this day, heard that piece...No, the Monteverdi-based works like the Sinfonia, the string quartet, the cantata...what's that cantata?
AF: Leopardi Fragments?
RS: Yes...which is a beautiful piece. I was attracted to those pieces because of their very telling, economical musical language, in which everything seemed to be related to everything else. Anyway, his was the first music that I got a technical grasp of. My first pieces which were successful and played a bit...like the Missa Brevis  and the Missa Parodia  were very much based on Max's cantus firmus principles, where you would have a central line, like a plainsong or some other pre-existing material, and you would derive all kinds of variants and elaborations from it. And that went on for quite a while - until 1968 or 1969. When I left the college in 1966, I got a travelling scholarship to go and study in Germany, and I went to the Cologne course for new music which Stockhausen was running; I also went to Darmstadt twice over that period. But the impact on my music was delayed. Then about 1969 I really switched...I had one of those switches we were talking about earlier...from a Max Davies-influenced style to a much more Stockhausen-influenced style.
AF: And this is Pulses ...
RS: Pulses was a major piece. And there was Song of the Highest Tower ...
AF: Yes, I don't know that piece.
RS: No, well it was only performed once. It was a monumental thing for three instrumental groups, two choirs and two soloists and numerous conductors scattered around the place. And it was in moment form...variable moment form...which I was very attracted to. Then there were pieces like Transformation  for piano and ring modulation...that was my first electronic piece, written well before Stockhausen's Mantra, I might say.
AF: This really is a very major shift, isn't it, from music based on a cantus firmus to 'moment' form. In a sense they're diametrically opposed: there is a continuity, a flow associated with the use of a cantus.
RS: Yes. There were various thoughts going through my mind at the time. On the one hand, I had begun to feel that Max's music was demanding too much prior knowledge on the part of the listener. Particularly when you get to works like Vesalii icones and so on: the complexity of manipulation of this material, with the stylistic references and the use of plainsongs which, if you could even recognise what they were, you also had to know what the texts were, and these were some kind of ironic commentary on another text...I began to feel this was demanding too much input from the audience. On the other hand, what attracted me more than anything to Stockhausen was the way he was able to build up pieces from a consideration of the most basic elements, related to the physical nature of sound - pitch becoming rhythm, rhythm becoming form, pitch becoming noise, and so on - and of mediating between these parameters using serial principles. This was getting away from the rabid nature of early total serialism, where there was a notion that you could scale everything in the same way. What struck me about Stockhausen was that he was scaling all these musical elements, but he was taking a much more wide-ranging stand point than, say, Boulez in Structures. So what took me away from Max Davies, finally, was this feeling that music should be constructed from its basic building blocks, which you could assemble in a completely new way for each piece. I was very impressed by Stockhausen's pronouncements that every piece must be unique; every ensemble must be specifically created for one piece and never used again. I certainly don't believe that now, but I did then.
AF: Does Accord mark the end of this period of Stockhausen's direct influence?
RS: Accord comes in 1975, so you could say that the heavily Stockhausen-influenced period ran from the late 60s to the mid-70s. And it coincided with the existence of Intermodulation.
AF: Intermodulation was an ensemble of four players, working largely in the area of improvised or semi-improvised music with electronics...
RS: Yes, we were playing the text pieces of Stockhausen and the Plus-Minus pieces. And, of course, a lot of the pieces that I wrote during that period were for Intermodulation, so much so that it's almost impossible to perform them any longer. When I first came to Australia, I remember trying to get together with other interested students and composers to do some of the Stockhausen text pieces. I pretty quickly realised that, if you hadn't got the same musical background that I had, and all the other members of Intermodulation had, you really couldn't do them satisfactorily. They're not free improvisation pieces in which any stylistic approach will do, they only work successfully when they're performed within a stylistic context set by Stockhausen's fully notated pieces, and one has to know them. As soon as I was playing with people who weren't familiar with this background, it just didn't work. So I could see that I wasn't going to be able to continue doing that sort of thing; I also had this five year output of pieces which nobody could perform. And I was suddenly in Perth, and not in London, Berlin, Cologne or anywhere like that. So I had to undergo a fairly severe period of thinking, 'What am I going to do next?' If I was going to write something which was going to mean anything to an Australian public, I obviously couldn't do this sort of music. And I did increasingly feel that I wanted to communicate. Composers go through a learning phase...this is not uncommon...and then you begin to ask yourself precisely why you're composing this music. Is it to prove a point? To impress one's colleagues?
AF: To impress London critics?
