Artists Denis Smalley

Denis Smalley studied music at the University of Canterbury (New Zealand) — Diploma in organ performance, and MusB — and the Victoria University of Wellington (New Zealand) — BMus honours in composition. He then taught music at Wellington College for three years prior to gaining a French Government bursary which enabled him to study in Paris (France) in 1971. He spent a year in Olivier Messiaen’s composition class at the Conservatoire de Paris, and at the same time took the electroacoustic music course run by the Groupe de recherches musicales (Ina-GRM). He was among the first composers to complete the newly established “Diplôme de musique électroacoustique et de recherche musicale.”

He then moved to the UK, where he completed the DPhil in composition at the University of York. In 1975 he took up a Composition Fellowship at the University of East Anglia (Norwich, UK) and was appointed Lecturer in 1976 (Senior Lecturer from 1988), with special responsibility for electroacoustic composition activities and courses. In 1994 he was appointed Professor of Music and Head of the Department of Music at City University, London (from September 2016 known as City, University of London) (UK). He remained Head until 2005, but took up the Headship again in 2008 until his retirement from the university later in 2009. He is now Professor Emeritus. In 2010 he was awarded an Honorary Doctor of Letters by the University of Huddersfield (UK) in recognition of his achievements in electroacoustic music, and in 2013 he became an Honorary Professor at the University of Kent (UK).

Works have been commissioned by: Groupe de recherches musicales (Ina-GRM); Barry Anderson / West Square Electronic Music Association; Tim Souster / Electronic Music Now; Bath Festival; clarinettist Roger Heaton, Michael Nicholas / Norwich Cathedral Choir; Philip Mead / Sonic Arts Network (SAN); South Bank Centre (London); Birmingham ElectroAcoustic Sound Theatre (BEAST); Groupe de musique expérimentale de Marseille (GMEM); Sveriges Radio Malmö; Wayne Siegel / Dansk Institut for Elektronisk Musik (DIEM); Sonorities Festival (Belfast); Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival (HCMF) / Centre for Research in New Music (CeReNeM); and School of Music and Fine Art of University of Kent.

His music has received a number of international awards: the Fylkingen Prize (Stockholm, Sweden, 1975), Bourges Electroacoustic Awards (France, 1977, ’83, ’92), the Special Prize of the International Confederation of Electroacoustic Music (CIME, 1983), NEWCOMP (USA, 1984), and the Golden Nica of Prix Ars Electronica (Linz, Austria, 1988).

He has taken a keen interest in the performance of electroacoustic music, and pioneered the concept of sound diffusion in the UK, developing the first sound diffusion system from 1976 at the University of East Anglia (Norwich, UK). For ten years from 1976 he was very active in promoting electroacoustic music in a number of concert tours for the Arts Council Contemporary Music Network, working with such composers and performers as Sarah Walker (voice), John Tilbury (piano), Singcircle (with Trevor Wishart), John Wallace (trumpet; with Tim Souster). He has been responsible for the sound production for some key electroacoustic events, such as the Electric Weekend on the South Bank in London in 1987, and the BBC Promenade concert celebrating the 10th anniversary of the founding of the Electroacoustic Music Association of Great Britain (EMAS) — which became, in 1990, the Sonic Arts Network (SAN), which in turn became, in 2008, Sound and Music.

He served on the Music Advisory Panel of the Arts Council of Great Britain (1978-82), and was Chair of the British Section of the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM, 1979-82). He was a founder member of the Electroacoustic Music Association of Great Britain (EMAS, 1979) serving on the Committee until 1990.

Denis Smalley is also notable as a writer on the aesthetics of electroacoustic music. In particular, he has developed the notion of “spectromorphology” (the shaping of sound spectra through time), expanding concepts initially articulated by Pierre Schaeffer, in order to explain sonic relationships in their musical context. The most widely read article — Spectromorphology: Explaining Sound-Shapes — has been published in English, French, German, and Italian. A follow-up article — Space-Form and the Acousmatic Image — elaborates spatial concepts relating to spectromorphology. With Lelio Camilleri he conceived and edited the first publication in English devoted to the analysis of electroacoustic music (Journal of New Music Research, 1998). With Simon Emmerson he was responsible for the entry on Electroacoustic Music in the 2000 edition of the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. A book in the Ina-GRM’s Polychrome Portraits series was published in 2010 in English (No. 15), and in 2011 in French (No. 16).


