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The Music of Martin Wesley-Smith (Canberra International Music Festival)

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Two halves of a concert program in adjacent rooms. Another original idea at this year’s CIMF focuses on a tribute to Australian composer and pioneer of electronic and computer music, Martin Wesley-Smith, who died on September 26, 2019 at the age of 74. The two halves ran simultaneously and repeated, with the audience led from room to room.

Entering the National Film and Sound Archive’s Arc Cinema – despite opening in 2009, Arc is still considered by many to be ACT’s most comfortable and modern cinema – audiences were greeted with a full photo screen of Martin Wesley-Smith brandishing a fish he had just caught in the Timor Sea. CIMF Artistic Director Roland Peelman was a friend, champion and collaborator of the Wesley-Smith lads, twins Martin and Peter, often bringing the Song Company to perform at charity events in Kangaroo Valley. Their collaboration also produced this extraordinary musical drama Quitowinner of the Paul Lowin Song Cycle Award in 1994.

music of Martin Wesley-Smith’ at the 2022 Canberra International Music Festival. Photo © Peter Hislop.” width=”1200″ height=”781″/>

Ruben Palma performs during ‘Eyes and Ears: The music of Martin Wesley-Smith’ at the 2022 Canberra International Music Festival. Photo © Peter Hislop.

Peelman presented the program’s first play, beta-globin DNA (1987) as “the happiest piece of computer music” we have ever heard. Three minutes later, that joy was completely dispelled with the first of three tracks devoted to one of Wesley-Smith’s key and enduring concerns, the quest for political self-determination for Timor Leste.

Venceremos (1978/2008) is a piece for computerized sounds and images. In clear terms, it condemns the capitulation of the Hawke government by recognizing the subjugation of Timor Leste by Indonesia. It mixes Australian and American anthems and popular songs. Wesley-Smith’s advocacy for Timor Leste was universally recognized. For a concert of his political music at the NFSA in February 2008, then-president Jose Romas Horta said that Martin Wesley-Smith was “a true creator, activist and humanitarian, all rolled into one”. (On May 20 of this year, Ramos Horta resumes his duties as president of his country.)

In 2002, barely three years after the independence of Timor-Leste, Martin Wesley-Smith visited the country accompanied by clarinettist Ros Dunlop, herself an ardent activist committed to the cause. After gaining independence, there was a sense of victory and reconciliation in the new nation, epitomized by President Xanana Gusmão’s slogan “To resist is to win!”

Wesley-Smith has composed a new work celebrating this moment, with an almost ecstatic clarinet part for Dunlop. Teke Toke Tomaktranslating to something like “Let’s all get together” was to become Wesley-Smith’s last piece openly linked to the Timor struggle which had largely consumed his creativity since 1975. It was good to see it performed here by another clarinetist , the splendid Jason Noble, picking up on threads heard in Steve Reich’s music earlier this week.

The third piece from this triumvirate of Timor was the well-known work for cello and CD-ROM, Welcome to Hotel Turismo (2000). It was played by a young cellist from El Salvador, Ruben Palma, who currently teaches at Sydney Conservatorium High School (It should be remembered that the composer himself was once a fairly accomplished cellist and was well acquainted with the expressive voice of the instrument.) Palma negotiates the turns of this music with persuasion, oscillating between cabaret music and contemporary techniques with consummate ease. For me, this will go down as one of the standout solo performances at CIMF 2022.

Listening to these pieces again after a few years (they have become quite familiar to me), I am struck by the integrity and depth of their foundation. At the same time, things like quoting hymns and patriotic songs seem to come close to agitprop slogans. In the visual dimension, at least, some images seem dated and require more recent treatments.

At the same time, it should be remembered that Martin Wesley-Smith was a true pioneer of Australian computer music; without her music and advocacy for the Fairlight CMI, would we have seen the emergence of younger generations of computer-savvy composers like Kate Neal, whose play while you sleep impressed me so much only a few nights ago? As Roland Peelman wrote so eloquently in his friend’s CIMF program book on music and mission: “Two decades [after their first appearance] these works are stronger than ever, like music capturing the enormous capacity of the human brain for rational deduction, intricate articulation and broad empathy”.

It was a loving and well-meaning tribute to a great composer, teacher and humanitarian who enriched and animated our minds over 50 years of his creativity. He will be greatly missed in our musical lives.

Alice Giles performs during 'Eyes and Ears: The music of Martin Wesley-Smith' at the 2022 Canberra International Music Festival. Photo © Peter Hislop.

Alice Giles performs during ‘Eyes and Ears: The music of Martin Wesley-Smith’ at the 2022 Canberra International Music Festival. Photo © Peter Hislop.

Several years ago, Martin Wesley-Smith teamed up with a dear friend, harpist Alice Giles, to create a new work for his Ensemble of Seven Harps (SHE). This association took a step forward in 2011 when Wesley-Smith created a work for a recital around the theme “Alice in Antarctica”. Giles had discovered journals and photographs belonging to his uncle Cecil Thomas Madigan (1889-1947) who was the meteorologist for the first Australasian Antarctic Expedition (1911-14). With help from the guys at Wesley-Smith, Giles designed an hour-long presentation that she created at Mawson Station Red Shed in Antarctica in February 2011, to celebrate Shackleton’s AAE centenary.

Taking two harps with her to Antarctica, an electroacoustic and lever harp specially designed to withstand the freezing climate, Giles devised a program of eight short solo pieces, interspersed with readings from her uncle’s journals. The centerpiece of its program was a new 10-minute work by Martin Wesley-Smith, Aurora Winnis (2011), as whimsical, eccentric and insinuating as any of his previous Alice tracks. This particular piece featured Madigan’s diary entries and songs that were played “on the grammo” each night in the frozen tents. Giles spoke and sang the lyrics expertly. In fact, the whole concept was superbly designed and executed in the NFSA’s smallest Theaterette with its ability to project both black and white (the historic footage) and color (Giles’ own expedition a century later) movies. . Kudos to CIMF and NFSA for embarking on this rare collaboration. There will surely be others in future CIMF programs.

It’s no surprise that Giles has proven herself to be a natural theatrics. Would we dare to hope for a posthumous play by Wesley-Smith? It could be an emanation of Boom!this wonderful musical fantasy piece last staged by State Opera South Australia in July 2019. It was based on Giles’ namesake Alice Pleasance Liddell, Lewis Carroll’s inspiration. Alice through the looking glass.

Either way, it was a quirky and perhaps unique undertaking, one that charmed every member of its largely elderly audience. School performances next time, please. For my part, I would not be disappointed if I never saw another penguin for a very long time.