RS: Well, they're there; they can be impressed. You know, you have a piece done at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, and there might be a thousand people there, and it seems to go down well and it gets two or three good reviews, and you can end up believing that you're communicating. But, of course, this won't work in Perth. You haven't got all that support mechanism. You're just playing your music to an audience of music lovers...well, of very honest music lovers; they respond to the music in a more unselfconscious kind of way, and I think that if you are saying something serious serious they will take it seriously. So from 1976, when I finally settle in Australia, I tried all different kinds of approaches. I wrote one or two pieces which didn't really work, or which I wasn't satisfied with. I wrote a music-theatre work, William Derrincourt , which was very important for me because, as you know, it's based on the autobiography of an ex-convict and I had to deal with real dramatic situations: there's a dance scene, there are parades, there's the singing of the national anthem. This had a very liberating effect on me, because it forced me to do all kinds of stylistic things which I would never have done before, and it broadened my musical palette.
AF: The suggestion is that you were going along quite happily writing for Intermodulation and the thousand people in the Elizabeth Hall, and then you suddenly ran up against Perth and were forced to change. But do you think you were really looking for something like Perth all along?
RS: Yes. Oh yes, I was. Obviously there was some underlying dissatisfaction with things. The whole of Intermodulation was dissatisfied with what we were doing by the end. We always enjoyed the out-of-town gigs, but our hearts used to sink when it came to doing the Elizabeth Hall or the Round House and playing to all the tired old aficionados who'd heard it all before, or thought they had. There was a general feeling that it wouldn't be a bad idea to move on, and we moved on in different ways: Robin Thompson went to Japan and became a Japanese scholar; I came to Perth; Tim Souster moved into another group, OdB which was more rock orientated. So I think that we all felt that we'd done as much as we could.
AF: Even so, for someone with your background and with the reputation you'd acquired in Europe, Perth was a pretty extreme choice, wasn't it? To move to Perth was to go as far away as you could get from the source of that reputation.
RS: But you see I felt that as long as I remained in Europe it would be very difficult to escape the spectre of Stockhausen, as it were. I didn't make any conscious choice to come to Australia or Perth, it was an accident. But if I hadn't liked it or felt that it was stimulating, then I wouldn't have stayed. So it was a happy accident. But there had been a lot of dissatisfaction, and the piece you mentioned earlier, Accord, which I wrote between my first, brief visit to Perth in 1974 and my return in 76, is the key work. I almost consider it to be my opus 1, rather like Busoni, who wrote lots and lots of pieces until his mid-30s when he composed the second violin sonata and the Piano Concerto, and then he said, 'Well, this is where it really starts'. In a sense Accord, for me, is where it really starts; everything I've done since then relates back to that piece in some way or another.
AF: So everything else is sort of like Das Rheingold, and The Ring proper starts with Accord...
RS: Well, everything else may be Rienzi...But, you know, the thing about Accord is that it seemed to solve the harmonic problem. The reason I never wrote twelve-tone music was that, with Schoenberg, the harmonic aspect was so uncontrolled. Of course I liked Webern more becasue there it was controlled.
AF: Especially in the late works.
RS: Yes, but only by dint of restricting everything to so few intervals and such small cells is it possible to do that. I suppose you could say Babbitt does it as well. In Accord I thought of the basic material vertically; it's basically one chord - 'a chord' - and several variants of it, and then several sub-chords which are built up on the intervals of the main chord. The linear aspect of the music is a projection of the vertical, rather than writing a linear music which happens to give rise to vertical results. Again, another aspect of twelve-tone music that I didn't like was simply in its twelve-tone-ness: this continual recycling of all twelve tones made it very difficult to focus the listener's ear on any one pitch or interval. So I began to develop modes which concentrated on different intervals so that each part of the piece could have a distinct harmonic character. These techniques have remained ever since; I've expanded them a great deal, but in an unsystematic way.
AF: Do you start a piece by sketching ideas? Do you sit at the piano?
RS: Well, I never really sit at the piano...What do I do...? I very often start from the number and nature of the instruments. For instance, the quintet [Poles Apart; 1992] which I'm writing for the Australia Ensemble, and which I thought of, at first, as being in four movements, but now seems to want to be in three - I thought a lot about the instruments. The violin and the flute are high, and the cello and the bass clarinet are low, and the viola is in the middle. So that immediately gives you some kind of basis on which to evolve a form: you'll have one duo playing one kind of material, and the other duo playing another kind, and the viola mediating between them. Then I think of an overall form which is often related to the idea of the transformation of one kind of musical material into another. In Echo III , the idea is to transform staccato material into legato material. I often use double forms, which I liken to Haydn's double variation form, where I constantly juxtapose two streams of development going in different directions. I like to expose the limits at the very beginning of a piece, so in Echo III you have the staccato material first and then you have extremely sustained material immediately following it. Or in Strung Out [for thirteen solo strings; 1988] you have the juxtaposition of the first idea - which is a single held note and has no tempo at all in essence - and then this very fast, active section. Gradually the characters begin to exchange and there's the pizzicato passage in the middle of the piece where these materials meet. And then it all comes full circle: in Strung Out the last note is the first note and it could all go round again. So I think very much of those kinds of formal conceptions, related to the instrumental possibilities of the ensemble being used.
