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Sources / scènes Denis Smalley

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If an image is worth a thousand words, Sources / scènes now testifies that a sound is worth a thousand images.

Sources / scènes

Denis Smalley

IMED 0054 / 2000

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About Sources / scènes

The idea of a principal sound source as provider of the central material and concept unites three works on this CD, and is embodied in their titles — Tides, Empty Vessels, and Base Metals. In each case a characteristic sound acts as a central reference as well as ‘irrigating’ the piece. But it also inspires and guides the choice of other sounds and the play of relationships among them, thereby influencing musical form. In Empty Vessels it is the sound of air resonating in large garden pots along with recordings of the surrounding environment. In Tides it is two water recordings — a closely recorded water texture which furnishes the ‘pool’ sequences, and a recording of the approaching sea which gives the second movement (Sea Flight) its wave forms. Finally, in Base Metals, the resonances of a family of metal sound sculptures provide the rich reservoir of colorful sound spectra which enable harmonic and timbral evolutions.

This idea of sources and their musical development is central to the more abstract preoccupations of the composer’s agenda, as a vehicle for creating families of relationships, and as a means for building musical logic and coherence. But the invisible world of acousmatic imagery also conjures up scenes in the imagination. Such ‘scenes’ can be quite close to reality. This is the case with Empty Vessels where nature, environment, the elements and broad exterior spaces are graphically featured, often without much alteration. However, recording techniques can considerably transform our aural view of the sounds: exaggerated magnification can turn peaceful bees into a threatening swarm, or allow us to perceive the finer timbral changes of raindrops falling on a hollow ceramic pot. Empty Vessels can be regarded a series of episodes which have a visual and experiential logic as a well as making musical sense. This is the closest my music gets to composition based on the soundscape. In Tides the water–based proposition is clear enough, but the more literal references are left behind as the concepts of ‘pool,’ ‘current,’ and wave–shaped morphologies are developed more abstractly. With Pentes the only clear link with the real world is the Northumbrian pipes, and so this piece is only scenic by analogy and metaphor — its spectral energies and motions. With Base Metals, too, the imagery is evoked by spaces and motion, quite remote from reality, although the energetic metallic impacts, which act as reference–points, are a type of sound we are all familiar with.

Quite noticeable in all these works is the absence of a human presence in the sonic fabric. With the exception of the pipes in Pentes, a few distant traces of human activity near the start of Empty Vessels, and possibly some reminders of instrumentally instigated timbres in Base Metals, the listener–spectator is left to observe and experience the scenes and spaces, alone. Between and beyond the loudspeakers virtual, metaphorical worlds approach and encroach in sonic flow, and are revealed for imaginative contemplation.

Denis Smalley, London (England, UK) [xi-00]

In the Press

An Itinerary Through Northern Europe

François Couture,, Monday, February 9, 2004

This is a casual listening path, an invitation to travel — not a guided tour per se, more of an itinerary, akin to Romantic-era travel literature. So this will be a listening itinerary, an invitation to discover a highly subjective selection of electroacoustic composers from a specific corner of the world. Our destination: Northern Europe.

France reigns over European electroacoustic music like a despotic queen. The persisting influence of Pierre Schaeffer’s work — even more than 50 years after the invention of what he has called “musique concrète” — and the gravitational pull of the Ina-GRM tend to hide from the rest of the world the work being accomplished elsewhere in Europe.

So let’s start our journey in one of France’s neighbors, Belgium. The country owes much of its electroacoustic activity to Annette Vande Gorne, the indefatigable animator of the Musiques & Recherches center. Her music displays a strong sense of serenity, something rare in the field of tape music. Tao, a cycle about the five base elements (air, earth, metal, fire and water), remains a classic. In it she explores every possible transformation of the sounds associated to these elements with an uncommon level of artistry and poetry. A student of Vande Gorne, Stephan Dunkelman has picked up on her grace, a grace he transmutes into movement. Often the result of a collaboration with choreographers, his works are driven by an inner force that substitutes the sensuality of movement to Vande Gorne’s philosophical — almost mystical — depth. His pieces Rituellipses and Thru, Above and Between, released on the album Rhizomes, deserve your attention.

A jump across the Northern Sea and we set foot on English ground. Birmingham has become an important creative node in electroacoustic music, thanks to the work of composer Jonty Harrsison and his Birmingham ElectroAcoustic Sound Theatre (better known as BEAST), a laboratory for experimentation and sound diffusion that has helped many talented composers in developing their art. Harrison’s music is an essential listen. His piece Klang (released on Évidence matérielle) ranks among the best-known electroacoustic works of the last 25 years. His precise sound constructions and his distinctive way of compressing sound matter into streams of energy put him up there with Pierre Henry, Francis Dhomont and Bernard Bernard Parmegiani. One can follow the traces of his techniques into the works of Adrian Moore, one of his students, especially in the latter’s fondness for putting simple sound sources (marker on a white board, tin foil) through complex transformations. Sieve, from the album Traces, uses a catchy playfulness to make this transformative process transparent.

Denis Smalley was born and raised in New Zealand, but he has been living in the UK since the mid-‘70s. His contributions to the acousmatic corpus and to the development of sound diffusion make him not only the contemporary but in a sense the acolyte of Harrison. Furthermore, the two composers share a similar interest in form and in the choreographed displacement of abstract sound objects through space and time. Wind Chimes (on Impacts intérieurs) and Base Metals (on Sources/Scènes) are good illustrations of the slightly cold yet fascinating beauty of his music. John Young, one of his students — and another New-Zealander who studied and now teaches in England), follows a similar approach, although he replaces Smalley’s elemental sound sources with more emotionally charged images. The works featured on his CD La limite du bruit offer to the listener several occasions to dive into his or her own memories, the sound of a squeaky swing or a creaky door turning into avatars of Proust’s madeleine. Time, Motion and Memory is a choice cut.

