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Martin Wesley-Smith: Merry Go Round

Wesley-smith / Australia Ensemble
Release Date: 04/13/2010 
Label:  Tall Poppies   Catalog #: 200   Spars Code: n/a 
Composer:  Martin Wesley-Smith
Performer:  Timothy Constable
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Australia Ensemble
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 1 Hours 11 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

The performances match virtuosity with narrative flair and have been very finely recorded.


WESLEY-SMITH _db. Merry-Go-Round. Snark-Hunting. Oom Pah Pah. fin/début Australia Ens TALL POPPIES TP200 (71: 18)

Australian composer Martin Wesley-Smith was born in Adelaide in 1945. For 26 years he taught at the Sydney Conservatorium with particular emphasis on Read more electronic music and multimedia works involving computer programming. In the latter area he was responsible for Quito , an award-winning audio-visual work, in collaboration with the celebrated Australian documentary maker and painter George Gittoes, on the subject of East Timor’s struggle for independence.

Electronics and politically motivated audio-visuals may sound forbidding, but the fact is Wesley-Smith’s muse has always had its lighter side—a cheeky, childlike aspect—which is certainly to the fore in this program of chamber music composed primarily for acoustic instruments. Another attribute of Wesley-Smith’s music is that elusive quality called wit. In this, as in its sheer virtuosity, and its formal procedures of stylistic pastiche and distorted quotation, his chamber output resembles that of the American Fred Lerdahl. There is also a touch of Bolcom in its open textures, eclecticism, and playfulness—not that these two composers influenced Wesley-Smith; I am merely using them as comparisons in order to place him. His music is unmistakably individual.

db (1991) is a quartet for flute, clarinet, piano, and cello, written in memory of the Australian composer Don Banks. Banks (1923–80) was a modernist who also maintained a career as a jazzman, and a sophisticated jazz influence pervades Wesley-Smith’s tribute. (Some readers may be familiar with the old Argo recording of Banks’s Violin Concerto, recently reissued by Lyrita.) In contrast, the second of the work’s two movements, titled “Pat-a-Cake” (a well-known English round, ghoulishly quoted in Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd ), is minimalist in style. According to the composer’s notes, it was Banks who introduced him to the music of Reich. Such disparate elements ought not to add up to a cohesive whole but they do, unified by Wesley-Smith’s craft and control; it is as though the composer hovers in the background providing a bemused overview—rather like the omnipotent, detached narrator of a multi-strand novel. Again, Bolcom comes to mind.

Lewis Carroll has proved a major stimulus to Wesley-Smith, with several major works resulting. I suspect the attraction lies in Carroll’s ability to create a unique world where his own quirky logic rules. The mock-epic poem The Hunting of the Snark has been particularly influential among Carroll’s works, more so than the Alice stories. Snark-Hunting (1984) is a 17-minute fantasy for flute, percussion, cello, and piano, plus an antique (by today’s standards) Fairlight synthesizer. As Wesley-Smith sets the snark-hunting party on its quest (a bumbling, Terry Gilliam-esque group), he casts his stylistic net even wider to include ’50s rock’n’roll in the musical mosaic. Predictably, a children’s nursery tune makes an appearance (“Rock-a-bye Baby”), first heard in retrograde inversion. Apparently one of the ways Carroll amused his young friends was to remove the cylinder from a music box and replace it backwards, thus turning the tune upside down and back to front. The portion of the poem where the adventurers believe they have found the snark only to discover that their target is the harmless disappearing boojum is graphically and amusingly depicted.

In the more straightforward Oom Pah Pah (1996), a work for flute and piano, the composer adopts a French persona and enjoys himself in a potpourri of waltzes. Tonally the piece is conventionally modernist, but not lush, more Poulenc than Ravel.

Waltz-time also figures in fin/début (2000), a two-movement work for flute, clarinet, piano, and string quartet. The Australia Ensemble commissioned this work to celebrate the new millennium. Wesley-Smith begins by quoting another turn-of-the-century septet, played in the same concert: that of Beethoven. Overall fin/début has a melancholy feel, especially the affecting final movement subtitled “Farewell to the Hotel Tourismo.” More fin than début , but no less enjoyable for that.

Merry-Go-Round, which gives this disc its title, is the most recent composition here (2002). It features clarinet and cello, accompanied by various computer-generated sounds recorded on a CD. A merry-go-round is, of course, a carousel; a waltz of variable speed emerges from a harsh sonic environment to punctuate episodes of thematic development. The computer’s distorted textures add a sense of the patchy mechanics of a carousel in operation. Merry-Go-Round is a work of serious intent and effect; again Wesley-Smith’s eclecticism remains a dominating factor.

