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Martin Wesley-Smith - Integrity in Australian Music Education.

Andrew D. Lyons
Composition Unit
Sydney Conservatorium of Music
The University of Sydney
Sydney NSW 2006 Australia


An historical review and primary source concerned with the distinguished Australian composer, Dr. Martin Wesley-Smith. Following a brief historical survey of the composer's life and interests, as it relates to certain of his works, transcribed selections from an interview conducted on Friday, June the fourth, 1999 are presented. Topics discussed include freedom of speech, artistic integrity, and tertiary music education policy.


Australian Composer, Electronic Music, Music Education, Sydney Conservatorium Of Music

1 Introduction

"As a composer, Dr. Martin Wesley-Smith's main interests are computer music, audio-visual works and choral music, although he has also composed chamber music, orchestral music, children's songs, music theatre, and music for film, revue etc." It is 25 years since Martin founded the Sydney Conservatorium of Music's first electronic music studio. As the year draws to a close, Martin's contribution to the culture of twentieth century Australia may in this area be regarded as pivotal. It is however indicative of a broader contribution to Australia's cultural life that in 1998, he was admitted as a Member (AM) in the General Division of the Order of Australia for services "to music, as a composer, scriptwriter, children's songwriter, lecturer, presenter of multi-media concerts and a member of various Australia Council boards and committees."

2 Background

2.1 Early Electronic Music Research

Martin began his interest in Electronic Music whilst studying music at Adelaide University in the late sixties. At that time the first Moog III to be brought to Australia was being made available to the University by Adelaide businessman Derek Jolly. In 1970 Martin completed his first electronic piece "Vietnam Image". Of this piece Martin says, "At the beginning of that conflict, I accepted, unthinkingly, what my elders said about stemming the red tide. But later, as a conscript (deferred), I studied the situation and came to believe that America's (And Australia's) stance was morally reprehensible and could not be supported on any grounds. It was a time when Australia and I were growing up, both realising that we did not have to be dependant on others and could and should, make up our own minds But we had to break the shackles - in my case with the conservatism of both my upbringing and my musical training."

It is of interest to note some of Martin's Ideas in 1972 as presented to James Murdoch in an interview situation:

"Im interested in extending contemporary improvisation procedures (as in Hansard Music), and want to find ways of bringing contemporary music in a meaningful way to much large audiences than at present. This will entail working with film, which I intend to do later. It also entails going to the grass roots: working with children, not necessarily composing for them, rather composing with them, studying and learning from their own compositions and music making. And Im still keen on Jazz, and I keep tabs on contemporary developments in pop music. We must take the products of contemporary music's ivory tower researches and bring them into the lives of the people, losing, in the process, the ivory tower image. If man's metaphysical side is to change so that he can see his rapidly changing physical world in a relevant and meaningful light, the trigger must come mainly from contemporay art; and since music, before film, was always the most powerful art, it must bear the greatest onus, probably allied with film. In my opinion, pop music, jazz, contemporary instrumental and vocal, and electronic music are all equally relevant in today's sound world, and the composer must take account of them all."

In 1971-1974, Martin pursued postgraduate studies at the University of York in the United Kingdom. At this time his composition tutors included Peter Maxwell Davies and Sandor Veress, whilst his Doctoral supervisor was Richard Orton.

Upon returning to Australia in 1974, Martin became the first lecturer in electronic music at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. With a $5000 budget, Martin established an electronic music studio which consisted of two borrowed Rola tape recorders and a Putney VCS3. At this time Martin actively pursued audio visual composition, and environmental events, and free form composition. Under Martin's supervision the studio soon became a focus for electronic music composition both in Sydney and in Australia.

2.2 watt and TREE

In 1976 Martin initiated the electronic multimedia performance collective, watt, which has since then presented over 150 new works. From its very early days Martin's works for watt have been concerned with the Indonesian annexation of East Timor in 1975. A watt touring group performed his collaborative work Kdadalak (For the Children Of East Timor) at the "Music Today '78" festival in Tokyo, Japan. Many sounds for the piece "Japanese Pictures", composed in 1981 were collected at this time.