Denis Smalley

Nelson (New Zealand), 1946

Residence: London (England, UK)

  • Composer

On the web

Denis Smalley [Photo: George Kinnear, July 2019]
Denis Smalley [Photo: George Kinnear, July 2019]
  • Jonty Harrison; ; John Young; Denis Smalley; William Brunson; Jøran Rudi; Simon Emmerson; John Dack; ; Sean Ferguson at the symposium Form in Electroacoustic Music, Institute of Creative Technologies, De Montfort University (Leicester, England, UK) [Leicester (England, UK), February 20, 2011]
  • Jonty Harrison, Jean-François Denis, Denis Smalley, Pierre Alexandre Tremblay at the afternoon rehearshal for the concert empreintes DIGITALes @ 20: Cinema for the Ears as part of the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival [Photo: Scott Hewitt, Huddersfield (England, UK), November 24, 2010]
  • Denis Smalley [Photo: Marianne Binard, Brussels (Belgium), October 2000]
  • Denis Smalley [Photo: Marianne Binard, Brussels (Belgium), October 2000]
  • Denis Smalley [Wellington (New Zealand), 1992]
  • Denis Smalley and Michel Chion, 6th Festival international de musique électroacoustique de Bourges [Photo: Robert Cahen, Bourges (Cher, France), 1976]
  • Denis Smalley [Norwich (England, UK)]
  • Denis Smalley [Photo: Garas Kálmán]

Main releases

empreintes DIGITALes / IMED 20168, IMED 20168_NUM / 2020
  • Soon: available December 15, 2020
  • Soon: available December 15, 2020
empreintes DIGITALes / IMED 0409, IMED 0409_NUM, IMED 9209 / 1992, 2004
empreintes DIGITALes / IMED 0054, IMED 0054_NUM / 2000


empreintes DIGITALes / IMED 9627, IMED 9627_NUM / 1996
Musiques & Recherches / LIEN 1991-10, LIEN 1991-10pdf / 1991
Musiques & Recherches / LIEN 1991-11 / 1991


Various artists
Editions Mego / REGRM 008 / 2013
  • Out of print
  • Not in catalogue
Kehrer Verlag / KV 9783868281620 / 2011
  • Not in catalogue
  • Not in catalogue

In the press

An Itinerary Through Northern Europe

François Couture,, February 9, 2004

This is a casual listening path, an invitation to travel — not a guided tour per se, more of an itinerary, akin to Romantic-era travel literature. So this will be a listening itinerary, an invitation to discover a highly subjective selection of electroacoustic composers from a specific corner of the world. Our destination: Northern Europe.

France reigns over European electroacoustic music like a despotic queen. The persisting influence of Pierre Schaeffer’s work — even more than 50 years after the invention of what he has called “musique concrète” — and the gravitational pull of the Ina-GRM tend to hide from the rest of the world the work being accomplished elsewhere in Europe.

So let’s start our journey in one of France’s neighbors, Belgium. The country owes much of its electroacoustic activity to Annette Vande Gorne, the indefatigable animator of the Musiques & Recherches center. Her music displays a strong sense of serenity, something rare in the field of tape music. Tao, a cycle about the five base elements (air, earth, metal, fire and water), remains a classic. In it she explores every possible transformation of the sounds associated to these elements with an uncommon level of artistry and poetry. A student of Vande Gorne, Stephan Dunkelman has picked up on her grace, a grace he transmutes into movement. Often the result of a collaboration with choreographers, his works are driven by an inner force that substitutes the sensuality of movement to Vande Gorne’s philosophical — almost mystical — depth. His pieces Rituellipses and Thru, Above and Between, released on the album Rhizomes, deserve your attention.

A jump across the Northern Sea and we set foot on English ground. Birmingham has become an important creative node in electroacoustic music, thanks to the work of composer Jonty Harrsison and his Birmingham ElectroAcoustic Sound Theatre (better known as BEAST), a laboratory for experimentation and sound diffusion that has helped many talented composers in developing their art. Harrison’s music is an essential listen. His piece Klang (released on Évidence matérielle) ranks among the best-known electroacoustic works of the last 25 years. His precise sound constructions and his distinctive way of compressing sound matter into streams of energy put him up there with Pierre Henry, Francis Dhomont and Bernard Bernard Parmegiani. One can follow the traces of his techniques into the works of Adrian Moore, one of his students, especially in the latter’s fondness for putting simple sound sources (marker on a white board, tin foil) through complex transformations. Sieve, from the album Traces, uses a catchy playfulness to make this transformative process transparent.

Denis Smalley was born and raised in New Zealand, but he has been living in the UK since the mid-‘70s. His contributions to the acousmatic corpus and to the development of sound diffusion make him not only the contemporary but in a sense the acolyte of Harrison. Furthermore, the two composers share a similar interest in form and in the choreographed displacement of abstract sound objects through space and time. Wind Chimes (on Impacts intérieurs) and Base Metals (on Sources/Scènes) are good illustrations of the slightly cold yet fascinating beauty of his music. John Young, one of his students — and another New-Zealander who studied and now teaches in England), follows a similar approach, although he replaces Smalley’s elemental sound sources with more emotionally charged images. The works featured on his CD La limite du bruit offer to the listener several occasions to dive into his or her own memories, the sound of a squeaky swing or a creaky door turning into avatars of Proust’s madeleine. Time, Motion and Memory is a choice cut.