Scandinavian electroacoustic music is still too largely ignored on our side of the Atlantic, but empreintes DIGITALes’ catalog allows us to make a short stop to round up our peregrinations. Natasha Barrett has studied with Harrison and Smalley and has been involved in BEAST, but since 1998 she has elected Norway as her base camp. There, she has stepped away from the style of her teachers and has sought inspiration in the Nordic cold. Her Three Fictions, released on Isostasie, deserve many listens. And let me bring this listening path to an end with one of the key composers in electroacoustic music today, the Swedish Åke Parmerud, whose Renaissance (on Jeu d’ombres) pays tribute to the analog synthesizer without resorting to nostalgic tricks.


John Dack, Computer Music Journal, no. 26:3, Sunday, September 1, 2002

There can be little doubt that the electroacoustic medium makes a major contribution to the range of styles and genres of British contemporary music. British-based electroacoustic composers enjoy considerable success in international competitions and regularly receive both commissions as well as invitations to work in foreign studios. Unlike our European neighbors, there are no major centers comparable to the Groupe de Recherches Musicales (GRM), Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique (IRCAM), the Institute of Sonology, or the Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie (ZKM). However, this is not necessarily a disadvantage, as several excellent universities provide both the musical and intellectual environments in which electroacoustic music can be studied at undergraduate and postgraduate levels. It is particularly encouraging to note the many young composers who choose to travel to Britain specifically for this purpose. Britain, therefore, has a rich tradition (insofar as a new medium can have a “tradition”) of electroacoustic music. Pioneers such as Tristram Cary, Daphne Oram, Delia Derbyshire, or Maddalena Fagandini have often been overshadowed by their more illustrious counterparts in France and Germany; their activities are only now being given the serious attention they truly deserve. Despite this level of activity there is little evidence of a “school” of British electroacoustic music, and most composers can be situated without undue difficulty within the various strands of European music. Consequently, while it would be simplistic to claim that Denis Smalley, Jonty Harrison, and Adrian Moore constitute a British “school,” they do, nevertheless, accurately represent many of the preoccupations of electroacoustic composers in this country. For example, all three are committed to the public presentation of electroacoustic music — the composition of acousmatic music is central to each composer’s output. Mr. Smalley has championed the practice of diffusion as a vital aspect of electroacoustic music performance since 1976, thereby re-introducing aspects of performance practice to acousmatic concerts. Similarly, as director of BEAST (the Birmingham ElectroAcoustic Sound Theatre), Mr. Harrison has been involved in the development of a fiexible system for sound diffusion unrivalled in Britain. Mr. Moore is also actively involved in many areas of performance with technology. Lastly, each is an academic which, although not a prerequisite for electroacoustic composers, does emphasize the role played by higher education in disseminating acousmatic music in Britain.

The compositions on Denis Smalley’s Sources/scènes span 26 years (a remarkable feat in itself). His work and aesthetic falls within a broadly Schaefferian tradition and his own extensive writings deal with the materials, techniques, and aesthetics of electroacoustic music. The Schaefferian framework has been extensively elaborated and Mr. Smalley’s own concepts such as “surrogacy” and “indicative fields and networks” now provide composers, analysts, and musicologists with terminology inherently derived from the medium. This has facilitated both an understanding not only of electroacoustic music but also of its relationship to music in general. In other words: a true electroacoustic musicology. Pierre Schaeffer wrote: “It is the object which has something to say to us, if we know how to make it speak and to assemble it according to the kinship of its families and the similarity of its characteristics” (Chion/Reibel 1976, 57). I believe there are connections between French symbolism and many of Schaeffer’s theories; in Mr. Smalley’s works the sounds (whether recognizable or not) suggest correspondences as “things begin to talk amongst themselves” (Ibid., 47). The first track, Base Metals (2000), exhibits the hallmarks of Mr. Smalley’s language. His affection for attack-resonance sounds is evident (all the source sounds derive from recordings of metal sculptures by Derek Shiel) as is his ability to intervene in their resonances, to extend and develop them into objects of dynamic and spectral interest. Individual nodal components are isolated and given momentum and the energetic processes of sounds are delicately uncovered to reveal hidden textures and transformations. Initially, I found Empty Vessels (1997) the greatest challenge to my expectations. I first heard it during a concert at City University and the real-world sounds recorded from within large earthenware pots in the composer’s North London garden seemed a relatively unmediated documentation of an urban soundscape. However, thanks to this recording, I have heard the work many times and now can begin to appreciate the different acoustic environments through which the listener is taken. The subtle characteristics of the natural sounds are placed in carefully created acoustic spaces thus encouraging an interaction between the confined space of the vessels, the spaciousness of the outside environment, and large but enclosed reverberant spaces. This “play” of acoustic environments inhabited by intimate sounds produced by insects and rain, or smooth and distant ones like airplanes, is possible, of course, only in the electroacoustic medium. I hope to hear Empty Vessels again in the context of a diffused performance where the space of the venue can also participate in these relationships. It is difficult to remain oblivious to the manner in which space is articulated by sound in the real world after having heard it used in this way. This is a composition which transforms how we hear. For many enthusiasts of electroacoustic music, neither Pentes (1974) nor Tides (1984), the remaining tracks on the CD, need any introduction. Mr. Smalley’s control of fine detail and his unerring ear for directing both spectral and dynamic movement ensure that each work engages the listener. The behavior of water — both visual and aural — has long fascinated composers. There is consistency and yet constant variation. According to the composer’s liner notes, Tides was his first work in which source material was transformed by computer. There are two sections, each with distinct characteristics. The “pools” of Pools and Currents, for example, suggest connected sonic areas with individual characteristics of textural play. The water sounds acquire harmonic and gritty characteristicswhich are contrasted with “currents” propelling the music forward in fiuctuating waves of movement and rest. The final track, Pentes, is without doubt a classic of acousmatic music. The source material is mainly transformed instrumental sounds. After some minutes, the significance of the underlying drone becomes clear as a traditional melody, played on beautiful, reedy Northumbrian Pipes, makes a brief and unforgettable appearance.

