Impacts intérieurs

Denis Smalley

Well organized, varied in textures and dynamics, it invites repeated listens. AllMusic, USA

… new material by this label which in the past has released such marvelous music. Vital, Netherlands

Clarinet Threads: Prix Ars Electronica 1988 — Golden Nica


  • Arts Council of Great Britain

CD (IMED 0409)

  • Label: empreintes DIGITALes
  • IMED 0409
  • 2004
  • UCC 771028040926
  • Total duration: 77:41
  • Jewel case
  • 125 mm × 142 mm × 10 mm
  • 115 g

On the web

Download (IMED 0409_NUM)


Interior Impacts, the Disc

An important distinguishing feature of the five works on this compact disc is the relationship between gesture and texture. Musical gesture, derived from our experience of physical gesture, is concerned with the tendency for sound-shapes to move towards or away from goals in the musical structure; it is concerned with growth, temporal evolution, sense of forward direction, the impact of events, dramatic surface. Texture, however, is more about interior activity, the patterns inside sounds, about encouraging the ear to contemplate inner details; it is often more about standing still and observing the behaviours of sounds rather than pressing onwards through time. Gesture can be textured, and textures can be formed from gestures — the interplay and balance between them lie at the heart of our experiences in musical time.

Denis Smalley, Norwich (England, UK) [ix-92]

The Primacy of the Ear

The starting point is always the sound — the individual sound in all its uniqueness. The details of its internal structure, of its spectral and temporal evolution reveal its potential and hint at what might be. The sensitive ear draws in and evolves other sounds with related potential — the dynamics of structure are unleashed, from micro-structure through to whole pieces.

What distinguishes the work of Denis Smalley from that of many other composers who would recognize the experience just described is — quite apart from the exquisite nature of the sounds themselves — the sureness of touch, the unerring sense of timing, the ‘rightness’ of the size, shape and placing of every gesture.

It is not surprising, therefore, that Denis Smalley is a composer who works exclusively in the electroacoustic medium, which permits a more complete control of the final sonic event, of the aural experience of the listener. The works for instrument and tape do not contradict the essentially acousmatic nature of Smalley’s work. Though in one sense (conceptually?) so distant from what is normally considered instrumentally ‘idiomatic,’ they somehow (perceptually?) epitomize aspects of the clarinet or the piano, elucidating a less immediately obvious, but nonetheless present and essential morphology of the individual instrument, transformed into the underlying structural logic of the whole work. Here too the individual sound event is the impulse for phrases, sentences and paragraphs; even whole works are sometimes linked by common (and tiny) morphological seeds: Gradual and Pentes; Pneuma and Darkness After Time’s Colours; Tides, Clarinet Threads and Wind Chimes; Piano Nets and Valley Flow.

The sensitive ear interacts with sound, constantly experimenting, probing, assessing. What is ‘right’ is what works for the ear and for the perceptual/intellectual mechanism of interaction we call listening. Listen…

Jonty Harrison, Birmingham (England, UK) [viii-92]

Some recommended items
In the press


François Couture, AllMusic, March 1, 2002

Impacts intérieurs (“Interior Impacts”) culls five works by composer Denis Smalley. Most of them were not available on record yet, two (Wind Chimes and Clarinet Threads, the latter in a different version) had previously appeared in issues of the Computer Music Current series published by the label Wergo. The CD is presented in a backward chronological order from 1992 (Valley Flow) to 1976 (Darkness After Time’s Colours). Pure tape music works alternate with compositions for instrument and tape. This second category includes music that can feel less abstract, more talkative. Piano Nets is a long, pensive piece featuring pianist Philip Mead. The two parts are well integrated and don’t amount to a sensory overload. Smalley has managed some room to breathe. Clarinet Threads, with clarinetist Roger Heaton is more cluttered.

Of the tape-only music, Wind Chimes stands out. Well organized, varied in textures and dynamics, it invites repeated listens. Smalley’s music remains confined to academic electroacoustic standards. It is made of abstract sounds, assembled with a certain art but often lacks emotion, soul. The works presented here can be compared to those of Jonty Harrison and Gilles Gobeil.

