Pentes: A conversation with Denis Smalley

Simon Emmerson, SAN Diffusion, 1 septembre 2001

It is 27 years since the completion of Denis Smalley’s Pentes (“Slopes”) in 1974 1. The following is an edited version of the transcription of a conversation between Simon Emmerson and Denis Smalley, which took place on the 29th January 1989 at the University of Keele.

History and origins

SE: Denis, tell us about what brought you to Europe and to the GRM 2 in 1974. What were the formative listening experiences which took you into the electroacoustic domain?

DS: I went to Canterbury University in New Zealand to do an ordinary degree, and then on to Victoria University, Wellington to take an honours degree in composition. When I left I needed to earn money and I went to Wellington College to teach music; I started off as a school teacher but always thought at the back of my mind that I didn’t want to stay in schools forever. In addition to that, every New Zealander at that time, and I dare say now, wanted to go to what is called ‘overseas’ to gain experiences that one can’t gain in New Zealand. So I always had my eye and ear on some kind of study in another country, preferably in Europe and also preferably in France. One tended to believe that everything would be much better everywhere else. I think that’s a natural thought in New Zealand or any isolated country. So my eyes were set on going to France; to that end I managed to get a French Government Scholarship to study with Messiaen. Several reasonably famous New Zealanders had done so and found it a rewarding experience. I had played a lot of Messiaen’s music, including many first performances of his music in New Zealand.

SE: You were a keyboard player?

DS: On organ, yes, including a lot of the more difficult music from the 1950s and 60s such as Ligeti’s Volumina. I would say that my formative listening experiences were those gained through performing just as much as listening. As far as listening is concerned I hadn’t heard anything very much of European music beyond some of the serial music of the 1950s. It’s a question of what was available on record out there in the 1960s. Probably the music of Webern was more influential than anything else. Performing Messiaen meant getting scores from Europe: you didn’t know what they were like until they arrived. As far as composing is concerned I didn’t really do very much when I was school teaching; I composed some educational pieces and I was always very frustrated that I couldn’t really have access to top instrumentalists to work with instrumental material in a contemporary way. I certainly couldn’t sit down and write the sort of pieces I wanted to without experimenting. I had done some studio work while at university, but this was of an extremely elementary kind. I did not have an extreme distaste for it, but disliked the circumstances of the particular studio and the way things were taught or not taught.

SE: Was it concrète or electronic?

DS: Both, but when we say electronic: “Compose a piece with one sine tone oscillator”. It may have been considered to be a useful exercise but it certainly could hardly be musical. So I did something along concrète lines but it was pretty terrible. The teaching method wasn’t thought out which is extremely important, so I was rather put off. I left New Zealand on a scholarship though I wasn’t convinced I wanted to compose - it was merely a mechanism for leaving the place. So I went to Messiaen’s class and by chance I heard of the course at the GRM and that I had a right to enter it without sitting the exams because I was a student of the Conservatoire. So I got in and decided very rapidly - I think within a month or so - that working with sounds in the studio where I had direct feedback and could experiment, was a far more fruitful way to compose than sitting in the Conservatoire Library with manuscript in front of me, trying to compose a chamber piece.

The GRM: education and composition

SE: Was that course at the GRM structured in the way that you would now think right and proper?

DS: Generally, yes, in that you had a very limited analogue studio to work with; I think that it is quite important otherwise you get so swamped with machinery that you can’t take stock as you have no aesthetic background; it is important that you have some aesthetic commentary from your teachers. They tried to make you do very fixed exercises - although this is not necessarily a good idea - and we would listen to the results every week. It was group listening that was extremely helpful. The comments of Guy Reibel 3, who was in charge of the course were extremely valuable but the attitudes of other students were also useful. Sometimes you’ll get more from your colleagues than you will from the teacher and I think that kind of set-up in the teaching environment is important.

I can’t say that I got very far in that first year (1970/71). Looking back on it I would expect my own students if they’d been working for a year to get further, so that perhaps says something about the efficiency of the teaching. There were analytical classes with Pierre Schaeffer, which to begin with were largely incomprehensible because of French difficulties and because of Schaeffer’s use of language 4. There were other kinds of pedagogical classes where musical examples were discussed. Students always complained that the ‘mysteries’ were being kept from them: the mysteries of how you make these wonderful works were not being made obvious to them and this was a bone of contention. They wanted to know the secrets, but of course there aren’t any secrets, The secrets are discovered through experiment, getting to know through doing. There are no short cuts. You can’t be given a set of examples to go away and emulate.