The period of Jonty Harrison’s work is only slightly shorter than Mr. Smalley’s, stretching over 17 years. Mr. Harrison’s musical languages range from one based on abstracting features from sound objects to the use of sounds whose origins are often obvious and which inevitably imply cultural (and personal) meanings. As he remarks in the liner notes, his work includes the approaches of (Pierre) Schaeffer and (R Murray) Schafer. Klang (1982), like Pentes, has justifiably acquired the status of a classic acousmatic work. The discovery of the resonant properties of two earthenware casserole dishes owned by Mr. Smalley is the point of departure for the work (a detailed knowledge of a fellow composer’s kitchen-ware is one advantage of living in a relatively small country!). As the composer writes, “Klang… is the German for ‘sound’.” In addition to the onomatopoeic characteristics of the word in English it is worth adding that “Klang” in the original German usually implies some harmonic content and musical intention. It was also one of the basic elements of the Cologne studio and can be translated as “note” to differentiate it from the word “Ton.” (Along with “Schall” and “Geraüsch,” German seems to have a richer vocabulary in its number of words relating to “sound” than English does.) However, harmonic qualities are not the only ones exploited by Mr. Harrison. There are also brittle, fricative sound objects which possess their own energetic momentum. As a result, the resonant characteristics of an apparently mundane utensil are promoted to elements of a musical composition. Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote that poetry “strips the veil of familiarity from the world.” In a similar way, Klang alerts us to the fragile beauty of everyday sounds and their transformations. A common, and natural, progression for electroacoustic composers is to provide sound for installations. Track 3, Sorties (1995), originates in such a work. It contains abstract sounds as well as those heard in urban environments. Footsteps or the sounds of modes of transport such as trains and traffic suggest movement from one place to another but with little sense of arrival or repose. The action of travel is chronicled but we are left as temporary visitors to these sonic landscapes. The occasional presence of more abstract sounds, which are not developed for their own intrinsic properties, does little to stabilize the sense of unease. We hear rain and storms, footsteps on loose gravel (hardly a material for surreptitious arrival or departure), and despite a calming “pastoral” interlude with buzzing insects, birds, and what sounds like children playing, a feeling of gloomy restlessness prevails. Surface Tension (1996) exploits a dry, fricative sound vocabulary. The sources are sounds from packing materials, and in such unprepossessing physical objects Mr. Harrison once again encourages us to listen so that his sound objects “reveal ‘beauty’ in what is normally thrown away.” Often monophonic and sparsely textured, the fractured energies burst into individual trajectories. The sounds seem to express the frantic behavior of capitalist frenzy: buy a product, tear away the packing, and don’t consider where it came from or where it goes. Like the constant deferral of arrival in Sorties, it is in the process of unpacking and manipulating material that music is discovered. (This is, of course, a personal and highly speculative, if not fanciful, interpretation!) The fourth track, Splintering (1997), also reveals an equally carefully constructed series of transparent textures. However, the source materials in this track are the more resonant sounds of wood. As Mr. Harrison asserts, wood is “organic, ” and the sounds often retain that quality. The composer also plays on the concept of the “wood” as the place deep in our imagination where mysterious things can happen. Thus, he uses the sound metonymically to represent and evoke a whole range of connections — mythical, social, and environmental — with this one sonic symbol. The final work on this CD, Streams (1999), is a stereo version of a composition originally in 8-channel format. Once again, the vocabulary extends beyond the immediate musical contexts and natural processes of “evaporation, clouds and rainfall.” Individual lines merge and divide and water becomes inseparable from its spatial setting—enclosed and resonant, or open with spacious acoustic properties.

Adrian Moore’s works stem from 1994 to 1997. He is the youngest of the three and generously acknowledges his debt to the preceding composers. His first encounter with electroacoustic music was at a concert given by Mr. Smalley and as a postgraduate student he studied with Mr. Harrison and also worked with BEAST. Junky (1996), is described by the composer in the liner notes as “electroacoustic ambient,” although I feel the description of the work as “ambient” is somewhat disingenuous. The opening and closing sections contain slowly evolving harmonies but the variety of interjecting sound objects ensure the piece never descends into New Age navel-gazing. The second track, Dreamarena (1996), makes use of similar sound material, but the rhythmic patterns of Junky are replaced by a more amorphous structure punctuated by gestures which are either dry or reverberant. The third composition is, for me, the most successful. Study in Ink (1997) is a virtuosic demonstration of a sound whose potential is discovered by accident but is then exploited by a carefully controlled series of gestures and juxtapositions. This aesthetic is, of course, a recognizably French attitude toward acousmatic music (in the early 1990s Mr. Moore spent time in Lyon, France). The squeaking of a marker pen on a white board (the sole source for the composition) is extended and magnified with arching melodic profiles to build a repository of sound objects. Short sections of erratic movements trace complex trajectories through pitch-space. With track 4 we move from the single sound source to multiple sources (though precise identification is neither needed nor intended). Foil-Counterfoil (1997) employs closely recorded tin foil, bottles, and balloons. As in the previous work these source sounds are transformed into restless chains of objects, harmonic in content, grainy, fractured—they ensure we are rarely left in repose as our ears constantly seek for connections. The final work is Sieve (1994– 1995), the earliest on the CD. Sieve (a “radiogenic” work, according to the composer) uses electronically manipulated natural sounds. Mr. Moore asserts that by removing certain sections of the sound precise identification can be compromised. The listener begins actively to seek for recognition and occasionally realizes that only when sufficient time is allowed can any accurate recognition be attempted. Even then security is not assured and the sound object slips from our mental grasp and veers off to assume a new identity.