AF: And this includes their sonic possibilities?
RS: Yes. I can't orchestrate like Boulez, you know, with this extremely elaborate, constantly changing doubling of many different types of instruments; I tend to think in primary colours, of blocks of sonority. This is very clear in my piano concerto , where - although it became more elaborate in the long run - I initially thought the first movement would be mainly brass, the second mainly woodwind, the third mainly strings and the fourth everything together. It turned out to be much more complicated than that, but even so you have, at the beginning of the piece, the piano with the timpani, then the tuba, the trombones, the horns, the trumpets. So this is all...
AF: ...like The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra!
RS: Yes, except in retrograde. It happens in the new piece, as well [Diptych; homage to Brian Blanchflower; 1991]. It's thinking of the orchestra as blocks of primary colours, which you can superimpose to produce secondary mixtures, as it were. Nowadays there's a group of composers who are making their music more and more complex; I'm interested in making mine simpler. There's some confusion, I think, in the minds of composers of the 'new complexity' persuasion that somehow the sheer complexity of the music on the page, and the instrumental dexterity required, means that the music is going to have a complex effect in performance. Equally, music which looks simple on the page may produce a very, very complex response in the listener. And the best example I can think of for that is the slow piano solo in my piano concerto, which people have said reminds them of everything from Chopin's E minor prelude, to the Arioso from Beethoven's opus 110. That's one of the simplest bits of music I've ever written, and yet its effect on people who hear it is extremely diverse and complex, because it awakens all kinds of half memories of music from the past.
AF: Have you learned anything from minimalism?
RS: I like some minimal music. But I like it more the more complex it is. So obviously I'm not a minimalist. I certainly don't find it so interesting that I would want to do it; I mean, I find the thought of composing and writing out the score of a piece like Reich's The Desert Music to be unimaginably tedious. I want my music to be more changeable than that.
AF: What about the Eastern European composers, such as Górecki?
RS: It's essentially a spiritually focused form of minimalism and I haven't got that in me. I appreciate what they're doing; again, it doesn't interest me to write minims all day. Although, since I've begun to conduct more, I've learned a healthy respect for the minim! No, I like a greater diversity of material and more formal ambiguity in my own music. As a composer, my strengths are more in the way of what I do with the material than in the invention of the material, and to be a minmalist it has to be the other way around; you have to have some very striking initial invention to arrest the ear of the listener, because if you can't do that at the beginning, you sure as hell aren't going to be able to do it later in the piece. So my material is usually fairly basic; it's what I do with it that makes it interesting. Although I'm trying to start pieces with more and more memorable ideas.
AF: Well, the piano concerto certainly has that. Isn't there even an instruction to the soloist at the beginning of that score to take the audience by surprise?
RS: Yes, there is. I imagined myself sitting in the audience. You know, the solist walks on and sits down, and I was thinking, 'What can happen here that's not happened in any other piano concerto?' And I had the idea that the pianist plays this whacking great chord and then nothing happens. Then he plays it again. And just as you think he's going to play it a third time, another chord suddenly comes from the orchestra.
AF: You've played your concerto a number of times and you're doing more and more conducting. What's your attitude to interpretation? Do you ever take liberties with your own music in performance?
RS: I do in the piano concerto. I tend to sacrifice accuracy to impact.
AF: How do you feel about others doing that?
RS: I was thinking about it this morning at the rehearsal [of Diptych, with Gunther Schuller conducting the Sydney Symphony Orchestra].
When Schuller had played through the piece I was wondering what I should say about it. I suppose I might have said certain things about the interpretation, like; 'It's immensely clear and well-balanced, but it could be more exciting; you could let it rip more, even at the risk of compromising the accuracy'. But I didn't actually say any of this, because I thought that this guy is obviously a very fine musician, this is the way he sees it, and his interpretation does no violence to the music. The more you restrict the scope of the performer - if you write fourteen in the time of fifteen, at a tempo of semiquaver equals 94.5, and if it's important that these directions be observed - then you're not leaving the performer very much latitude. It seems to me to be more rewarding to leave the performer a bit of room to move.