Denis Smalley

The central prelude, Debussy’s Cathedral, is based on the transformation and development of a pair of resonant chords taken from Debussy’s piano prelude La Cathédrale engloutie (The submerged cathedral)… RNE3: Atmósfera, Spain

… the recordings are resplendent in their own charms. Denis Smalley‘s Portail makes for particularly immersive listening… The Sound Projector, UK

CD (IMED 20168)

  • Label: empreintes DIGITALes
  • IMED 20168
  • 2020
  • UCC 771028216826
  • Total duration: 56:18
  • OGpak
  • 125 mm × 125 mm × 10 mm
  • 50 g

On the web

Download (IMED 20168_NUM)

Some recommended items

In the press


RNE3: Atmósfera, August 15, 2021

Estamos ya ante el tercer lanzamiento de Denis Smalley después de una “pausa” de 20 años. Portail presenta sus 2 trabajos multicanal más recientes: Fabrezan Preludes (2015-16) y Sommeil de Rameau (2014-15), convertidos en estéreo ambisonics, más uno de sus primeros trabajos: The Pulses of Time (1978).

Fabrezan Preludes compuesto en 2015-16 tiene una duración de 20:58. El preludio central, Debussy’s Cathedral, se basa en la transformación y desarrollo de un par de acordes resonantes extraídos del preludio para piano de Debussy La Cathédrale engloutie (La catedral sumergida), que evoca la historia de la mítica ciudad de Ys, sumergida frente a las costas de Bretaña. Cuenta la leyenda que las campanas de las iglesias de la ciudad se pueden escuchar en mares tranquilos.

En el preludio de apertura, Portal, que es el que escuchamos esta noche en Atmósfera, el oyente cruza el umbral hacia la nave de la catedral. The Voices of Circius (también conocido como Cercio) se refieren al relativamente desconocido dios romano del viento a quien el emperador Augusto dedicó un altar cerca de Narbona, en el sur de Francia. El viento Cers atraviesa el país desde el noroeste, ganando fuerza y movimiento circular a medida que viaja por las llanuras a través de los amplios corredores del valle, avanzando hacia el Mediterráneo. Puede ser impetuoso, emerger repentinamente, ahuyentar las nubes y la lluvia, iniciando cielos soleados y luminosos. Reconocido por tener propiedades saludables, trae una agradable brisa fresca en el calor del verano, pero puede ser terriblemente fría en invierno. Este preludio tiene como objetivo capturar aspectos de sus “voces”.

Fabrezan Preludes se creó en los estudios de Denis Smalley en Fabrezan (Francia) y Londres y se estrenó el 21 de mayo de 2016, en un concierto con motivo del 70 cumpleaños de Denis Smalley, en el Colyer-Fergusson Hall en Canterbury (Inglaterra, Reino Unido).

The central prelude, Debussy’s Cathedral, is based on the transformation and development of a pair of resonant chords taken from Debussy’s piano prelude La Cathédrale engloutie (The submerged cathedral)…


Stuart Marshall, The Sound Projector, July 25, 2021

The release schedule of Canadian label empreintes DIGITALes — electroacoustic music specialists — continues apace. Keeping up pace and penchant for excellence, this pair from 2020 arrive in empreintes DIGITALes’ customary card wraparound, but subtly differentiated by colour scheme and subject matter, spanning everything from abstract philosophy to concrete studies of instruments. Fascinating as these documents often are though, they are not above criticism. For one thing, given how standardised the tropes, techniques and themes in circulation, there is a risk of uniformity between practitioners, although on a good day it’s easy to lose oneself in the dynamic vortex. The tension between these positions informs my listening to today’s CDs.

