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.