These three discs are excellent examples of the current state of electroacoustic composition in Great Britain and are welcome additions to the catalog of the empreintes DIGITALes label. The variety of tracks on each CD reflect the diversity of the composers’ languages and the consistent quality of their output. I recommend them highly.

The variety of tracks on each CD reflect the diversity of the composers’ languages and the consistent quality of their output.


Rigobert Dittmann, Bad Alchemy, no. 39, Friday, February 1, 2002


Geert De Decker, Sztuka Fabryka, Monday, January 14, 2002

This CD contains 5 tracks with a variety of musical compositions. Track 1 called Base Metals exist of waves of string and metal sounds. It is a creation of a soft atmosphere where single sounds dominates in a mostly tranquil environment. Yet the music is dominated by waves, it sometimes gets disrupted by strings and metal sounds which appears at once into the soft atmosphere and which gets slowly part of the waves. Track 2 Empty Vessels is a creation of a natural real life atmosphere using recorded outdoor sounds. You hear recording of birds, airplanes flying over, rain, bees… Slowly Smalley adds some musical tunes into the real life atmosphere which adds an extra dimension to the recordings. It sounds as the real life is transforming into the lowest forms of sounds. This CD comes with a cardboard box with a complete and full explenation how the music of each track is created. Therefore when we heard water sounds in track 3 & 4, we were able to read that this track is made with the sonic images of tides based on analogies between water and sound. Big words but how does it sound. It is a mix of tickering sonic sounds randomly repeated and wondering through each other. Some music is just to difficult to describe, also these two compositions. Track 3 is based upon pools and currents and is named Pools and Currents. The bubbles are created with the sonic sounds simulating an underwater reality. While track 4 is build upon waves and is named Sea Flight, recording of waves rea used as basis material and transformed into more electronical sounds that has lost almost its natural sound. For both the computer is used for the transformation of source material into the motions that is typical for these sounds. Pentes is track 5 and a very surprising composition the best I might say. Yet, again a difficult one to review. The basis material are transformed instrumental sounds, which again creates sonic sounds. The sounds are able to appear at once in moments of complete silent ness while some further the music is continuous with sounds waves. It is a creation of a landscape with several emotions ending in one single long note and fading away for ever in complete silence.


Henry Schneider, Vital, no. 299, Thursday, November 15, 2001

Denis Smalley is an electroacoustic composer from New Zealand who has spent a year in Olivier Messiaen’s composition class at the Conservatoire de Paris and is currently the Head of the Music Department at the City University of London. Smalley has received a number of international awards for his work over the past 25 years. The music on this CD is a collection of four pieces from his long career. Base Metals, Empty Vessels, and Tides are the realization of the idea that a principal sound source can be the provider of the central material. In Base Metals the source was metallic sound sculptures created by the artist Derek Shiel. The result is an ambient sonic journey through the cosmos. The sound sources for Empty Vessels are large garden pots from Crete and an olive jar from Turkey. This piece incorporates many other elements (birds, airplanes thunder, and rain) and is akin to Lustmords Where the Black Stars Hang. The sonic images of Tides are based on the analogies between water and sound. In the first movement Pools and Currents, digital scraping, bubbling, and squelching sounds surge with the ebb and flow of the tides. The second movement, Sea Flight, uses crashing waves of sound. The final piece, Pentes, brings into play loud bursts of sound, chugging rhythms, slow crescendos of chords, and small alien critters to achieve the sonic equivalent of slopes and inclines. All in all, an interesting release that is fairly accessible for this genre.

… All in all, an interesting release…

Pentes: A conversation with Denis Smalley

Simon Emmerson, SAN Diffusion, Saturday, September 1, 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 Francois 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…


Paul Rudi, SAN Diffusion, Saturday, September 1, 2001

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.

Sources/scènes, more than any other single disc, gives me a profound sense of the depth and history which electroacoustic music has achieved.