Scandinavian electroacoustic music is still too largely ignored on our side of the Atlantic, but empreintes DIGITALes’ catalog allows us to make a short stop to round up our peregrinations. Natasha Barrett has studied with Harrison and Smalley and has been involved in BEAST, but since 1998 she has elected Norway as her base camp. There, she has stepped away from the style of her teachers and has sought inspiration in the Nordic cold. Her Three Fictions, released on Isostasie, deserve many listens. And let me bring this listening path to an end with one of the key composers in electroacoustic music today, the Swedish Åke Parmerud, whose Renaissance (on Jeu d’ombres) pays tribute to the analog synthesizer without resorting to nostalgic tricks.


François Couture, AllMusic, June 1, 2002

A composer of electroacoustic music, Denis Smalley came from a classical music background and followed the academic path. Since 1994 he is head of the Department of Music at City University (London, England). All his works (except a couple of early ones) are for tape or instrument and tape. He has albums out on empreintes DIGITALes, UEA Recordings and Effects Input. His music shares similarities with Jonty Harrison and the composers associated with BEAST.

Smalley was born 1946 in Nelson, New Zealand. He learned piano and organ at a young age. His first degree was a diploma in organ performance from the University of Canterbury (New Zealand). In his home country he premiered works for organ by Olivier Messiaen and Gyorgy Ligeti in the late 1960s. He taught music at Wellington College for three years before the French Government awarded him a grant in 1971. He studied in Messiaen’s composition class for a year at the Conservatoire de Paris, but he also took the electroacoustic music course dispensed at the time by the Groupe de recherches musicales (GRM). Musique concrète was a revelation to him and he quickly turned away from performance and classical composition to concentrate solely on tape music.

After completing the Conservatoire’s “Diplôme de musique électroacoustique et de recherche musicale” (he was one of the first students to do so), Smalley moved to England to obtain a Ph.D. from the University of York. His first known works date from that period. Gradual won the Fylkingen Prize in 1975. He was appointed lecturer at the University of East Anglia (Norwich, England) the following year and remained there until his appointment at City University.

Between 1976 and 1986, Smalley actively promoted electroacoustic music, developing the concept of sound diffusion in England. He is also renown as a theoretician in electroacoustic music aesthetics. He developed the notion of “spectromorphology,” the shaping of sound spectra through time. His other awards include an Euphonie d’Or (Bourges competition) in 1992 for Darkness After Time’s Colours and a Golden Nica (Ars Electronica, Linz, Austria) in 1988 for Clarinet Threads.

He developed the notion of “spectromorphology,” the shaping of sound spectra through time.


Paul Rudi, SAN Diffusion, September 1, 2001

Three words come to mind when listening to Denis Smalley’s new release Sources/scènes on the empreintes DIGITALes label: elegance, depth, and style. A compilation of three decades of one of Europe’s leading electroacoustic music composers, Sources/scènes is a treasure chest of sonic emeralds, diamonds and gold. The four works on this CD bear similarity, not only to the beauty and polish of well–crafted jewels, but also the depth of rare stones created over time. And, as important, the works all bear the stamp of the composer. The lineage from Pentes (1974) to Base Metals (2000) is clear, and each piece, while maintaining a unique identity (largely because of the source material chosen), bears stylistic unity to the whole of Smalley’s output. A style based on clarity (of idea and material), transparency (of tools and processes), expansiveness (of space and breadth), and careful tonality, places him among the elite of contemporary electroacoustic music composers alive today.

Base Metals (2000), is an attractive play on the sounds of metal from the sculptures of Derek Shiel. From the outset, whether we know this sound source or not, the work has a distinct metallic quality which internally unifies the sonic landscape and structure. The sonic quality of the work is linked externally (to the rest of Smalley’s output), through transformations including pitched glissandi, frequency shifting noise bands, ringing clangs (reminiscent of Wind Chimes), and beautiful sustained pitches and chords: harmonies emulating from the sources themselves, exploited rather than concealed. The opening chord (based around B to my ear) with slowly evolving and shifting harmonies brought about by the clang of a bell–like metal, Smalley contracts the following with the listener: pay attention to the shifting spectra, and listen carefully to the subtle commonalities which link one gesture to another. His play with space (foreground/background, near/far, direct/indirect) is masterful, and gives the work a visual three dimensionality.