In 1978, Martin was invited to participate in the Ashes of Sydney Festival by composer Greg Schiemer. For this festival Martin screened a film by George Gittoes -"The Rainbow Way" - for which he had composed music. Following thee success of that particular piece all involved resolved to do more outdoor events. Later that year, "Sunfish" was held at the Dawn fraser swimming pool in Balmain involving dancers, flares, underwater swimmers etc. At this stage an organisation was formed by the name of TREE (Theatre Reaching Environments Everywhere)

From 1979, watt was involved in the large outdoor theatre events organised by TREE at Wattamolla Beach in the Royal Sydney National Park. These events involved photographic projections, cinematographers, dancers and music performed live by watt or composed and controlled during performance by Martin and Ian Fredericks with whom he has worked closely since the founding of watt. Martin speaks of these days fondly, describing a cultural environment characterised by incredible activity, and a spirit of adventure which closed off at the beginning of the 1980s.

The first of these events was called "The Rosella Sisters and The Rainbow Eel", the second, Wattamolla Fire Dream(1980), "Echoes and Star Tides"(1980) and the third "Echoes and Star Tides"(1981). From the last of these events, "The Unfound Land" in (1983), which incidentally involved 120 performers, Martin drew music and photographs to create the mixed media work "Wattamolla Red".

2.3 Fairlight and Clearlight

In 1980, the Sydney Conservatorium's first Fairlight CMI arrived and throughout the 1980s, the Fairlight CMI was the main instrument of choice for Martin and many other studio users. The Sydney Conservatorium was in a favourable position in relation to its Fairlight equipment due to the proximity of the company and the tendency for the studio to be involved in research work that proved a valuable development ground for Fairlight. Perhaps as a consequence of this, in 1986 Martin established, at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, China's first computer music studio which included a Fairlight SeriesIIX CMI, and was dubbed, semi-seriously, "The Father of Chinese Computer Music".

Whilst multiple slide projections on numerous screens had characterised the nature of many of the "happenings" that were organised during the 1970s, by the 1980s this kind of performance was giving way to more focused visual presentations in conjunction with music. This was precipitated largely by the acquisition in 1983 of an Apple][e-based Clear Light Superstar audio visual control system for precise control of nine slide projectors in synch with tapes of electronic music. Many of Martin's works during this time involved this system.

2.4 East Timor

One such piece developed using the Fairlight CMI and a prototype version of the Fairlight CVI, Computer Video Instrument, was the piece VENCEMEROS! This piece initially began as a re-recording of the piece Kdadalak, however following the Hawke government's failure to honour its campaign promise to pressure the Indonesian government to withdraw from East Timor once elected in 1983, it developed into a seperate piece. Named after a poem by Francisco Borja da Costa, the East Timorese resistance poet shot by Indonesian troops during the 1975 invasion, VENCEMEROS! has recently been re-worked for presentation using Macromedia Director running on an Apple Macintosh platform.

Featured in this piece is the poem "Streams", by Francisco Borja da Costa:

Streams flowing together become rivers. Rivers increase, whatever opposes them.So must the children of Timor unite, Unite against the wind blowing from the sea.The sea wind whips the kabala Whips our backs bloody.Makes our tears roll down, our sweat flow down. Sucks the fat of our earth, the fat of our bodies.Streams flowing become rivers CHILDREN OF TIMOR-UNITED RECLAIM OUR LAND!

2.5 Lewis Carroll

Along with the writing of Lewis Carroll, the topic of East Timor has been a re-occuring feature in much of the work of Martin and his twin brother Peter Wesley-Smith. In 1986, at a performance attended by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II at the Adelaide Festival of the Arts, the full length choral music theatre work Boojum was presented. Featuring a libretto based on the Lewis Caroll poem "The Hunting Of The Snark" by Peter Wesley-Smith, Boojum represents Martin's longest choral work to date, at just under two hours in length.