SE: No pastiche?

DS: No, absolutely no pastiche

SE: But if the études you were set were not pastiche, did they set global aims and ends for each individual?

DS: No. An étude means specifying the sorts of techniques you would use. That doesn’t necessarily pre-determine the musical outcome. It’s the same in my own teaching now; you introduce certain techniques but you don’t necessarily say anything about the kind of musical result that will come out. You get to feel that after a while through questions of sound quality. For example, when somebody says the sound quality isn’t good enough and attention is drawn to the way things move (and the majority of the class agrees that it’s not right as a consensus), you quickly latch on to what works and what doesn’t.

SE: What did they set you to do?

DS: You were introduced to techniques like looping and the different kinds of splicing but in a vague kind of way. What you come up with might at first be rather naïve and stupid until the whole range of activities of the group becomes apparent and you begin to realise that there’s more to this than meets the eye and ear. Then you break out and try more adventurous things. You would be sent off to do your prise de son with a Nagra tape recorder which you would take around Paris recording sound sources - quite fun but you didn’t know what the hell you were recording them for. I don’t send people to record sound sources to begin with in my teaching. You don’t know what kind of sound you need because you don’t know what you’re going to do with it. So I give students pre-recorded sounds to start with.

SE: What happened between 1970 and 1974 when you came back to the GRM as a composer rather than a student?

DS: I went to York University to start on a doctorate in music composition; I was searching for a studio to work in, and I couldn’t stay in France because my scholarship was for a year; I needed to go to a country where English was spoken so I could earn some money, and that meant finding a British university.

SE: So in 1974 François Bayle 5 invited you back. How did that happen?

DS: I can’t remember the exact train of events but I think that it was always envisaged that I would be invited back: I had completed the 2-year diploma in 1 year - even though I said I didn’t move very quickly, obviously from their point-of-view I had! I don’t think I pestered them; the invitation just came.

SE: Let’s talk about the origins of Pentes specifically. What were the first sounds that motivated the piece?

DS: Pentes comes directly from an earlier piece for amplified clarinet and tape called Gradual 6. What I did was to take the last movement of the tape part of Gradual, with one or two alterations, as the beginning of Pentes. I only had 4 weeks at the GRM. If you have to compose a piece from beginning to end you can’t start from nothing, and you can’t necessarily start just from crude sound sources, particularly using analogue techniques which would take a long time. So I had always envisaged when I was composing Gradual that that would be the beginning of Pentes. It was my goal to go to the GRM and start working on these sounds and to develop them in certain ways; I had certain fixed ideas about these sources which were developed in a very complex way and were totally remote from their origins. I was going to start by developing them at the same time as I was investigating the analogue synthesis possibilities to see whether I could possibly be in sufficient control of them. The Northumbrian pipes recording I took along with me because I thought they’d be a fruitful source of development from nothing. So I had a range of possible sources, perhaps as double insurance in case I didn’t like or couldn’t cope with the things that came through the synthesis methods.

SE: How long did it take to compose the piece?

DS: Only 4 weeks at the GRM. It was the fastest I’d ever composed and for that reason it was quite fraught. But I already had the first 2 minutes or so composed. So I had a starting point.

SE: Was that 4 weeks for the production of materials and then you remixed in York?

DS: No I did it all at the GRM.

SE: 4 weeks! Sorry, I’m taken aback!

DS: So am I! I couldn’t do a piece in 4 weeks now. I didn’t know that I was going to manage it. I might say I was a bit worried.

Techniques and approaches to material

SE: Anyway, you have the material. If you can remember those 4 weeks in a sudden leap back, what was a typical working day? What happened in those 4 weeks? You arrived, 2 minutes are prepared, you have other materials and you have ideas, what sort of ideas?

DS: I first started working on the drone materials as they were things I knew I wanted to develop. But I hadn’t been introduced to the various devices the studio had like a system of revolving heads which allows you to layer delays upon delays which could, in a very convenient way, create a wonderful ‘space’. The space that the pipes have when the melody comes in is due to that - it’s just a canonic effect. In addition Bernard Durr 7 introduced the synthesis possibilities to me. They had quite a complex analogue sequencer built on a patch-matrix system, which I must admit I never fully understood, but one could still get interesting things out of it. These sequences were recorded quite quickly and I realised that it would be easy enough because of the nature of the sounds to mix and incorporate them in some of the drone-based material. In addition there was the material taken from the end of Gradual. This was an immensely complex ‘explosion’ sound which was then superimposed on itself and stretched out into noise textures. So there were all these activities going on, I suppose, simultaneously.

