Decibel new music ensemble’s Artistic Director gives insight into an electro-acoustic-inspired programme.

Composer and concert pianist Roger Smalley (1943-2015) spent the majority of his adult life in Perth, Western Australia where he taught composition at the University of Western Australia from 1976 on the invitation of Frank Callaway. On his retirement in 2007 he left Western Australia to live in Sydney.

The legacy he left to Australian music is hard to quantify, but it is significant. Smalley came direct from the burgeoning European scene, and made significant contributions to Western Australian musical life through his composing, virtuosic piano performances, concert programming and conducting for ensembles such as the WASO Twentieth Century Ensemble. In many ways, he is the father of late 20th/early 21st-century music composition in Western Australia: the University of Western Australia began its music degree in the 1970s and Smalley developed the composition school within that.

Before he came to live in Perth, Smalley formed part of an important electro-acoustic quartet named Intermodulation, from where this concert borrows its name. Founded in 1967 with Tim Souster (viola) and musicians Peter Britton (percussion) and Robin Thompson (reeds), this was composer-performer group was inspired by the likes of AMM, Soft Machine, The Who and Cream, Terry Riley’s work In C, performances by Cage, Cunningham and Cardew and the earliest performances of Stockhausen’s ensemble (Souster, 1977). Smalley described Intermodulation as a “four-person live electronic improvisation type ensemble”. Almost every concert featured at least one piece by a composer in the ensemble, and all members were adept with electronics, which included using synthesizers and other electronics to change the instrumental sounds.

After a premiere performance in 1970, the group performed three BBC Promenade Concerts and undertook a European tour that included a performance at WDR’s 7 Tage Elektronische Musik in June 1972 along with the Stockhausen Group, Terry Riley and La Monte Young (Emmerson, 1999). The group performed their last concert in 1976, just before Smalley moved to Australia, but he didn’t continue with electronic music for long after that, apart from a few small-scale pieces for instrument and electronics. Smalley didn’t feel this music had a relevance in Australia, stating “I had to undergo a fairly severe period of thinking, ‘What am I going to do next?’ If I was going to write something which was going to mean anything to the Australian public, I obviously couldn’t do this sort of music”.

But times have changed. Thanks to his legacy, this sort of music is thriving in Western Australia. The works chosen for this concert all involve electronics in some way, as all Decibel concerts do. Decibel is not unlike Intermodulation in its make-up and intent; four of the six members are composers as well as performers, we have the same instruments, we improvise, and we create and perform works that bring electronic and acoustic instruments together. Given that Decibel members Cat Hope, Lindsay Vickery and Stuart James were students of Roger Smalley, that may not be suprising. Smalley was a mentor, a supporter of and inspiration to those who wanted to engage with new music. He epitomised the benefits of being a ‘performing composer’ with his pianistic brilliance and exacting notational style.  Whilst the style of music changed when he came to Australia, it was fed by this background in experimentalism and imagination.

Decibel’s concert has involved considerable research that has resulted in new performance editions and reconstituted electronics. It includes the Australian premieres of Transformation (1968) for piano and electronics, and the monumental 45-minute work written for Intermodulation, Zeitebenen (1973) for four instruments and quadraphonic tape. It also features the first performance of Smalley’s only solo tape work, Dijeridu since it was premiered in Perth in 1974, as well as works originally written for the Australian ensemble Flederman (Impulses, 1986) and the important piano and electronics work, Monody (1971-2). Decibel is joined by special guests Pedro Alvarez, Adam Pinto, Bruce Thompson and another student of Smalley’s, Chris Tonkin.

Decibel performs Intermodulation on June 7 at the State Theatre Centre in Perth, Western Australia, presented by Tura New Music as part of their Scale Variable series



Souster, T. (1977) Intermodulation: a Short History. Contact 17 (Summer 1977) p 4
Emmerson, S. (1991) Live electronic music in Britain: three case studies, Contemporary Music Review, 6:1, p193
Ford, A. (1993). Composer to Composer -‐ conversations about contemporary music. Sydney: Allen &
Ford, A. (2003). The Music Show – Roger Smalley.