Boojum concerns itself with the life of Lewis Carrol, and reworks "The Hunting Of The Snark", to add a contemporary Australian flavour to what is essentially the work of a nineteenth century clergyman. The incorporation of uniquely Australian content also features in the works, "Songs of Australia," and "Visiting the Queen." An example of specifically Australian content may be seen in a passage from Boojum during "What I Tell You Three Times Is True":

"Orstrylier, jeez I love it - galahs, wombats and dingoes while above it the stars from the Southern Cross are beaut, like the sheilas - and that reminds me of the pleasures of a mallee root. Orstrylier, jeez its great - wattle, blue gum tree - I want me a little mate, not the Boojum. What'll do for a bite for the crew? Muffins wont - but maybe a great big jar of flamin' Vegemite. All the sheilas are callin' me in vain, like Violet Crumble and Salvation Jane - strike me pink! I want a floater with tomater sauce - I'm the butcher from Wagga bloody Wagga!" What the Queen would have made of such dialogue or the selections from Lewis Carrol's own letters, detailing his special interest with photographing naked little girls may only be wondered!

It was originally intended that Boojum would contain several audio-visual sections, but for practical purposes these were ommited from the performed version of Boojum and rather completed as a seperate piece called Snark Hunting 2. The original Snark Hunting, a piece for Trombone and Fairlight was first performed in 1984. Other pieces concerned with the works of Lewis Carrol include Snark-Hunting, Songs for Snark-Hunters and Dodgson's Dream.

2.6 Recent Works

Having taken up a position in 1988 as the Rayson Huang Fellow at the University of Hong Kong Martin was subsequently offered the chance to lecture there full time in 1994 and 1995. This was followed in 1997 by a Fellowship from the Australia Council that allowed Martin to devote his energies to the development of new works during 1997 and 1998.

One of these new works is the Electronic Music theatre piece "Quito", which concerns itself with Schizophrenia and the fate of an East Timorese refugee who eventually died by his own hand. This work joins Kadadalak, Balibo and Venceremos, as works of Martin's concerned with the Indonesian occupation of East Timor. Martin was subsequently awarded the Paul Lowin Song Cycle Composition Award for Quito, and Tall Poppies Records won the Best Recording of an Australian Composition award in the 1997 ABC-FM Recording of the Year Awards for its recording of the piece. Last year Wesley-Smith was also awarded a Special Award for Music in the 1998 Michele Turner Writing Awards, awarded by the East Timor Relief Association, for Quito.

2.7 Discography

Martin's complete discography includes the following works: Animal Farm, Another Case, Balibo, Beta-Globin DNA, Boojum!, Bottom En, Clap Your Hands, Dah Dit Dah Dah, Electronic Study No.37(b), Finnegan Wakes, For Bass Clarinet & Tape, For Clarinet & Tape, For Marimba & Tape, Freddie the Fish, Granny Gurble's Herbal Tea, Grey Beach, Heather Frog, I'm a Caterpillar of Society, I Feel Sick, I'm a Slug, I'm Hot, I'm So Hungry, I'm Walking in the City, Interval Piece, Japanese Pictures, Last Tango, Little Tommy, Little Tommy Suck-a-Thumb, Long Gut, A, Media Music 1, Mister Thwump, Odd-Job Song, The, Pat-a-Cake, Pip, Quito, Quito, Blown by the Win, Riffs, Ring Ring, Running to the Corner, Shut the Gate, Snark-Hunting, Snark-Hunting 2, Tango, Three Coffins for Paganini, Three Little Piano Pieces, various tape parts, Vietnam Image, Waltz, for Aunt Irina, Wattamolla Red, Weathe, When We Are Old & Gay, White Knight & Beaver, Who Killed Cock Robin?, Who Stopped the Rain,

3 Interview

3.1 Self Expression

Martin's interest in both politics and electro acoustic audio-visual works is indicative of his pluralistic approach to art and music and his vision for a creative future free from fear. He says of the western concert tradition, "While I think that there are some magnificent works in the western classical tradition, there is nothing to suggest that that must be THE tradition that we all must bow to; there are going to be new traditions, and there are going to be things coming up that are going to be magnificent and as contemporary and as far removed from the western classical tradition as anything that you could imagine. And it may be something that comes from a blend of multi-cultural influences - or not. I dont know - it's not for me to say: it's up to the young students to show us what it is. I've got to continue trying to express in what I do my relationship with the world, and my thoughts about the world, which I do perhaps a lttle more overtly than some composers ..."