Well organized, varied in textures and dynamics, it invites repeated listens.


IS, Vital, no. 33, January 1, 1994

At last we received new material by this label which in the past has released such marvelous music. A survey of Denis Smalley’s music ranging from 1976 to 1992. This composer, born in 1946 in New Zealand showed early talent as chorister, pianist and organist. Later he gave many New Zealand-premieres of organ compositions of Ligeti and Messiaen.

On the cd 5 works are presented and typically I like the older composition more than the later ones. When working chronologically through the cd I can hear the roughness disappear and be replaced by well finished, polished sounds. Much of the compositions were (partially) produced/composed at Ircam in Paris and it sounds like that. The ‘sound’ of Paris is rich in overtones, ‘ceramic’. In Wind Chimes, a work produced in the UK it is completely absent. In the compositions of the nineties (Valley Flow and Piano Nets) it is a omnipresent part of the sound. They are also characterized by a sometimes annoying carefulness of the sound’s envelope. Whereas in the older works sharp attacks, and sudden bursts of sound are quite common, in the latest compositions on this cd attacks are very slow, or ‘packed’ inside another sound. Titles indicate this too, using the words “flow” and “net,” just like in the 1985 composition Clarinet Threads.

Smalley definitely is a skilled composer, with a great feeling for balance and structure but his compositions could do with some new spunk. The vitality that is present in his 1976 work Darkness After Time’s Colours.

… new material by this label which in the past has released such marvelous music.


Mark Vail, Keyboard, May 1, 1993

Experimental electronic music often tests our ability to listen by doing away with musical conventions and using sound itself to imply new concepts of structure. Sadly, works in this genre are often too boring or pretentious to invite sustained scrutiny. Not so with Smalley. The New Zealand-born composer, now resident in England, rivets attention by creating provocative electronic sounds, mixing them with acoustic elements in complementary combinations, and arranging the resuTts in dynamic sonic processions. A feeling of irresolution permeates these selections, emphasized at times by tonality, as in his three-part Piano Nets and the eerie mix of abstract synthesis and Rhapsody in Blue allusions on Clarinet Threads but more often by use of extended silences, which bracket episodes and create a sense of mystery about what will follow. High-pitched, dental-drill whines, spacey swoops and R2-D2 bleeps date Darkness After Time’s Colours as the earliest composition (1976), while Valley Flow, completed in 1992, utilizes a deeper range of colors, created in part at Ircam. Yet a consistent aesthetic guides each work—one drawn from an acute sensitivity to environmental stimuli and guided by a willingness to manipulate minute details over extended periods of time. It takes patience to appreciate this kind of music, but Smalley’s artistry makes the effort worthwhile.

… rivets attention by creating provocative electronic sounds…


Andrew Jones, Montreal Mirror, no. 8:33, February 4, 1993

New Zealand composer Denis Smalley takes a clautrophobic, Hitchcockian route in his exploration of inner sound. Eschewing the physicality of electroacoustic sound that composers like Francis Dhomont are know for, Smalley opts for a queasy, primordial ebb and flow on works like Valley Flow and Piano Nets — the dark flipside to new-age environmental recordings. His piece for clarinet and tape, Clarinet Threads, is particularly stunning.

Ondes de chocs

Serge Arcuri, Circuit, no. 4:1-2, January 1, 1993

Denis Smalley, Impacts intérieurs

Ce neuvième disque de la collection empreintes DIGITALes est consacré à la musique du compositeur néo-zélandais et britannique Denis Smalley. Se vouant exclusivement à l’électroacoustique, le musicien définit ses préoccupations comme la recherche des relations entre le geste et la texture tant sur le plan formel qu’au niveau de la perception. L’enregistrement nous propose une alternance d’œuvres pour bandes et de pièces mixtes depuis la toute récente réalisation Valley Flow pour bande seule, composée partiellement au Banff Center for the Arts et qui s’inspire du paysage grandiose et sonore que lui ont suggéré les Rocheuses. Dès la première audition, l’œuvre réussit à nous transporter dans ces vastes espaces éthérés, cristallisée par l’utilisation des registres extrêmes et un travail tout à fait remarquable à partir de sons de la forêt et de bruits de source qui ont presque conservé leurs qualités olfactives.

