Martin Wesley-Smith was so much more than just a composer. He was a proud family-man, an inspirational teacher, a passionate joiner of causes, a political and environmental activist, an indefatigable tilter at bureaucratic windmills, a world figure recognised as a pioneer in so many areas of music, and a loyal friend.
In 1998, the citation for his Order of Australia award (AM) lauded the public figure; it cited his “services to music, as a composer, scriptwriter, children’s songwriter, lecturer, presenter of multi-media concerts and a member of various Australia Council boards and committees”.
More than that, he was my closest and longest-surviving composer friend and colleague. Until late yesterday afternoon, when he died peacefully in his home in Kangaroo Valley, NSW, after a ten-year battle with cancer.
Martin Wesley-Smith. Photo © Bridget Elliot
Martin and his twin brother Peter should have become pillars of the Adelaide Establishment. Their father Harry was Academic Registrar of the University of Adelaide and their mother Sheila presented the much-loved ABC radio program Kindergarten of the Air for many years. (She died in 2010, just shy of her 94th birthday.) They had two other sons, Jeremy and Robert.
Martin married the television personality Ann North, co-creator of the children’s program Here’s Humphrey! Their hippie-like marriage in a registry office was front page news, as was the birth of their first child, Jed. By then, most Adelaide folk assumed that the man in the bear suit was actually Martin Wesley-Smith, who by that time was writing songs for ABC children’s radio songbooks and the like.
In the late 1960s, along with Keith Conlon, two of the brothers appeared on the folk-protest circuit as The Wesley Three. It was the Vietnam era and the twins were called up, but evaded military service by imaginative means, mainly by continuing their academic careers. Peter took up law and eventually became a professor at the University of Hong Kong. Martin stayed with music and studied composition at Adelaide University with a variety of teachers, among these Peter Maxwell Davies, Peter Tahourdin, Sándor Varess and Richard Meale.
Around this time, the entrepreneur Derek Jolly purchased a Moog Synthesizer for his recording studio in North Adelaide. Teachers and students from Adelaide University were given access to it. Martin was hooked. Before long, he had produced his first major electronic composition, Vietnam Image (1970), which drew together two of his long-lasting passions, vivid electronic sounds and political commentary.
He left Australia to undertake his Doctorate at the University of York, in the UK, where he worked with noted music educators like Richard Orton and John Paynter. He could have stayed in London to become a professional banjo-player but in 1974 he was lured back to Sydney to create the inaugural Electronic Music Studio at the NSW State Conservatorium. He stayed there through thick and much thin for nigh on 30 years, drawing together a devoted band of acolytes who thought little of drawing loud-speakers down cliff-faces for community events. In 1983, the final event of one of his performance groups Tree attracted over 10,000 people to a small beach cove at Wattanmolla in the Royal National Park south of Sydney.
By this stage two further strands had emerged in his creative imagination. The early choral piece Who Killed Cock Robin? (1979) – answer: pesticides – launched countless pieces decrying the despoliation of the planet. Largely at the urging of his Darwin-based brother Robert, an agronomist and political activist, the twins were drawn into the universal movement for political self-determination for Timor Leste. Kdadalak: for the Children of Timor (1977), for slides, tape and live instruments, was the first commission of the Seymour Group and introduced a series of pieces which culminated in the ‘documentary music drama’ Quito (1994) about a young Timorese schizophrenic. This was awarded the Paul Lowin Award that year and became a platform for The Song Company, who performed it throughout Europe, Asia and in Australia.
For two decades, The Song Company became a kind of ‘personal instrument’ for Martin Wesley-Smith who created a multiplicity of works for a multiplicity of contexts. Many of these vocal/choral works bore texts by Martin’s twin brother Peter whose witty puns and word-games soon found another port for the creativity of the twins: the verbal adventures of Lewis Carroll and his literary creation, Alice in Wonderland.
Inspired by the Broadway pieces of Stephen Sondheim, Lewis Carroll exploded on the Adelaide Festival stage in March 1986, as Boojum! was premiered in the presence of Queen Elizabeth II and her spouse. She was more bemused than amused, he got the references to twins, etc. The two-hour musical fantasy had a minor career in Australia but more success in San Diego and Chicago. Boojum!’s re-appearance in Adelaide in early July this year confirmed what many of us thought 30 years ago, that it is one of the true masterpieces of the Australian stage. It must now surely have a larger life around the country.
Peter Wesley-Smith, Martin Wesley-Smith, Vincent Plush and Robert Wesley-Smith. Photo courtesy of Vincent Plush
In 2000, Martin Wesley-Smith left the Sydney Conservatorium to live with his twin brother in (semi) retirement at a large ranch-like property just outside Kangaroo Valley, the picture-perfect hamlet in the NSW Southern Highlands. He lost no time in helping set up a concert series for the Kangaroo Valley Remexio project supporting a small Timorese village. In September 2014, the three surviving Wesley-Smith brothers were awarded the Order of Timor Leste in Dili.
So, from children’s songs to biting political music theatre, from multifarious works for solo instruments and computer-generated tape sounds, from huge choral works celebrating the still-oncoming Republic to Indigenous determination, to small vocal ensemble pieces for friends and colleagues in Kangaroo Valley, Martin Wesley-Smith was the consummate and model composer, capable of creating truly memorable tunes and attracting audiences far beyond the rarified air-conditioned world of the concert hall. His sincerity, wry sense of humour, cheerful curmudgeonly grumpiness and enormous heart will be missed but cherished as a cornerstone of Australian culture at many levels.
Martin Wesley-Smith is survived by his twin brother Peter and his older brother Robert, and his former wife Ann North, and their three children, Jed, Olivia and Alice. Following a private funeral in Kangaroo Valley, there is likely to be a more formal celebration of his life and legacy in the weeks ahead.