Roger Smalley: Composer, pianist and pupil of Karlheinz Stockhausen who became a leading figure of the European avant-garde


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The Independent Online

In the late 1960s and early 1970s the composer Roger Smalley was a constant presence on the British and European new music scene, then especially lively. The works of his precocious first years as a public figure reflected the influence, in particular, of Peter Maxwell Davies.

Subsequently, a longer period under the impact of Karlheinz Stockhausen, arguably the seminal European avant-garde composer of the time, established Smalley at the forefront of British musical modernism, with works such as a Missa Brevis for unaccompanied choir (1967), Pulses for 5 x 4 players, for brass, percussion and live electronics (1969), Beat Music for orchestra with four soloists (1971) and Zeitebenen [Time Layers] for live electronic ensemble and 4-channel tape (1973) gaining prestigious performances in the UK and elsewhere.

At the same time, Smalley regularly appeared as a solo and ensemble pianist, in Romantic as well as modern repertoire (a recording of him accompanying the tenor Gerald English in Schumann Lieder is still available). He was also an uncommonly lucid and informative writer on new music, notably for The Musical Times, and a mover and shaker in many of the institutions that supported the contemporary musical activities of those years.      

He was born in Swinton, near Manchester, in 1943. Studies at the Royal College of Music in London included piano with Antony Hopkins as well as composition with Peter Racine Fricker and John White. Private composition lessons with Alexander Goehr and, especially, participation in the Cologne Courses for New Music, presided over by Stockhausen, helped to make him one of the most well-informed and technically adept composers of the period, well aware of where new music had come from as well as where it seemed to be going.

In 1966, having been honoured with the Royal Philharmonic Society Prize for his orchestral work, Gloria Tibi Trinitas, and by the Dutch organisation, Gaudeamus, for his pianistic wizardry with complex new scores, he embarked on an almost charmed career as one of the figureheads of British contemporary music.

In 1968 he was appointed as the first artist-in-residence at King’s College, Cambridge, later holding a three-year research fellowship there. With Andrew Powell, Tim Souster and Robin Thompson, he founded Intermodulation, one of several British live-electronics groups formed when the technology of electronic music first facilitated its live performance, in 1969; typical of these years was the fact that the group’s first concert took place in a plastic geodesic dome on Tower Hill.

Peter Britton replaced Powell in 1970; Smalley and Souster (another multi-talented man of new music, who died in 1994) were Intermodulation’s main creative forces. During the group’s seven-year existence, Stockhausen’s then famous Aus den sieben Tagen [From the Seven Days] text pieces and other works of his formed a bedrock of its activities, as well as works by Smalley and Souster; but its stylistic range could be surprisingly wide, stretching to Terry Riley, for instance, and straying into popular musical forms.         

Smalley’s own compositions of the early 1970s tracked, with real individuality as well as uncommon skill, the shifting concerns of the day, when hardcore serialism had given way to a broader and less dogmatic range of musical materials, notations and styles. I recall with especial pleasure attending the world premiere – performed by the composer and Stephen Savage – of Accord for two pianos (1975), a vividly personal large-scale piece inspired not only by Stockhausen’s two-piano composition Mantra, then still recent, but also by the landscape around Perth, Australia.

But in the mid- to late-1970s Smalley changed his style, even if his new manner arose to some extent out of interests in consonance and regular rhythmic structures already evident in his earlier output. The term used from the early 1980s to describe such works of this composer’s second main period as the Konzertstuck for violin and orchestra (1980), the quintet Poles Apart (1989), one of several pieces based on Chopin’s mazurkas, and a Cello Concerto (1997) for Raphael Wallfisch, was “neo-Romantic”; though quite possibly misleading, it has since acquired no substitute that has lasted. 

The fact that this stylistic (and to a considerable degree aesthetic) move on Smalley’s part coincided with his geographical move to Australia may or may not have been coincidental. Initially temporary, as composer-in-residence at the University of Western Australia in Perth, his relocation became permanent, as he took on mainly teaching piano, not composition, at the same institution; he moved, finally, to Sydney in 2007. Living on the other side of the world was bound to affect Smalley artistically, though what seemed at first a compositional volte face can also be argued as a more complex and subtle shifting of musical concerns, reflecting the general unease with the modernist aesthetic that was already evident in the 1970s.

He continued for a few years to receive prestigious UK commissions: for a Symphony of 1981, and for a Piano Concerto, premiered in 1985, the latter with the composer as soloist. But Smalley’s position on the British music scene undeniably shrank as his commitment to Australia increased. In Perth he began conducting, as well as playing the piano, and eventually became an Emeritus Professor there. Over the years he received a string of Australian honours, culminating in his appointment as a Member of the Order of Australia in 2011. 

Not all musicians possessing his degree of talent and string of achievements are such friendly, considerate and supportive human beings as I always found him. He was, I believe, instrumental, while on an Arts Council committee in the mid-1970s, in gaining financial support for Contact, a journal of contemporary music that I and several friends were then editing; and he did a great deal to foster the commissioning and performance of new music. Smalley died after suffering from Parkinson’s Disease for many years.


Roger Smalley, composer, pianist, writer and conductor: born Swinton 26 July 1943; married Sarah Roe (marriage dissolved; two children), partner to Patricia Benjamin; died Sydney 18 August 2015.