Spectro-morphological Diatonicism: Unlocking Style and Tonality in the Works of Denis Smalley Through Aural Analysis

Paul Rudy, SEAMUS Journal, no. 16:2, Saturday, September 1, 2001


MB, Testcard, no. 10, Monday, August 20, 2001

Musik & Kultur

Zipo, Aufabwegen, no. 31, Monday, August 20, 2001

Ein Quell der ungewöhnlichen Sounderlebnisse ist das kanadische Label empreintes DIGITALes, welches fernab reißerischer Methoden in fast wissenschaftlicher Akribie eine Serie mit elektroakustischer Musik von preisgekrönten Komponisten herausgibt. Alle vier CDs stammen von relativ jungen, in der Grauzone zwischen freier Improvisation und akademischer Komposition operierenden Künstlern. Die Klänge sind oft nach kompositorischen Gesichtspunkten einander einverlebt, bleiben aber wild und jederzeit überraschend. So kann man sich hier bedienen nach Herzenslust. Vielleicht etwas schnöde klingt Traces von Adrian Moore. Hier hört man zu oft die surrenden, schmachtenden Sauglaute eines Computers, der die reale Welt in sich aufnimmt und „Musik” herausspuckt. Clonky, aber eben auf ernste Weise; können auch Matthew Ostrowsti und andere. Grandios ist das Werk von Jonty Harrison, dem Leiter des elektroakustischen Instituts in Birmingham. Seine Sammlung von Stükken (fast alle um die 15 Minuten lang) verbindet befremdliche Geräusche mit Klängen derAußenwelt, ohne letztere als reine Projektionsfläche zu verwenden. Die Töne aus den verschiedenen Sphären interagieren und treten in eine Kommunikation. Stark! Die klanglichen Extreme in diesem Viererpack stammen von Denis Smalley. Er bricht mit den Konventionen der Akademika, wonach Töne zwar schräg und abstrakt ausstaffiert sein dürfen, aber bitteschön nicht stören sollen. Sein Werk scheut sich nicht vor häßlichen Momenten, harschen Brüchen und fast industriellem Lärm. Dabei bleibt alles dunkel wie das geheimnisvolle Cover der CD. Louis Dufort wirkt in seinen Stücken wie jemand, der die Regeln des Genres kennt und sie mit genauem Gehör exekutieren will, um hinter ihnen liegendes Potential zu erhellen. Die gelingt ihm am trefflichsten in der Komposition Zénith, die mit pochenden Tönen arbeitet, die sich gegen schrille aber auch flirrend-weichzeichnende Atmosphären behaupten müssen.


François Couture, All-Music Guide, Wednesday, August 1, 2001

The cover artwork of Denis Smalley’s CD Sources/scènes is in blue monochrome. It describes the composer’s acousmatic pieces very well: cold and mysterious. The works collected here span three decades and their running order invites the listener to move backward in time. Base Metals (2000) features sounds produced by artist Derek Shiel’s sound sculptures, but these are rendered abstract through electronic manipulation. The 1997 Empty Vessels was constructed with recordings made from inside large garden pots. The air resonating in them and the environmental sounds happening around them (birds, rain) are kept much intact by the composer. It creates a very original atmosphere. The diptych Tides is based on water sounds. It dates back to 1984, which means its detached dryness could be imputed to the digital technology available at the time. The two dark movements feature many simultaneous layers of sound, but while they succeed in creating suitable atmospheres, they don’t captivate the listener the way they should. Strangely, the 1974 Pentes feels less outdated. Using instrumental and synthesized sounds, it has a nice organic feel and features the drone of Northumbrian Pipes for harmonic modulations. This piece provides the only lighthearted moment on this otherwise sombre CD. In the end, Sources/scènes is a mixed bag of ingenuous and very ordinary works.

… cold and mysterious.


Jukka Mattila, Prospective Music Magazine, Sunday, July 1, 2001

Denis Smalley is an electroacoustic composer from New-Zealand, on this album concentrating on sound source material, featuring recordings based on metal and water sounds as well as sounds recorded in empty vessels. Smalley succeds in transforming the raw sound source material into very intriguing textures which often leave their abstract guise and take upon a calm, even a soudscape and ambiant form. The works here originate from 1984, 1997 and 2000, yet coming together as an accomplished, whole creation. One for large spaces and loud volumes. (9/10)

One for large spaces and loud volumes. 9/10


Tom Schulte, Outsight, Sunday, June 10, 2001

Smalley employs subtle, base sound types in his compositions. Be it “metals,” “empty vessels” or “tides” as on this CD, these become the primary textures for his minimalist canvas. This monophonic minimalism creates bare, stark, alien environments where the listener sends forth an ear as a curious and eager explorer always to return with newfound discoveries. (4/5)

… bare, stark, alien environments


Petter Ottosson, Fat Bankroll, Thursday, May 31, 2001

Här har vi ett samlingsverk av en mångfalt prisbelönt elektroakustiker, född i Nya Zeeland men bosatt i England och som grädde på moset också verksam som professor i musik och chef för institutionen för musik vid London City University. Han är tydligen också fadern till begreppet “Spektromorfologi,” som används för att beskriva ljudspektrats forms förändring över tid. Japp.

Kan då verkligen en sådan här dunderteoretiker åstadkomma något som inte bara är intressant på pappret? Faktiskt, men eftersom det är en “konstnär” som är i farten så underlättas förståelsen för musiken av att man vet hur det var tänkt och hur det är gjort. Och mycket riktigt så finns det en liten beskrivning av alla de processer och tankar som lett fram till de olika styckena på skivan.

Skivan innehåller musik från olika epoker i Smalleys skapade, komponerade under 26 års tid. Den inleds med ett nytt stycke som heter Base Metals, som är uppbyggt på resonansljud från metallkonstruktioner gjorda av konstnären Davis Shiel. Det är helt OK och tidvis skapas typiskt otäcka, vibrerande ljud. Riktigt bra blir det inte förrän under låt två, Empty Vessels från 1997, som är baserad på resonanser som uppstått i en grupp krukor i Smalleys trädgård. Både trevligt och läskigt och komplett med ljud från passerande humlor, fåglar och flygplan.