Another problem, specific to releases of multi-channel music, is that they are better suited to live settings than the home, so these CDs can only hint at the mind-boggling experience of listening in situ. That said, the recordings are resplendent in their own charms. Denis Smalley‘s Portail makes for particularly immersive listening as it deep dives into the waters of Claude Debussy’s La cathédrale engloutie (‘the submerged cathedral’) in the second part of its centrepiece, Fabrezan Preludes (2015-16). In the custom of many diverging interpretations of this piece (Isao Tomita and John Zorn among these), Smalley deftly repurposes the source material by setting some of the piece’s ‘resonant chords’ adrift in an underwater realm of ‘Debussian intervals and scale patterns’, where even the dim performance of an organist (Smalley, presumably) assumes a naturalistic character.

The hazy image of the organist originates in Smalley’s early musical training in New Zealand and in 1970s Paris, when he studied church organ under no less an authority than Olivier Messiaen. The same period saw him learning the tools of the fixed medium composition trade at GRM studios, and was followed by a move to computer composition — and the UK — in the ’80s, wherein the seeds of Portail could be said to have been planted. Since then, Smalley has released only sporadically, but the respectable quality of his work as well as his prestigious associations attest to the kind of pedigree that distinguishes practitioners in this field.

The other Fabrezan Preludes exhibit similar preoccupations with water and meteorology (vapour clouds, storms, rainfall, tidal currents), evoking parallels between numinous inner spaces and those of nature, and a similar act of ‘engulfing’ occurs in the other highlight, Sommeil de Rameau (‘Rameau’s sleep’; 2014-15). Herein, faint, sunlit memories of Smalley’s church organ studies glimmer through another undulating, underwater dream in glistening modal phrases. So hazy and dreamlike are its slow, lilting lines of ‘airy instrumentation’ that I actually mistook this for the Debussy piece on my first few listens.

By contrast, the 12-minute closer (The Pulses of Time (1978)) could pass itself off as a lost cousin to Aphex Twin’s Bucephalus Bouncing Ball. Preceding the preceding pieces by over four decades, Portail ‘s outlier is an ever-shifting flux of pulses, plucked and percussive, from a battery of incognito sound sources, alongside ballistic shards of atonal matter from clavichord, EMS Synthi and such. Smalley categorises these pulses into 3 types: slower ones to establish pace; those more accelerated to accentuate iterative variation; and finally ‘compacted pulsing grains’ for texture. While standing out like a sore thumb from the rest of the collection, this shuffled deck of rhythmic variations adds a wild card element to proceedings, lest the listener become too complacent in the sacred confines of Debussy’s cathedral.

… the recordings are resplendent in their own charms. Denis Smalley‘s Portail makes for particularly immersive listening…


Ettore Garzia, Percorsi Musicali, January 31, 2021

Portail rivela la genialità di Smalley e prospetta anche le differenze intervenute nell’elettronica nel tempo, i miglioramenti tecnologici che hanno reso possibile una migliore gestione della composizione su altri supporti, come succede nella versione di The pulses of Time, uno dei suoi capolavori incisi su nastro e che oggi può stare tranquillamente a fianco di pezzi come Wind of chimes, quasi unanimamente considerato il suo picco artistico; in The pulses of time, Smalley ha impostato una filosofia dell’impulso, non solo intendendolo nell’immediatezza che regolarmente attribuiamo al termine ma anche nella sua profondità temporale, quello spazio di tempo in cui si forma ed esaurisce la vibrazione sonora: una vera e propria vivisezione dell’impulso, che non sta solo nell’attacco sonoro ma soprattutto nei rimbalzi sonici e nella potenziale movimentazione a corredo dell’impianto complessivo della composizione.

La Francia è fonte d’ispirazione per le altre due composizioni: per Sommeil de Rameau il disturbo recato al compositore del tardo barocco diventa un legame inossidabile per un nuovo apprezzamento della materia, nell’appropriarsi di una fase storica e dargli i connotati di una attuale, mentre per Fabrezan Preludes c’è invece un lavoro accademico immenso che si comprende nell’ascolto del trattamento della spazialità dei suoni, nella ricerca di un senso sonoro dell’esplorazione o nei parziali dei suoni della campane che fanno da minuzia.

