mw-s pic some articles, reviews etc
about Martin Wesley-Smith

Andrew Ford, 1996 Elizabeth Green, 2000 David Morris, 2003

Three Wesley-Smith piano waltzes (White Knight Waltz, Olya's Waltz and Waltz for Aunt Irina) have been released on Biodiversity, Volume 2 - "popular Australian Piano Music written since 1970" - by Australian pianist Elizabeth Green, who writes:

The imaginativeness and intellectual scope of his work showed from the beginning that he understood how essential a willingness to explore a wide range of new directions in music is for the survival of complex musics in the age of the technological revolution. He has consistently held the respect of his colleagues for the the high quality of his work but also for the originality of his many approaches to to resolving that perennial 20th century composers' question: where do we go from here? His music is full of contradictions: ephemeral wisps of melody set against rigorous formal structures and darkly rich textures; a pervasive sense of melancholy undermined by a sharply-disrespectful sense of humour; a sense of the triviality of existence set beside a deep sense of the seriousness of human suffering, and a courageous commitment - most notably in relation to the sufferings of the people of East Timor - not to shirk from his personal responsibilities as a fellow human, to do what he can. His compassion for the people of East Timor has found its most overt expression in Quito ... His enjoyment of mathematical puzzles, but also his interest in sharing music with children, have led to the creation of many pieces of music influenced by children's books and nursery rhymes, for example the Lewis Carroll-inspired Songs for Snark-Hunters and Who Killed Cock Robin?, an attack on the use of pesticides. White Knight Waltz (1996) displays on many levels the paradoxical nature of Wesley-Smith's composition: a work characterized by a dark and difficult complexity, based on that most simple of nursery rhymes, pat-a cake, pat-a cake, baker's man, where highly-detailed and variable rhythmic values are slotted at cross-purposes with each other into a simple 6/8 metre. The dance of the white knight is black and unromantic, and too complex to function as a waltz: in any case, a waltz is supposed to be in 3/4 time. In this work we are reminded of the dark, political origins, the nasty undercurrents, of many of the nursery rhymes that we teach our children with so light a heart. Olya's Waltz (1993) and Waltz for Aunt Irina (1993) were first written as the whimsical outer sections flanking a darker, more complex and obscure exploration of jazz structures in the work On A. I. Petrof. Here is revealed the subtle mix of irony and compassion for human folly which is so characteristic of Wesley-Smith's work, a gentleness which can be heard in the old-world nostalgia of the beautiful waltzes themselves. Yet it is a compassion which co-exists with a ruthless intellectual rigour, a simplicity which contains complexity. It reminds us of the endlessly simple-but-complex patterns of fractals. These apparently straightforward 3-page, 3-section, 3 beats per bar dances contain within them some enormously difficult rhythmic details, generated by the composer with the assistance of his computer. It is easy to imagine him saying to pianists: This will get you hopping - I dare you to play it if you can! But then, after all that, he turns around and says by all means take liberties with the rhythm (paraphrased).

Biodiversity, Volumes 1 & 2, is available from The Australian Music Centre, PO Box N690, Grosvenor Place, Sydney, NSW 2000, Australia; tel: +61 (02) 9247 4677.

Andrew Ford, 24 Hours, April 1996:

Martin Wesley-Smith's composer colleagues, myself included, secretly hate him. It's not a personal thing. He's a generous fellow, affable to a fault, and there are few people with whom I'd rather have dinner. But he seems to have misunderstood the whole point about being a contemporary composer. He writes music that audiences like. I don't mean they just respect it, or admire it, or find it powerful or deeply affecting; no, they really like it ... Wesley-Smith's music spans all the usual genres from chamber music to opera, and his work with electronics and computers seems to call for the adjective 'pioneering'. But the fact that audiences even like his electronic music (which surely can't be right) attests to the nature of his output. Even when he is being deadly serious, as in the chamber opera Quito [Tall Poppies TP111] ... Wesley-Smith continually undercuts the paths with black humour. I should stress that it's usually not applied humour, but rather a rich seam of irony, capable of descending into slapstick, but more generally insinuating itself with some subtlety. It's the musical equivalent of a raised eyebrow, from beneath which Wesley-Smith views the world and all its absurdities.

