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.