Portail reveals Smalley’s genius and also points out the differences that have occurred in electronics over time…


Ben Taffijn, Nieuwe Noten, January 31, 2021

Twintig jaar bracht de uit Nieuw Zeealand afkomstige componist Denis Smalley geen nieuw werk uit, zijn laatste album, Sources / scènes, verscheen in 2000 bij Empreintes DIGITALes, nu gevolgd door twee albums kort nar elkaar. Portail verscheen in december vorig jaar, Vues spectrales komt in februari uit. Het werk van Smalley is vergelijkbaar met dat van Vande Gorne, die hier gisteren voorbij kwam, in de zin dat we ook zijn werk scharen onder de elektro-akoestische muziek.

Smalley studeerde aan de University of Canterbury in zijn vaderland en behaalde daar een diploma als organist om aansluitend compositie te studeren aan de Victoria University of Wellington. In 1971 kon hij met een beurs naar Parijs, studeerde daar compositie bij Olivier Messiaen en volgde tegelijkertijd de cursus elektro-akoestische muziek bij de inmiddels vermaarde Groupe de recherches musicales (Ina-GRM). Aansluitend verhuisde Smalley naar Londen waar hij zijn DPhil in compositie behaalde aan de University of York. Het zou allereerst resulteren in een carrière als professor, onder andere op het Department of Music aan de City University in London en pas daarnaast aan die van componist, het verklaart Smalleys relatief kleine œuvre.

Een belangrijk kenmerk van veel elektro-akoestische muziek, ook Vande Gorne werkt daar veelvuldig mee, is het werken met meerdere kanalen en dus ook met de plaatsing van luidsprekers door de ruimte. Iets wat op een Cd helaas niet hoorbaar is, maar live vaak een overweldigend effect scoort, de muziek komt immers van alle kanten. Wonderlijk eigenlijk dat deze muziek desondanks zo weinig live wordt uitgevoerd. Het zou een compositie als de driedelige Fabrezan Preludes, te vinden op Portail, waarbij Smalley het eerste deel baseerde op de piano prelude La Cathédrale engloutie van Claude Debussy, zeker ten goede komen. De spookachtige klanknevels zouden dan letterlijk door de ruimte zweven.

Sommeil de Rameau, een hommage aan de Franse barokcomponist, is volgens Smalley “a contemplative journey based around recurring refrain materials, contrasted with diversions into a series of episodes that lengthen as the piece progresses.” Aan dit stuk hoor je overigens ook goed Smalleys achtergrond als organist terug. Opvallend aan de muziek van Smalley in de laatste twee decennia is de klankbenadering, ritme en melodie spelen totaal geen rol, harmonie des te meer. Hij blijkt een meester in het neerzetten van sfeervolle geluidssculpturen. De liefhebbers van de betere ambient moeten deze albums beslist beluisteren. Ook Spectral Lands, Resounding’ en Ringing Down the Sun, te vinden op Vues spectrales vallen hieronder. Het laatste stuk ontstond in Denemarken en verwijst naar de traditie om de klokken te luiden aan het einde van de werkdag (ringer solen ned in het Deens). Smalley hierover: “This idea seemed metaphorically to coincide with my attitudes towards the sounds, contours and spaces I was immersed in, and it steered the direction of the piece.”

Door het toevoegen van twee oudere stukken aan de albums, het uit 1978 stammende The Pulses of Time en het in 1982 gecomponeerde Vortex is goed de ontwikkeling te horen die Smalley doormaakte. In The Pulses of Time werkt Smalley met pulses en percussieve klanken en ook in Vortex zit beduidend meer dynamiek dan in de hierboven genoemde stukken. Het maakt deze man en zijn muziek des te boeiender.

… a master in creating atmospheric sound sculptures.


Peter van Cooten, ambientblog.net, January 6, 2021

Portail is released on the Empreintes Digitales label, which means you’re about to embark on some mind-boggling electroacoustic soundscapes. Such is definitely the case on this release, even though the music presented here may be somewhat more accessible than other releases on the label.