Martin's staunch advocacy of open debate was exhibited in his December 24, 1998 article in the "The Sydney Morning Herald" in which he questioned the reasoning behind the renovation of the Sydney Conservatorium's Greenway Building. "Let's stop, take breath, and consider all aspects properly. Let's consult widely. Consider all views, be they from experts or amateurs, and develop a philosophy of music education that will drive the design of something marvellous. Far better, in my view, to have happy people working in a purpose-built building than have disgruntled people in an inadequate building (much of it underground) on an inappropriate site where there's no possibility of future expansion."

When queried as to the current scope for free speech in University culture, Martin responded: "I think that it is very slight now. There was actually a letter in the paper yesterday referring to an article by Barry Jones a few days earlier where he was talking about how universities have lost their voice; a couple of academics had written in to say yes, well it was your government that caused universities to lose their voice, by forcing academics to spend more and more of their time as administrators and by cutting funds so they had to run extra courses to try and get students in etc. That whole process is contributing to this, but I also agree with him when he's saying, well, where are the outspoken independent academics standing up and arguing pursuasively in the media for particular points of view in particular various areas?"

"There's another factor in all this and ... that's that if you stand up and mouth off about something that's critical of the status quo then you get your head shot off ... but I keep saying that this is a University and not only do I have the right, I mean, I have this right in society generally, but particularly in a University not only do I have the right but the obligation to stand up and put my point across. Any other attitude has no place in a University - or in the University of old, anyway."

3.2 Integrity In Musical Expression

This pursuit of honest self-expression may be seen to be something valued by Martin in his musical composition as well: "If music has any use - other than for obvious reasons - it is to express the spirt of the age in such a way that in 40 years' time we should be able to listen to a variety of music in a social situation and enjoy it like fine wine or cheese, savouring its specific character: `That's Australian and it's late 20th century; it's more Sydney than Melbourne; and I hazard a guess that it's such and such composer.' ... Now that may be a naive and idealistic view, but I hope that that would be possible."

"I see very few composers who I feel are really honestly expressing what they want to do - we live in a world where if you're going to get commisions and performances and broadcasts and so on you've got to play the old politics, and the old politics applies in just about every field of endeavour. Unfortunately you've got to go to the right receptions, and you've got to meet the right people, and you've got to shave (if those people like people clean-shaven), and you've got to dress right etc. And some composers successfully play those games and as a result they get to be quite successful. Someone like Ian Fredericks, who never plays those games - has no notion of even how to begin to play those games - never gets very far at all. I think ultimately he'll get further than anybody else 'cause the music's intrinsically incredibly powerful. But he never gets any of the short term gains 'cause he doesn't play all that."

"So what I try to do is do what I'm into at the time. I don't give a damn if someone says well you're not a serious composer or whatever, because I've been in the game a fair while and I've realised that even if you're very successful at it the rewards aren't much. So who cares? If you're going to do something then you may as well do something that you enjoy doing and which you feel has got some hope of getting out there and having impact on other people's lives - if that's what you're into."

3.3 Education

Given this particularly strong personal emphasis on integrity, it may seem obvious that Martin is accepting of the varied approaches taken by his students to the art of musical composition: "I can't pretend that I can tell kids what kind of music they should be writing. That is up to them. All I can do is help facilitate that wherever I can, assist them in any way I can, but not impose anything upon them. Now that's quite a different view to what some other composition teachers hold. They think there is a way of teaching composition and that you do this and you don't do that."