And so it is with Who Killed Cock Robin?, now 17 years old and available post-vinylly for the first time. As the disc's title suggests (The Green CD [Tall Poppies TP064]), its contents reflect the concern that some Australian composers feel at the destruction of the natural environment, and Wesley-Smith's piece, the 'classic' of the compilation, receives a compelling performance from an expanded Song Company under its director Roland Peelman. Indeed, the Song Company is in generally fine form here, As the topic for a musical work, the poisoning of the planet by pesticides is as grim as it's unlikely, but Wesley-Smith's approach works wonderfully well. The original Victorian parlour ballad is treated to a variety of styles, ranging from a chromatically perverse musical-hall novelty song with an injection of 1950s doo-wop, to barbershop, to a climactic, slow-motion pile-up of Ligetian dissonances during the final recital of the list of insecticides that ultimately killed 'poor Cock Robin'. It's a small masterpiece.

from Clarinet & Saxophone, London, Spring 2003:


Australian Multi-Media Works
February 6, 2003
St Cyprian's Church, London NW1

reviewed by David Morris

My diary tells me that I had a clarinet lesson on Monday 20th May last year. Strangely, it neglects to mention that on that same day, the people of East Timor gained their independence, following 24 years of Indonesian occupation. This British Music Information Centre-supported concert in St Cyprian's Church was part of a tour by Ros Dunlop and Martin Wesley-Smith (the Tekee Tokee Tomak Tour) to raise awareness of the struggle of East Timor to recover from its recent history of seemingly often brutal oppression.

In another world, the fine golden screen at St Cyprian's provided a vivid backdrop for this multi-media programme. Before it stood a large screen of a different kind flanked by speakers on tall stands, and a modest projection and mixing desk set between the two front rows of the audience.

The evening opened with Gerard Brophy's Iza, a short but vigorous and warming duet for bass clarinets, performed by Natascha Briger and Ros Dunlop. Both players immediately established their proficiency, though throughout the evening it was the legato lines that fared best and sometimes a little of the rhythmic punch was lost to the big acoustic.

Down to business, however, and next was X by Martin Wesley-Smith. This was the first of several of his multi-media works, comprising slides, tape and clarinet. Lest there be any confusion, the slide show was not of the 'Could we have the next one, please Geoff' school, but a compelling sequence of images fading into one another, colours and textures constantly on the move, all under the control of the composer and his Macintosh. The tape merged broadcast sound bites with choral passages and electronic effects, big noise with jaunty instrumental numbers, all synchronised with the visual images. Over the top was Ros Dunlop's live clarinet. "X" refers to the resistance leader Xanana Gusmão, imprisoned in 1999 while the Indonesian military withdrew from East Timor. The images were brutal. So was the music, though the screaming clarinet might have benefited from some amplification to match the volume of the tape and heighten the anguish in the climactic passages. However, in quieter parts, Ros Dunlop's melancholy lines were serene.

Later came Wesley-Smith's short epic Welcome to the Hotel Turismo, in a similar format, but now observing the occupation of East Timor from the viewpoint of the eponymous hotel, still standing after all these years. No winds, just a cello and CD-ROM of sound bites and song, with a catchy refrain to rival anything by Don Henley. Despite the subject, the work had an easy flow and structure and Rachel Scott discharged the simultaneous vocal and amplified cello parts with passion and to great effect.

The item between these two was another worry given Amnesty International's past features on Central America. But the programmers were merciful and Stephen Ingham's Panama turned out to be a take on an old jazz standard, for clarinet, bass clarinet and a CD-ROM that provided a virtual jazz rhythm section to get the audience tapping along, if occasionally on the wrong beat.

The second half started in bright style with Tekee Tokee Tomak for clarinet and CD-ROM, Martin Wesley-Smith's portrayal of post-independence East Timor, full of smiling people and beautiful landscapes. For the next piece, the positive mood grabbed an attractive ideal and the two danced shoulder to shoulder in Dave Smith's snappily-titled Mitchell Principles and Laws on Central Albania, for two clarinets. The Mitchell in question appeared to be Ian, past Clarinet and Saxophone Society Chairman, who had premiered it, but his Principles were not obvious in this alternately angular and glissando-ridden romp. However, Natascha Briger and Ros Dunlop communicated the mood well here.

With Ros Dunlop back on bass clarinet and Martin Wesley-Smith on the CD-ROM, the evening was brought to a close with Merry-Go-Round, his treatment of contemporary Afghanistan. More scenes passed rapidly before us, including children and men having naive fun aboard a small home-made merry-go-round. This, we were told, was an allegory for the repeated invasions suffered by the people of Afghanistan, but it worked most powerfully as a striking reinforcement of common humanity.

In a multi-media show, attention is necessarily shared amongst the components. Music communicates, but to achieve a message as strong and specific as this, the various media components were tightly harnessed in support of the central theme. The clarinet as political blunt instrument. Placing the solo players beside a large bright screen, further from the audience and beyond the mixing console, visually reinforced the supporting nature of their role. However, with occasional balance problems against the tape at the climaxes and a big acoustic to fill, perhaps the clarinet writing didn't always get the attention it deserved. It would certainly have been more interesting to hear the clarinet lines more amplified, and perhaps for the instrumentalists to have been further forward.

Overall, the apolitical works set the human rights issues in perhaps greater relief, and ensured there was plenty of variation in the programme. The subject matter was often hard-hitting and it is unlikely anyone left the church unmoved, though not necessarily for musical reasons. "Tekee Tokee Tomak" apparently means something like "Let's all get together", and it was a refreshing experience to see our instrument used in support of such worldly issues.

Martin Wesley-Smith's home page


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