Denis Smalley (b. 1946) is a veteran of the electroacoustic music scene. He studied in Olivier Messiaen’s composition class in Paris and took the electroacoustic music course run by the GRM (Groupe de Recherches Musicales). Initially, he worked with tape, but in the early 80’s he switched to using computer software. A true pioneer of electroacoustic music, its practice and its theory.

Portail is Smalley’s third release (on Empreinted Digitales) after a 20-year ‘pause’. It presents recent multichannel works: Fabrezan Preludes (2015-2016) and Sommeil de Rameau (2014-15). Both were originally composed for 8-channels (oh man, I wish… don’t get me started…), but are converted to stereo ambisonics for this release (by Jonty Harrison) — so headphone listening is recommended.

Also included is one of his earliest compositions: The Pulses of Time (1978), which, by the way, is quite different from the previous two compositions.

In the two recent works, some titles refer to classical composers: Sommeil de Rameau (‘Rameau’s Sleep’), of course, and also Debussy’s Cathedral, directly referring to Debussy’s La cathédrale engloutie (The Submerged Cathedral).

The last title alone made me think of the reinterpretation of this piece by Isao Tomita on his 1974 debut album Snowflakes Are Dancing. And from there I realized there were similarities in the approach of this material (which can best be heard in Sommeil de Rameau), even when there are fundamental differences too. Unlike Tomita, Smalley doesn’t aim to meticulously re-create the classical score: his compositions are entirely his own. And I assume that the techniques used to create this music are also completely different.

But in taking “the transformation and development of a pair of resonant chords from Debussy’s piano prelude”, or when “drawing on characteristics of the sleep scene in French Baroque stage works and cantatas, which first occurred in a comédie-ballet by Molière and Lully the homage to Jean-Philippe Rameau ”, Smalley uses the same washes of ‘engulfing’ sound to create his musical atmospheres.

A dreamlike atmosphere, for the most part: “When a sleep scene is invoked, a main character is exhorted to sleep, and dramatic action is suspended. The music may be solely instrumental, or may involve sung commentary, where, for example, the singers personify dreamed thoughts or suggest future courses of action. The musical style, with its slowish harmonic motion, undulating or rocking contours, and airy instrumentation (typically strings and flutes), is intended to create a contemplative atmosphere and a sense of timelessness.”

A dreamlike atmosphere, for the most part…


Piergiuseppe Lippolis, Music Map, January 1, 2021

A vent’anni dalla sua ultima pubblicazione, torna in grande stile Denis Smalley, compositore neozelandese di musica elettroacustica, con una coppia di album: Portail, pubblicato a metà dicembre 2020 per Empreintes DIGITALes , e Vues spectrales, che invece vedrà la luce a febbraio di quest’anno. Portail comprende tre brani: Fabrezan Preludes, idealmente diviso in tre atti e composto tra il 2015 e il 2016, Sommeil de Rameau, risalente al biennio precedente, e The Pulses of Time, composta invece nel 1978. L’album si apre con Fabrezan Preludes 1: Portal, che presenta la leggenda della città di Ys, sommersa a largo di Brittany, della cui chiesa, si narra, si possono ancora udire le campane quando il mare è calmo. Portal è un ingresso timido e discreto nella maestosità della navata centrale, mentre Fabrezan Preludes 2: Debussy’s Cathedral prende le mosse dall’omonimo preludio di Debussy e si sviluppa regalando un senso di spaziosità, attraverso un moto ondulatorio e oscillante. C’è un’atmosfera decisamente più inquieta in Fabrezan Preludes 3: The Voices of Circius, seppure con la stessa grazia e la stessa delicatezza. Note cinematografiche permeano Sommeil de Rameau, oltre a un senso di sospensione temporale che restituisce l’immagine visiva del sonno. Dalla contemplativa Sommeil de Rameau, si passa al pulsare regolare di The Pulses of Time, fra armonie metalliche e percussioni leggere, che chiudono l’opera. Portail rappresenta un ritorno graditissimo, anche al netto di un ultimo brano leggermente fuori contesto rispetto ai precedenti. Nell’attesa di febbraio, non resta che godersi Portail.

Portail is a very welcome return…