De två vattenbaserade delarna av Tides från 1984 passerar förbi relativt obemärkt, de går delvis i stil med Base Metals, men bär tydligare spår av datorbehandling. Det sista (och äldsta) musikstycket Pentes är konstruerat av mestadels transformerade instrumentljud, en också ljud som är helt syntetiska. Smalley lägger till detta harmonier av orgel/säckpipeljud från ett för mig okänt instrument som kallas “Northumbrian Pipes” och detta gör Pentes till det mest musikaliska stycket på skivan. Trots detta är skillnaderna i ljudbilden ganska små mellan de tidigare och senare kompositionerna, oväntat små med tanke på att det ändå skiljer 26 år mellan skivans första och sista låt.


Wolfgang Fuchs, Skug, no. 47, Wednesday, May 9, 2001

Elektroakustik sagen die Einen, Ambient die Anderen. Schwammige Begriffe, die aber doch das Spektrum des kanadischen Labels empreintes DIGITALes gut beschreiben. Verzeiht uns die Schubladen.

Wenn ich die Gemeinsamkeiten, oder besser die Parallelen der mir vorliegenden Veröffentlichungen auf empreintes DIGITALes beschreiben müsste, so könnte das mit der Umschreibung »Walk In The Park« eventuell gelingen. Gemeint ist damit der Verweis auf Brian Enos Parkbank-Aufnahmesessions, in denen dieser nicht unbekannte Vertreter der sogenannten Ambientmusik – unter welchem Aspekt hier Ambient beleuchtet wird, sei der Unvollständigkeit halber mal ausgelassen – Ausschnitte aus dem täglichen Treiben im Central Park mit seinem Aufnahmegerät konservierte und einer nachträglichen Studie unterzog, in deren Verlauf er jeder Klangprobe einen Wiedererkennungswert abringen konnte.

Bei Louis Dufort und Denis Smalley werden Bahnhöfe, Industrieanlagen und Flugplatzeinflugschneisen in den Klangraum aufgenommen bzw. dieser um jene Komponenten erweitert. Dieses konkrete Material wird aber nicht nur in zitathaften Einsätzen einem musikalischen Prozess zugeführt, sondern aus seinem ursprünglichen Rahmen herausgerissen, um mehr oder weniger manipuliert und veredelt in die Chronologie der aufgezeichneten Geschehnisse rückgeführt zu werden. Daraus ergeben sich abgeschlossene Klangreisen mit durchaus vertrauten Spannungsbögen – man stelle sich etwa eine spätnächtliche U-Bahnfahrt vom Wiener Stephansplatz mit Linienwechsel nach Floridsdorf vor –, die ein passives Hören (Klangtapete) sehr gut abblocken können.

Kompositorisch strenger und vielleicht auch arithmetischer gehen die Labelkollegen Adrian Moore und Jonty Harrison mit ihrem elektroakustischen Hantieren vor. Der 32-jährige Moore, ehemaliger Student bei Jonty Harrison an der Universität von Birmingham, gliedert seine Werke auf»Traces« grob in drei Klassen: »those verging towards the abstract«, »those focusing upon re-hearing natural sound-objects« –»Study in Ink« ist das Ergebnis einer musikalischen Studie eines Markerstiftes auf einer Tafel und die Auswirkungen des Austrocknens dieses Stiftes auf dessen Klangverhalten – und »the radiogenic«. Letztgenannter Kategorie weist Moore sein Stück»Sieve« zu, in dem er das eingesetzte Material von Information, Sound und Bedeutung in Bezug auf den Verwendungszweck zu entkoppeln versucht. »If one forces listening at the wrong moment, the clarity of the listening experience changes and something ‘musical’ can sometimes be heard”. Auch bei Jonty Harrisons»Évidence matérielle« steht der Interpretationsfreiraum für den Hörer in einem interessanten Verhältnis zu den vom Musiker intentierten Assoziationsketten. Manche Passagen klingen nach Herumirren auf Straßen zur Rushhour, aus unterschiedlichen Positionen betrachtet. Hinter den Kulissen schöpft Harrison jedoch aus einem umfangreichen Fundus an Tools, etwa aus Holz und Metall im Spannungsfeld zu rein elektronischem Instrumentarium.

Dieses gekonnte Reduzieren auf die akustischen Ereignisse an sich und das damit einhergehende Fördern und Fordern des Hörens macht das mittlerweile elf Jahre alte Label empreintes DIGITALes zu einer wichtigen Plattform für zeitgenössische Elektroakustik.


Richard di Santo, Incursion Music Review, no. 026, Sunday, April 29, 2001

In what is referred to collectively as the British Connection, empreintes DIGITALes recently released these three discs featuring the works of three prominent electroacoustic composers from the UK. […] Lastly, electroacoustic pioneer Denis Smalley’s Sources/scènes documents five acousmatic compositions realised between 1974 and 2000, thus covering over 25 years of electroacoustic research and composition. The first three pieces (Base Metals, Empty Vessels and Tides) are exercises in utilising single sound sources (metal, garden pots and water respectively). The final piece, Pentes (meaning slopes, inclines, ascents), is an early composition from 1974. It begins as a bustling synthetic landscape of bizarre sounds, cut-ups and explosive clusters; and yet it suddenly shifts into a quiet movement, where a drone gives way to a haunting melody on the Northumbrian pipes, and leaves everything quiet and still. Smalley’s disc probably represents the most dynamic of the three reviewed here; the sounds open up before your senses, become tangible, and carry with them not only an incredible momentum but very strong moods as well. Missing from many acousmatic compositions is the presence of mood, making suggestions and appealing to the listener-spectator’s emotions as well as his senses or his academic interests in sonic structures. Smalley writes in his liner notes that “quite noticeable in all these works is the almost complete absence of a human presence in the sonic fabric: the listener-spectator is left to observe and experience the scenes and spaces, alone.” However, this statement by no means excludes the importance of the listener’s response, rather it emphasises and elevates its importance. He further writes: “between and beyond the loudspeakers, virtual, metaphorical worlds approach and encroach in sonic flow, and are revealed for imaginative contemplation.” Sources/scènes comes recommended for the adventurous.