SE: Describe the evolution of structures; you appear to start with a short term idea and then extend, working relatively organically.

DS: I work from a sound out into a section; I don’t necessarily know how big the section is going to be when I work on it; it may be quite a small one, but I don’t necessarily have a fixed idea about where that section will be in the finished piece. Although in this case I had a beginning, when I’m working on other pieces I haven’t necessarily known where a particular section was going to come. Having chosen the right place, I would compose complementary sequences specifically for the end of the structure.

SE: So you have what one might call a ‘local ear’ for what you’re aiming to do.

DS: Yes, very much so.

SE: How do you go about setting out your ‘global ear’ for the piece?

DS: Going back to the same point again, the problem is to find a context for the sounds. When you develop sounds in the analogue studio it’s not as if you can say “I’d really like this to be shorter” and compress it, or conversely to stretch it out; you don’t have those possibilities. Even with computers, it’s not always possible, so you have to find the right psychological spot for sounds and that gradually determines the dimensions of the piece.

I suppose all my pieces follow narrative curves, although they are usually complex ones. Pentes is probably the simplest narrative curve: you feel you have travelled through material and are somewhere else. There are not really retrospective references and I think if I hadn’t composed in a very direct way in Pentes I wouldn’t have been able to finish the piece. In other words, in this case it was a question of finding something logical to carry on from what had gone before, and continuing with the process; there’s not a complex referential system as there is in my later tape pieces.

SE: So in that respect, hearing your work Wind Chimes 8 there are very strong references between the beginning and the end.

DS: I wouldn’t say that Wind Chimes, is a very complex referential piece. It is more a straight through piece in the manner of Pentes. Some of my other works, Tides 9, for example, are much more complex from that point of view, but I suppose it has to be, being a longer piece.

SE: So in that respect your global strategies bear a strong resemblance to your local ones, they’re all really accretive and experimental.

DS: It is a chaining together of localities in the case of Pentes. I think that is one reason why it remains ‘popular’ - it is very easy to follow!

SE: It conjures up images, too. You tend to play that aspect down. Do you, in fact, have strong images associated with your music?

DS: I don’t know whether I did then, but I do now in terms of textures and objects. I don’t think I thought of Pentes in those terms. Probably I did have images of landscapes in mind: the pipes on the hill overlooking the coast or something like that, not just because of the melody but because of the space involved and the durations of events: the stretching out of time and the evolution of harmonies creates the ‘feel’ of the structure. I think I relate more to psychological imagery then concrète visual imagery; it is the strength and ‘feel’ of the event when it comes, psychological ramifications of slowness, time and evolution and these kinds of things. Of course, these do have visual connotations for people, or at least, listeners have impressions of being in circumstances which are not those of sitting in a musical structure.

SE: In other words, the feelings behind any possible imagery - psychological state imagery rather than the results of direct sensory input.

DS: Yes. One student once said to me that a sound made him feel as if he were drifting through clouds. If he had thought about it for a moment, he would have realised that it wouldn’t be possible for him to drift through clouds, and it would be a most unpleasant experience if he were able to. So, expressing it in that way is a statement of psychological feeling about a situation which is fancifully thought about in visual terms; it bears a very remote relationship to reality.

Perspective: the role of pitch and other strategies

SE: Since Pentes, many years have elapsed; you’ve remarked that you’re developing perhaps more referential strategies in your music. Does Pentes remain for you something ‘of the 1970s’? Is it linked to its time? How is it in your history now.

DS: I wasn’t terribly conscious of spectro-morphological thinking at the time; I didn’t have that theoretical basis 10. Technically speaking, I had an excellent control of analogue techniques by that time - this was my 3rd or 4th piece which had used tape. That doesn’t mean to say I composed better pieces: it was the ability to be on top of material and techniques which mattered very much. It was a sense of achievement.

There are other things about the work; one is the melody - a traditional pipe melody played by Andy Jackson, a student at York at this time - which is an attractive prospect when it comes, even when you know the piece. I took the piece around to François Bayle’s house the day after it was finished and played it to him. He said “very good, very good” in a non-committal way, “but the melody comes in too quickly”. I’ve always thought about this - does it come in too quickly? I was worried about putting the melody in because it was there in a way for a technical reason and not a musical one. That is, it’s the ultimate consequence of taking a harmonic development which is based on the drone of the pipes but which you don’t really hear as pipes. The pipe melody comes in and tells you something about the previous sounds. But for me it worked psychologically at the time; it seemed a good melody, rather stirring in its superimpositions. That was important because the way in which I dealt with pitched material and notes in that piece was a way to get back into them again.