Visual space is very near to the surface in the second work Empty Vessels (1997), which incorporates environmental sounds (such as rain, fire, bees, flies, birds, and thunder) into a largely tonal work with a primary source of garden pots and olive jars. Whilst a full pitch analysis is beyond the scope of this review, a few relationships evident to my ears should be pointed out. The work begins with a focus on D, and proceeds to re–interpret (or re–contextualize) that pitch throughout. There is even a diatonic cadence just past the middle of the work (8’21"). It ends with a D–A flat tritone spectral transformation [cadence?] to B flat–D at the very end. None of this tonality, however, is forced on the material, and that is Smalley’s strength, to draw harmonies out of material, and connect them in completely natural ways, without superimposing predetermined structures and risking the vitality of the sounds themselves.

One of the most interesting, and paradoxical environmental elements Smalley chooses to use in Empty Vessels is a jet flying overhead (resulting, in his words, incidentally while the microphones were in the pots). The jet provides a natural filtered noise sound (through doppler), and is often used unprocessed, (which I speculate is why the sound was chosen). The jet sound links many of the sections of the work together, and provides a natural connection to the filtering effects of the garden pots, which he also often exaggerates in the studio. The irony is that a jet, presumably a ‘full vessel,’ provides the sonic link between worlds (the transport analogy equivalent to the opening and closing doors often used in electroacoustic music not unnoticed here) in a work about Empty Vessels. Perhaps this irony provides the tension that drives the work from beginning to end. Much more could be said about the aesthetic, tonal and philosophical aspects of the work here, but alas, must wait for a different forum. Suffice it to say, that they bring me back to listen to the work over, and over again.

Tides (1984), an epic work in two movements, maintains a similar balance between recognizable environmental sounds and synthesized transformations of unrecognizable sounds. Movement 1 (Pools and Currents) makes use of water as a sound source, and as an analog for motion and textures. In this work are wave–like gestures, rain–like textures, and all of the motion that one associates with water [Currents]. Contrasting this motion are slow moving, even static, components [Pools] which, rather than remaining separated, are shaped, disturbed, and shuffled by the motion of the currents (much as water in tidal pools is). The analogy of water in both moving and still states allows Smalley to incorporate highly contrasting sound worlds into an integrated whole, especially when each sound world (recognizable and abstract) begin to take on qualities of each other. The gurgling water for example begins to take on the sustained sheen of the still sounds and vice–versa.

The wave–like gestures opening Sea Flight (Movement 2) give the illusion of suspended waves, sweeping across the soundscape. A second element, sliding chords, emerges out of the waves and immerses the listener in the sea. Both gestures fly in and out of each other, setting up a dialogue between real and imagined space that moves the music forward. This relationship can be interpreted as two distinct spaces (real and imagined), or antecedent/consequent (statement/commentary), but in either case, these two ‘states’ or spaces beautifully capture the gestural energy and shape present in the motion (or stillness) of the sea. Another gift of Smalley, is to move in and out of recognizable and abstract textures without compromising the integrity of the material, or arbitrarily superimposing pre–determined structures over the sounds.

The final work Pentes, is a masterpiece of the second half of the 20th century, and brilliantly caps off a must–have CD. This work, mandatory listening for ALL of my students, denies any residue of cliché from the era in which (and tools on which) it was composed. The distance of terrain covered in Pentes is perhaps as far as one composer (or listener) can travel in a single work. Gestures burst into silence, and begin to elongate (gently slope away?). Abstract sound gestures at the beginning give little hint of the Northumbrian Pipes tune which emerges out of the F major texture two thirds of the way through the work, and yet, the ‘enigma’ of these pipes is completely forecast, natural, and indeed, destined. The short, scurrying, even harsh gestures at the beginning, also little belie the sustained textural perfect 5th drone (on F) out of which the pipes emerge. This moment, one of the greatest in the history of Western music, re–defines the entire work for me as a listener. I cannot help but completely re–evaluate the short, abrupt opening material when it returns after the pipes solo. Smalley has transported us a great sonic distance, and in the end, we see all of the material in a new light, unified by the high frequency noise present in the reedy pipes themselves. The spectral clarity of the work on this release is also far superior to the previous release (now on BMG), thanks to some careful re–mastering.

In Smalley’s music, the elegance is on the surface for everyone to hear, electroacoustic initiate or not. Depth is evident in the consistent quality of all three decades represented, as well as the layers of sophistication woven between immediacy and structural complexity. One need only listen to this CD in comparison to other releases by the composer, to recognize the unique ‘Smalley’ sound, a sound which vacillates freely between noise, tonal, ambient, environmental, synthesized, real and imagined worlds, yet held together by the central idea of each individual work. His is a rare talent, and Sources/scènes is a perfect showcase of these talents.

Sources/scènes, more than any other single disc, gives me a profound sense of the depth and history which electroacoustic music has achieved. It also gives me the sense that this ‘digital art’ has passed into an adulthood marked by maturity and profundity. It says: electroacoustic music is an art form pregnant with possibilities, and an ability to extend not only organized sound itself, but human perception and thought as well.

Sources/scènes, more than any other single disc, gives me a profound sense of the depth and history which electroacoustic music has achieved.


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