… recommended for the adventurous.


Ingvar Loco Nordin, Sonoloco Record Reviews, Sunday, April 15, 2001

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!


Tonträger: Hörtest

Sascha Karminski, Intro, Sunday, April 1, 2001

Smalleys stringente Arbeitsweise läßt ihn aus einer sehr reduzierten Menge an Klangquellen eine größtmögliche Bandbreite an Sounds erschaffen. Die Auswahl erfolgt nach strengen konzeptuellen Richtlinien; so wurden für Base Metals nur Soundskulpturen des Künstlers Derek Shiel verwendet, bei Empty Vessels gar nur Töpfe und eine Olivendose, vermischt allerdings mit den Umgebungssounds (Flugzeuge, Insekten). Tides hingegen arbeitet vornehmlich mit Wasseraufnahmen. Völlig aus dem Rahmen fällt dann aber Pentes, das aber auch schon 1974 entstand und auf elektronischen Manipulationen mit traditionellem Instrumentarium basiert. Bei allen Werken Smalleys fällt neben der Einheit von Konzept und Klang vor allem die Dichte der Klänge auf, die verdeutlicht, dass wir es hier nicht mit einem langweiligen Akademiker zu tun haben, sondern dass das Sounderleben an allererster Stelle steht.


TB, Black, no. 23, Sunday, April 1, 2001

Die charakteristischen Pappboxen der CDs von empreintes DlGITALes sind von weiten unvenwechselbar zu erkennen, und so fährt mir der Schreck schon jedes Mal in die Glieder wenn mein Chefredakteur das Promopäckchen auf unseren Redaktionssitzungen aus dem Hut zaubert Diese CDs sind für mich nie leicht zu rezensieren, denn es handelt sich um elektroakustische Musik, und das ist nichts, was ich mir mal eben zum Frühstück oder nach Feierabend kurz reinziehen kann Denis Smalley ist, wie die meisten Vertreter des Genres studierter Musiker, seine Herangehensweise an Musik ist — auch das ist genretypisch — eher akademisch und weniger sinnlich Drei der vier Tracks auf der CD haben, eine Grundgeräuschquelle als Ausgangsmaterial der Kompositionen Dieses Konzept ist mir aus der Noise-Musik von Aube vertraut und durchaus nicht neu. Hier handelt es sich allerdings nicht um Noise, sondern um ruhige Kompositionen. Das Stück Tides wurde am Strand aufgenommen, bei Empty Vessels wurde das Mikrophon im Innern von Vasen plaziert und Luft und Umgebungsgeräusche aufgezeichnet Base Metals wiederum beruht auf dem Klang von (na, was?) verschiedenen Metallen. Das Konzept von Pentes ist etwas anders gelagert Die Sounds sind abstrakter, konkreter und elektronischer und wurden durch das Verfremden von Instrumentenklängen erzeugt oder synthetisiert. Wie ich dieses Album nun bewerte? Nun von den Sounds her ist es durchaus interessant nur leider fehlt mir der Zugang zu solch “konstruierter” Musik und deshalb müßte ich schon in sehr guter Stimmung sein um die CD geduldig bis zum Schluß hören zu können


Klaus Hübner, Westzeit, Sunday, April 1, 2001

Denis Smalley veröffentlicht ein mehrteiliges Klangkonglomerat aus den Quellen der akustischen Umwelt. Base metals entwickelt sich aus einem streng naturwissenschaftlichen Konzept: das Basismetall tritt in eine Verbindung mit anderen Substanzen ein. Im Ergebnis, das Smalley präsentiert, kommt und gehen die Klänge wie die Schwingungen eines metallischen Korpus. Der imaginäre Sound besitzt einen metallischen Grundton, dessen Quelle nach der Bearbeitung kaum noch auszumachen ist. Empty Vessels geht einen Schritt weiter und integriert reale Klänge wie das Vogelgezwitscher und Flugzeuglärm. In Tides schlägt die Natur zurück: Machtige Wellen aus elekronischen Quellen spülen auch störende Geräusche an den Hörstand. Denis Smalley studierte Musik an verschiedenen Universitäten und beschäftigt sich intensiv mit Auswirkungen von elektronischem Sound in verschiedenen Aspekten.


Jacopo Andreini, All About Jazz Italy, Sunday, April 1, 2001

Musica concreta, acusmatica [per un approfondimento leggi l’intervista di AAJ a Eric Leonardson cliccando qui], ambient, un percorso a ritroso nelle composizioni di questo neozelandese che ha studiato qua e là nel mondo con grandi nomi della musica (Messiaen, Schaeffer) ed ha contribuito a sviluppare l’amplificazione sonora.