This program was recorded in the presence of the composer, and the performances could hardly be more assured. The ensemble members are Dene Olding and Dimity Hall (violins), Irina Morozova (viola), Julian Smiles (cello), Ian Munro (piano), Geoffrey Collins (flute), Catherine McCorkill (clarinet), and guest percussionist Timothy Constable. All are distinguished musicians who hold first-desk positions in major Australian orchestras (including the Australian Chamber Orchestra). Smiles, Collins, and McCorkill shine in their many solo passages. Sound quality is first-class; db was recorded live in concert in Sydney in 2002, the rest are studio recordings. To sum up: a fascinating array of works from a composer with an unreconstructed imagination, expertly performed.

FANFARE: Phillip Scott


This disc of chamber music by Martin Wesley-Smith, who is both politically engaged (East Timor is an abiding focus) and a huge admirer of Lewis Carroll – the two being not mutually exclusive – attests to his consistently engaging musical ideas. For over a quarter of a century he taught at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music but his Audio-Visual and Children’s work, two prominent examples of his variousness and interest in contemporary communicative ideas, illustrate his quixotic and project-driven enthusiasms. Here he teams up with his interpreters, that elite body, the Australia Ensemble.

db is a tribute to Don Banks and references his music. It has a rather French feel in places – Poulenc and Françaix even, in terms of clarity - though the music is also infiltrated by more rhythmically brisk and jazz-like lines, before a genuinely funky jazz club workout emerges. Reich-like patterns also make an impression in the Pat-a-Cake second movement as do some jaunty Carroll inspired Edwardian moments too. There’s plenty of dance and colour, plenty of wit and even drollery.

Written for clarinet, cello and CD (laptop and data projector, to be specific) Merry-Go-Round and owes its genesis to the composer’s feelings about the Afghan people and the invasion of their country. The powerful and arresting start leads onto more reflective, keening soliloquies for the clarinet and the evocative computerised sounds. There’s a strongly melancholic theme at 3:00, and there are terse dance themes as well, with percussive support, and – in the context – a disquieting almost oompah quality. As the work slides to its conclusion the clarinet voices over cello pizzicati, quietly intoning as if to itself, its melancholic, orphan refrain.

Snark-Hunting unveils the full Lewis Carroll. The forces are flute, percussion, piano, cello and computer (a Fairlight CMI the composer tells us). The results are full of fantasy and colour, brio and delightful sonorities. Gradually Rock-a-bye-baby is transformed into a Victorian music box sonority, sent back to front, even inverted. There are even Rock passages that turn on a sixpence – rock being both the music of choice for the passage and also, one suspects, a musico-punning opportunity.

I mentioned the disquieting almost Oktoberfest quality of the oompah rhythms in Merry-Go-Round but Wesley-Smith has also written a piece almost called that. Oom Pah Pah though, is a teaser. It is Poulenc-peppy, not stein heavy. It takes in a slow section too, and is an engaging, joie de vivre filled opus. Finally there is fin/début, written in 2000. Written for flute, clarinet, piano and string quartet, it quotes Beethoven’s Septet (and again toward the end) and then heads off sinuously almost to the world of Piazzolla. The second movement is a tribute to Peter Platt, a musical colleague, and is a melancholy elegy cum eulogy, a slow waltz to see him on his way.

The performances match virtuosity with narrative flair and have been very finely recorded – and balanced. Reading a composer’s words about his own music is almost always valuable; Wesley-Smith’s booklet notes are no exception.

-- Jonathan Woolf, MusicWeb International
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Works on This Recording

Db, for flute, clarinet, cello & piano by Martin Wesley-Smith
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Australia Ensemble
Written: 1991 
Date of Recording: 10/19/2002 
Venue:  Live  Sir John Clancy Auditorium, UNSW 
Length: 15 Minutes 36 Secs. 
Merry-Go-Round, for clarinet, cello & CD by Martin Wesley-Smith
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Australia Ensemble
Written: 2002 
Date of Recording: 12/2005 
Venue:  Sir John Clancy Auditorium, UNSW 
Length: 15 Minutes 37 Secs. 
Snark-Hunting, for flute, cello, percussion, piano & CD by Martin Wesley-Smith
Performer:  Timothy Constable (Percussion)
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Australia Ensemble
Written: 1984 
Date of Recording: 12/2005 
Venue:  Sir John Clancy Auditorium, UNSW 
Length: 17 Minutes 21 Secs. 
Oom Pah Pah, for flute & piano by Martin Wesley-Smith
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Australia Ensemble
Written: 1996 
Date of Recording: 12/2005 
Venue:  Sir John Clancy Auditorium, UNSW 
Length: 8 Minutes 22 Secs. 
Fin/début, for flute, clarinet, string quartet & piano by Martin Wesley-Smith
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Australia Ensemble
Written: 2000 
Date of Recording: 12/2005 
Venue:  Sir John Clancy Auditorium, UNSW 
Length: 14 Minutes 18 Secs. 

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