"There should be no pressure at all on idiom on these kids. They should be allowed to express themselves in whatever idiom they like, be it some kind of electronica of a dance nature or be it country and western or whatever. I find it unbelievable that in this day and age that they should feel unable to do so. They're worried about how they're going to pass their composition units if they don't write music that is acceptable to the rest of the unit, and I say well, no, you've got to go and write you're own music, and if it's not acceptable to someone then tough. But then that's pretty hard advice for kids who are really needing the marks etc. I can't get anywhere on that issue with some lecturers, so that the best we can do, I suppose, is to allow a number of composition teachers to express their own views somehow and hope that these kids can survive."

"I think that's interesting in terms of what's happening in Sydney at the moment: there are a number of alternative Conservatoria that have sprung up in the private sector, which includes the Australian Institute of Music and other bodies which are attracting a lot of students who are prepared to pay quite large fees in order to enrol, and these are people who are not necessarily the kinds of people who would get into THE Conservatorium. In the past they wouldn't have been catered for; now they ARE being catered for, and they're voting with their feet, and with their wallets, to enrol in courses which are actually in many cases far more relevant than those that this institution offers."

"This conservatorium started to realise - or at least the then director started to say well guys what are we going to do about this, I mean, we are under threat. The staff didn't want to know about it, basically, because there is this kind of classical born-to-rule mentality, silver spoon in the mouth thing: we do classical music, and classical music of the nineteenth century in Europe was the greatest expression of man's artistic expression; we are guardians of that and we are superior to everyone else. That's basically the attitude. And it's still the attitude. I keep saying we've got to ask these questions: `Should we be dealing just with that music or should we be widening our scope?' It may be that after looking at the whole question we will decide that we will stay doing exactly what we are doing. That's OK if that's what people decide they are going to do, but we haven't discussed that and the reason we do it is just because of this blind, unthinking, un-intelligent `That's what we've always done' mentality. "

"We might decide if we thought about it that we could offer a course which maybe had an emphasis in the classical music tradition but opened up to all kinds of things and started producing players, for instance, who were not only able to play Beethoven and Mozart but could also play Salsa and sit in with a rock band, no matter what their instrument, and be able to record for jingles and film scores and play with a live MIDI set up and so on. In other words, we give them the tools to do whatever it is that they want to do, and that may open up into whole new areas that we can't possibly think about; at the same time that might feed back into their classical playing, and give their classical playing new life. But that idea is not a popular one."

4 Conclusion

In the preparation of this paper, the author encountered a constant recourse to the word "integrity". Dr. Martin Wesley-Smith has a familiarity with the reciprocating relationship between integrity and quality in music composition and the courage to champion this integrity in hostile political environments.

Michael Brimer, of The Australian newspaper describes Martin's musical personality as "open-hearted, direct and rooted in basic values - in fact, a most attractive musical personality altogether. Apart from the attributes which one would normally expect to find in a serious Australian composer today, one comes across evidence of both his experience in composition for children and his involvement with Dixieland jazz. His architecture is satisfying and his gestures are convincing."

David Gyger of Opera Australia describes the works of the Wesley-Smiths as a "genuinely innovative, undemandingly popularist, satirical musical theatre genre that is unmistakably Australian and thoroughly entertaining; and one that is at the same time intermittently spiced with explicit concern for larger issues such as the environment, the Indonesian rape of East Timor and the absurd trivialising values of commercial television."

It is these qualities and their recognition en masse which ultimately guarantees Martin a warm place in Australian Music history. In the meantime it guarantees him a warm place in the hearts of all those who value such qualities.

5 Bibliography

Murdoch, James. "Australia's contemporary composers." Sydney: Macmillan, 1972.

Wesley-Smith, Martin. "Wattamolla Red - Electronic Music By Martin Wesley-Smith." Sydney: Tall Poppies, TP072, 1995

Wesley-Smith, Martin. "Boojum!" Sydney: Vox Australis, VAST 010-2, 1992