SE: Back into them? Had you ever left pitched material? Gradual is a piece with an instrument.

DS: Yes, but there is virtually no note-based material in Gradual; there is not one single sustained note. It’s an electroaoustic clarinet. I had definitely moved away from those kinds of things. In the cello piece 11 and horn piece 12, although using mixed resources, drones and so on, I was obviously more involved in the tape side of it; had I been composing tape pieces I would have kept away from pitches. I was more concerned with objects and textures but the presence of an instrument obviously pulled the pitch material back.

SE: So you’re saying that Pentes brought you back to a balance between pitch and noise.

DS: It made me think that it’s the means of incorporating known intervals and tonalities into the broadest palette of sounds.

SE: Give me examples in your later works where that has borne fruit because I’m still a little bemused by the thought.

DS: In Wind Chimes, for example, a lot of the difficulty in putting the sections together results from pitch problems, in tuning things together, in getting into and out of stable pitch structures in order that you can attach importance to the way the pitches are being shaped. I could play on the piano the skeleton - the pitch structure - of the first two or three minutes. The point is that the piece is not actually heard like that. People are conscious of it but not conscious of it. Because of the kinds of activities and objects that are going on, the pitch structure remains a background prop. It is important because there are actual chord progressions in a sense, but where they occur and the way they are approached is rather unpredictable. They are an important part of the piece.

SE: But are you conscious of these pitch progressions when you are composing?

DS: Yes.

SE: Are you preconscious of them? Do you actually direct them or do they merely evolve?

DS: They are part of the larger form and they are directed.

SE: You know them in advance? After knowing the material you create them in advance?

DS: After knowing the material. A lot of the material might have a stable pitch; the problem is not just using the material, it is how you use the pitch stability that it is based on. Out of necessity this means making a decision about the kind of pitch that is to come next even if that pitch is not in the forefront of the focus of the listener. If you do it wrongly or if you choose one note as opposed to another then any resultant psychology of the piece will be different.

SE: This is a surprising aspect of preconception in your work. You may not hear the details but you have some idea of formal structure.

DS: This is quite important: the ideal aim of reduced listening 13 is that you assess the sound object for itself in that you examine it outside a context. But, of course, that is impossible; you are always thinking of the real or possible context. So you are making a judgement about the sound, how it starts, its time scale, whether it moves correctly; you have in your mind consciously or unconsciously a whole repertory of ways it might be related to other sounds. In other words you have a whole potential, muddled structure and set of relationships in your brain. So when I say I’m working locally that can’t be true; it must be a lie. I am working globally as well.

SE: But subconsciously or intuitively…

DS: Intuitively. You can’t have everything in the forefront of your brain at the same time - you’re thinking, concentrating locally on the details but in the background you have all the material lodged in vague sorts of ways, or the kinds of material that you might want to work with.

SE: But these are hidden strategies. They are more the strategies of the mind than of the conscious brain.

DS: Not necessarily, because I know I can bring them to the surface if I want them, as required. I think this is the important thing about teaching students. They can’t have that background to begin with. You’ve got to create the circumstances where it grows - and grows quite quickly.


SE: You have only ever wanted to incorporate new technology when in fact it has added to or allowed you greater freedom in what appears to be the continuing theme of your work. How do you see the new technology available since 1974 as having expanded the possibilities?

DS: A lot of people have always thought that when voltage control synthesisers came along I clung on to concrète techniques. People think you’re making a judgement about voltage control synthesisers. It’s that I realised I still had a certain distance to go without confusing the issue with different technology; certain things about them I wasn’t ready to work with, but when finally I had the Synthi 100 14 at my disposal, of course I used it. It’s the same with everything that comes along. I was working with complex FM, and with signal processing techniques at the GRM before others in Britain. It has a lot to do with opportunity and is not necessarily linked to desire. Obviously I have wanted to use the most modern technology and have done so sooner than most other people. I must say now that in terms of some equipment I’m glad I’ve held off from my own studio’s point of view, trying to avoid being saddled with the initial excitement of a product that comes on the market and which turns out very quickly not to be good enough in terms of quality.