Piano Nets (1991) et Clarinet Threads (1985), comme les titres l’indiquent, sont des œuvres mixtes avec la participation du pianiste Philip Mead et du clarinettiste Roger Heaton. La première nous offre une composition équilibrée d’une grande maîtrise où le piano, utilisé surtout de façon harmonique, n’est à aucun moment restreint par les réseaux de la bande et semble se fondre naturellement aux résonances tout en conservant son caractère propre. La seconde plus morphologique s’accorde tout à fait à l’immense palette de timbres propres à la clarinette. Wind Chimes (1987) tout comme Darkness After Time’s Colour (1976), pour bande seule, relèvent de préoccupations et d’esthétique, de style plus français avec une maîtrise tout aussi efficace. Nous pouvons, sans conteste, parler d’un enregistrement de grande qualité, dans la lignée des réalisations de cette étiquette.

Michel-Georges Brégent; Atlantide, Walter Boudreau, Raôul Duguay; Golgot(h)a

Le premier disque de cette nouvelle étiquette nous convie à entendre deux œuvres qu’on pourrait, sans se tromper, qualifier d’envergure titanesque ou de façon plus appropriée, titanique, toutes deux écrites pour diffusion radiophonique.

Atlantide, de l’un des compositeurs québécois les plus prolifiques, Michel-Georges Brégent, peut nous surprendre, nous choquer, nous submerger ou nous éblouir mais ne peut certes pas nous laisser indifférent. Utilisant un orchestre éclaté allant des instruments anciens à l’orchestre traditionnel jusqu’aux instruments rock, l’œuvre transpose un contrepoint foisonnant de musiques et de styles des plus disparates pour construire une Babylone sonore tout à fait appropriée au discours apocalyptique que Brégent nous propose, en créant comme il le dit lui-même «un signal d’alarme radiophonique». On ne pourra manquer de remarquer une écriture exceptionnelle des voix ainsi qu’une interprétation tout aussi remarquable de la part des chanteurs et de l’orchestre sous la direction de Walter Boudreau.

J’ai toutefois quelques réserves sur la pertinence des insertions de bande entre les parties instrumentales du début, mais toute la section finale, qui semble nous rendre les débris de cette première partie sur les côtes d’une plage où se situerait l’auditeur, est d’une grande poésie et tout à fait réussie.

Golgot(h)a, du compositeur et chef d’orchestre Walter Bourdreau et du poète et musicien Raôul Duguay, un collaborateur de longue date, nous transporte dans l’univers tragique de la passion. L’œuvre est une suite de quinze tableaux sur les traces d’un chemin de croix où toute l’écriture est déduite d’un répons à quatre voix Tradiderunt me in manus impiorum du compositeur espagnol de la renaissance Tomas Luis De Vittoria.

Ayant d’abord entendu la musique en version concert, lors de sa création en mars 1992, je dois avouer que l’enregistrement m’a permis d’apprécier à sa juste valeur le travail subtil des voix échantillonnées en relation avec l’orchestre, ce que l’audition en salle avait quelque peu estompé. L’émotion retenue des derniers tableaux est émouvante et non étrangère à certains madrigalismes des plus à propos. La direction y est évidemment très sûre sous la baguette du compositeur et l’enregistrement d’une qualité tout aussi remarquable.

II est à noter que ces deux œuvres ont mérité des honneurs, soit le prix spécial du jury du Prix Italia dons le cas d’Atlantide et le grand prix de la communauté des radios publiques de langue française du Prix Paul Gilson dans le cas de Golgot(h)a. Des musiques à réentendre!

Des musiques à réentendre!
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    Christian Bouchard presented his first solo disc Fractures on February 14 2004 during the Rien à voir (15) festival while Denis Smalley remastered the works from his 1992 disc — which has been out of print for over a year — for the br… More