A new CD from Denis Smalley is in itself a real event; such is his reputation! This CD is one third of the new grand slam from empreintes DIGITALes: the British Connection – though Smalley really does originate in New Zealand… but he moved to the UK already in the 1970s. For a while there, though, I thought the old Empire burlesque (!) had started to brew again… Well, Smalley really initially came to Europe on the French Government Bursary in 1971 to study with Olivier Messiaen in Paris, but also achieved a diploma of electroacoustics at the renowned institution GRM; Groupe de recherches musicales.
I’ve always held Smalley in the highest esteem, as one who continuously keeps on putting out high quality, high-art electroacoustics. The piece that really blew me away once upon a time was Wind Chimes (1987), released as part of a CD (WER 2025-2) in Wergo’s series Computer Music Currents – on CD 5 of that series (1990). I remember that I’d just set up the gear at home after a major up-grade of equipment. Wind Chimes was the first CD that I played through it – and I was stunned! They guy who helped me bring the gear home and set it up was unfamiliar with any kind of electroacoustic music, and looked completely helpless when the first loud chime cut through the room like a shining sword! So many intriguing sounds; so much imagination, beauty, playfulness, downright auditive obsession! Later on Wind Chimes was released on Smalley’s first CD on empreintes DIGITALes; Impacts intérieurs (IMED 9209). On that CD another piece, which Smalley first issued on Volume 6 of the aforementioned Wergo series – Clarinet Threads – was also reissued.
So, this is his second CD on the label. I do not usually take much note of what the composer or the label has to say about the different pieces, since electroacoustic music in my view is to be compared with abstract art, I mean abstract, non-figurative painting — which it can be intellectually amusing to discuss the ins and out of, but… that’s that! It might be of interest to some to know what kind of software was used, or which machines – but ultimately it’s the resulting sound that constitutes the end to which the soft and hardware are the means. Only experts and conservators will want to find out the exact chemical make-up of a painter’s paint. Contradicting myself – not uncommon! – I nonetheless recommend the listener to read Smalley’s texts on his music, since they are unusually well formulated, taking on a sort of musical, spatial guise themselves.
The first piece on this CD is Base Metals (2000). The title alone tells you what to expect; metallic sounds… but maybe this isn’t what you might think anyway, from the title. The events are extended, swooping, like running your hand or your mind along the curved surface of a parked Boeing 747, below and in front of the cockpit windows, down along the bulging nose section, and the sun is shining on a cold spring day, maybe up in Seattle. The metal is smooth, cool, almost sexy under the passage of your hand, and you feel the molecular make-up of the metal, you can sense the atomic jitter, and as you identify even further into the metal you feel, in bewilderment, the shooting trajectories of elementary particles… until you brace yourself, shake your senses and return back up through the worlds of matter, back to your good old self, with your hand almost perversely stroking the jet… and you realize that that’s not where it’s at either, because in real reality your just sitting there listening to Denis Smalley’s Base Metals…
Empty Vessels (1997) is the second entry. In this case it definitely pays off to read the composer’s introduction. Smalley has recorded the air resonating through some large garden pots from Crete and an empty olive jar from Turkey. The recordings took place in the composer’s garden in northern London, which explains why you can hear the sound of rain and passing airplanes, for example. Naturally Smalley has gone further with the resonating sounds, and developed certain aspects of them by the manipulations that are easily accessible to a shaman of sonics! At first you hear the thrushes of a wet garden, but it doesn’t take long for a mosquito and an airplane to arrive and pass at the same instant… The thrushes keep it up, so I suppose the recording was made no later than May. The next plane flies by above the roofs of London, but the resonance it causes in the jars hang on and develop into a murmur of its own, sporting a brilliance of overtones, when the rain starts coming down like miniscule explosions. The rain on the jars produces a rewarding noise, with many beautiful layers of sound that seem to be moving forward relentlessly, as the sound of the rain merges with the intense buzzing of a swarm of bees which perhaps seeks protection from the rain inside the jar, right at the microphone… It’s all seamless, streaming – streaming audio! When you feel too sedated as the environment gears down into a lazy day of leisure with a hypnotic backdrop, Smalley slaps you on the cheek with a sudden impact, which again introduces rain, birds, planes and the vibrating resonance of a rainy London day, when the smoke bends back to the ground and umbrellas make an aerial view of the streets look like mushroom marches of fungi causes. Even thunderclaps echo inside the jars in the garden. It’s a bit like a hidden-away feeling, as if you were curled up inside a drain pipe outside the factory, eating away at your sandwich as the rain pours down; a safe, cozy, secret feeling!
On it goes. Number 3 is Tides (1984), with the subtitles Pools and Currents and Sea Flight. This was the first work in which Denis Smalley utilized computer transformations of source sounds. This quite much older piece brings us into a marine environment, title-wise, but is it, in context, mostly as an idea, a theoretical construction of relations between events…? Not really. Soon events occur that place you right at the shore of a woodland lake, as the gentle ripple of miniature waves taps the sand and pebbles, and you lie there by your canoe, resting, studying the light summer clouds. You feel all that gravity, but at the same instant you feel your mind letting go, to hover in suspended weightlessness and hypnotic introversion some distance out above the surface of the water. Piece! Rest! Many inner sounds! Visions on the loose! Body let alone! Pearls of sound, reflecting daylight thoughts. Bubbles of sound, emerging, popping. Much is going on here, of an intricate character, on a mystical level, and the piece is long, adding up to no less than 30 minutes; almost French durations! We like it! Leave it out there for a good while and let it brew. Then the fairytale quality is bound to seep up like methane through the marshes, as so often in works by Jacques Lejeune or François Bayle – and the procedure functions in Smalley’s piece! Nature becomes enchanted here, and the elves and the fairies gather around a gray, bearded sage, sitting on a moss laden rock in the meadow, as individual rays of light angle down through the greenish mist, lighting up the wrinkled features of the old magician’s thousand-year-face. Secrets are felt through the vibrating sonic transparence. The sea is never far away, and in the second movement the waves roll back and forth through your head, if you’re listening through earphones. Some chirping sounds call up visions of sea birds, while bell-sounds (without the attack) make me think of some pieces by Jean-Claude Risset (Sud in particular)
In the last, and oldest, piece – Pentes (1974) – you may hear Northumbrian pipes. Smalley has transformed other instrumental sounds here as well, though without providing any hints as to their origins. Short and noisy events come charging in clusters, violently, and it is apparent that the music is older – but by no means inferior to newer stuff – just… older. Maybe Smalley’s electroacoustic identity hadn’t been thoroughly molded by 1974 either, which is why this piece could have been realized by a number of emerging composers of the time, like Rolf Enström, Tommy Zwedberg or Åke Parmerud. Nevertheless, it’s a massive piece, with dangerously sudden changes of moods and speed… and volume! Later slowly gliding processions of timbral drones let the Northumbrian pipes rise like mist out of the glens… Magnificent!