SE: But the refreshing thing about your approach is that it is in a sense beyond technology. The technology should be translucent, not specifically detectable. In the case of Pentes, my own experience suggests that 90% of an audience think of it as an electronically generated piece and don’t actually perceive the concrète material within it.

DS: You always have to compose for other composers - yourself being one of them - quizzing yourself on just how much a particular technique surfaces at the expense of the musical intent. You do have to think of the music you’re composing on that professional level.


SE: Supposing next year Pentes were chosen as a GCSE 15 example work; supposing it were available to a much wider audience, what would the lessons you hope the young, perhaps 13 or 14 year old, composers might be able to learn? What might be the pitfalls and the gains of using the work in a much wider context?

DS: The wider context of what I would see as important is not necessarily for the composers; if you take GCSE as an example, were that to be done, it would be a signal that the listening experience was valuable.

SE: Would you want a much wider appreciation of the general techniques of electroacoustic music given the problems inherent in the MIDI generation of equipment? Could we get something out of Pentes of very great relevance to our education system in general across the board?

DS: Methods of working with materials.

SE: But that is not immediately apparent from the music.

DS: No, exactly; that’s why I concentrated on listening. The approach to the making of the piece as far as the composer is concerned is how you develop and relate sounds. There is no difference in essence between the way I developed sounds then and the way I am working with computer systems now. I would say as far as young composers are concerned, an important lesson is that procedures for developing sounds are not particularly different.

SE: You think it is the act of getting there that is what we have to learn, not necessarily the finished product?

DS: As far as composition is concerned, yes, because you can’t deduce from listening to an electroacoustic work the means of production. It is possible to deduce a means of getting there if you’re listening to a note-based or instrumental piece: you can diagnose what is happening and what is playing to a large extent. You can’t in listening to an electroacoustic piece diagnose the composing process. When you’re starting to teach electroacoustic music composition, it doesn’t do any good to set a lot of music to listen to because beginning composers can have no clues as to how the pieces were made. It doesn’t inform them to begin with. First-year students always ask me for pieces and I say I don’t want to give them any. I want them to learn these things for themselves and, in a short space of time, they will arrive at something which, while there might be echoes of it in the repertory, will have been arrived at without knowing the repertory. That is unusual in a ‘method’, as it’s not one you’d adopt in instrumental and vocal composition - you probably couldn’t, because there’s a repertoire already known to the student. But a lot of students coming into electroacoustic composition probably haven’t listened to anything electroacoustic very much and even if they had, they wouldn’t know how it had been made so it couldn’t influence them.


SE: How would you like Pentes to be remembered in your overall output?

DS: Not necessarily the best piece, but a good piece.


  1. Pentes was first performed on the 20th March 1975 in the Grand Auditorium of Radio-France.
  2. The GRM was founded by Pierre Schaeffer in 1948 (though under a different name); it is currently a part of the Institut National de l’Audiovisuel (INA) and is housed in the building of Radio France.
  3. Guy Reibel was director of the stages at the GRM. See his work Les Musiques Electroacoustiques (INA/GRM Edisud, 1976).
  4. See Schaeffer’s Traité des Objets Musicaux (Seuil, 1966) for a detailed discussion.
  5. François Bayle was at the time director of the GRM.
  6. Gradual (for amplified clarinet and tape) (1974).
  7. Bernard Durr; composer member of the GRM.
  8. Wind Chimes (tape) (1987).
  9. Tides (tape) (1984).
  10. For a fuller discussion, see Smalley’s ‘Spectromorphology and Structuring Processes’ in The Language of Electroacoustic Music (Ed S Emmerson) (Macmillan, 1986).
  11. Violonectomy (amplified cello, 2 synthesisers, tape) (1973) (withdrawn).
  12. Cornucopia (amplified horn and tape) (1973 rev 1978).
  13. ‘Reduced listening’ is a term used by Schaeffer and his followers to denote an apprehension of sound ‘for itself’ without reference to an origin or cause, real or apparent.
  14. The Sythni 100 was the largest of the voltage controlled synthesiser range produced by EMS Ltd in the 1970s (the smaller VCS3 and the Synthi A were also widely used).
  15. The new GCSE school examination is set at the end of the fifth year of British secondary education (ca 16 year olds). The music syllabus includes modules on ‘Composing, Listening and Performing’ and may include electroacoustic music (as well as other types of music not previously encountered in the school curriculum).
… a conversation between Simon Emmerson and Denis Smalley, which took place on the 29th January 1989…