Registrazioni in cui l’uomo fa solo da spettatore, o quasi, in cui i suoni reali (soprattutto acqua) vengono lasciati fluire — perdonate l’evidenza del verbo — coi loro tempi, sovrapponendosi ad altri amplificati e/o processati elettronicamente. Vasi di ceramica (di Creta e da olive proveniente dalla Turchia, se per voi hanno un suono diverso), pezzi di metallo, pioggia, aeroplani, mosche, ronzoni, tutto preso e stratificato con ritmi da colonna sonora, per un ascolto sicuramente coinvolgente, ma imbastardito (male, per i miei gusti, poi chissà…) da sciabordate di synth armonizzato.

Si sente pesante la mano della storia, della tradizione e della conservazione della musica elettroacustica e concreta, poche storie, quindi gli appassionati adoreranno questo disco, presentato in una veste ricercata e dal sound perfetto, come se si trattasse di storicizzare il compositore (e magari questo è l’intento) che propone materiali risalenti a quasi venti anni fa come all’anno scorso dal suono e dalla coerenza invidiabile (salvo Sea Flight che esagera con la violenza e i synth, e inserisce una cornamusa sul finale, e fa assomigliare il tutto a una specie di pezzo con tempesta e quiete successiva a rappacificare gli animi). Oppure dalla monotematicità deprecabile (salvo l’altra parte del brano Tides, Pools and Currents, che suona possente e strutturato e quindi “giovanile”, anche se dubito che questa famiglia di musicisti/compositori ami sentirsi “giovane”).

I bicchieri ogni giorno di più sono a metà, a voi stabilire se pieni o vuoti. (3 1/2)


Andy Hamilton, The Wire, no. 206, Sunday, April 1, 2001

The disc by New-Zealand born Smalley, student of Messiaen and GRM, shows the same oscillation between electroacoustic and soundscape traditions as Jonty Harrison. Base Metals abstract from the resonances of a family of metal sounds sculptures while Empty Vessels transforms recording of air resonating in large garden pots while also capturing environmental sounds. An enjoyable addition to empreintes DIGITALes acousmatic series.

An enjoyable addition to empreintes DIGITALes acousmatic series.


Dirk Janßen, Soundbase Online Musikmagazin, Monday, March 12, 2001

Musik von Intelektuellen für… Intelektuelle? Sicher bin ich mir bei Sources/scènes da nicht, wenn dieses Werk über die Klangexperimente des Elektroakkustik Gurus Denis Smalley auch nicht für das Mainstream Publikum geeignet sein mag, aber dennoch Freunde von avandgardistischen Sounds und düsteren Soundtracks gleichermaßen ansprechen könnte.

Dem einem dürfte diese CD durchaus auch durch sein bedrohlich, pulsierendes Flair gefallen, wobei dies nicht veraussetzt, daß man sich intensiv mit den Motiven auseinandersetzt. Der typische Hörer solcher Werke versucht aber die Intention, die hinter den ‘Krachwogen’ und ‘stillen Momenten’ steckt, zu entdecken und zu verstehen. Hierbei behilflich ist — wie auch beim Werk von Adrian Moore — das ansprechende und erklärende Artwork. Zu den fünf Titel gibt es ausreichend Informationen, die neben den verwendeten ‘Instrumenten’ bzw. ‘Werkzeugen’ auch die Absicht des Künstlers offenlegen. Denn es ist nicht unbedingt offensichtlich oder leicht zu erkennen, daß z.B. beim Track Empty Vessels aus dem Jahr 1997 sämtliche Klangkonstrukte aus dem Zusammenspiel von leeren Behältern und Umgebungsgeräuschen entstehen, auch wenn der Titel beschreibend sein dürfte. Tides besitzt durch sein Zusammenspiel von Wasser und Klängen eine beinahe schon entspannende Funktion, ein Moment um sich von den Soundexplosionen, die einen bei Base Metals immer wieder hochschrecken lassen, zu erholen. Tip: Niemals auf dem Discman hören. Eine Austeuerung der Lautstärke ist nicht möglich, da hier der Begriff ‘Laut/Leise-Dynamik’ sehr streng genommen wurde…


Nicolas Chevreux, Recycle Your Ears, Tuesday, February 13, 2001

Denis Smalley is a composer of electroaccoustic music, active since the beginning of the 70’s, and currently head of the music department at the City University of London. The biogaphy that comes in this CD’s long booklet states that he has worked on numerous sonic experiments and has written several books on the aesthetic of electroaccoustic music.

This CD, released by the Canadian electroaccoustic label empreintes DIGITALes, is full of very abstract sound, of small sounds, of silence and of weird melodies. Clearly, this is music for people into both electroaccoustic and music theory. What can I write, then, that wouldn’t be a blatant insult at the academic work supporting this CD? Each part of this CD is focused on one primal material as source of sounds and as concept for the track. Then, sounds are recorded during processes in which the chosen material (metals, for example, for the first track) have a prominant place. Finally, electroaccoustic takes the relay, and you get, in the end, long track with a lot of silence and outbursts of tones and textures.

From my point of view, which is the one of somebody who hasn’t taken any class about electroaccoustic music, this CD relates strangely to some works of ambient artists present in the industrial scene. The ample aspect of this sound, the use of silences, the aquatic sound (on the two Tides tracks), a lot of atmospheres to be found here reminded me of some bands playing ambient industrial, like Ultra Milkmaids.

But then, this is also really music for scholars and I might miss the point totally. I would say that this isn’t an unpleasant record, but it really doesn’t correspond to the things I’m used to. Sources/scènes is probably a mandatory CD for Denis Smalley’s students and for fans of electroaccoustics, but the others should give the disc a try before betting that they will understand this music.

… full of very abstract sound, of small sounds, of silence and of weird melodies.

More Texts

Audion no. 45, Deep Listenings no. 21