Not just a composer and experimenter, and one of our finest at that, but a teacher, a passionate supporter of students and other composers, a bureaucratic rebel and a public activist, Martin Wesley Smith loomed large in many lives and in many forums.
The Adelaide-born Smith, who wrote his first electronic composition in 1970, blending new technology (the Moog synthesiser) and an ancient form, war (this one in Vietnam), created the Electronic Music Studio at Sydney’s Conservatorium of Music in 1974, staying on to teach for several decades.
Smith, who died last week after a decade dealing with cancer, probably made his greatest impact at the “Con”, and as Wind Back Wednesday, discovered in 2015, a concert in his honour was a small payback for those he had inspired and touched.
Maybe Martin Wesley-Smith’s father put his finger on what we all think is the problem with being a contemporary composer, even one described by Michael Smetatin, the former chair of composition at the Conservatorium of Music, as “one of the pioneering electronic music composers” in Australia.
“My father used to say why don't you write a pop hit Martin, then you can make $1 million and then you can retire and write that funny music you write."
Wesley-Smith laughs at the idea, not least because as he says “you can never write a pop hit unless you love pop music” but also because writing music that people wanted to hear used to be exactly what earned him criticism.
As a former student of Wesley-Smith’s, and now a composer and lecturer in music at the University of Western Sydney, John Encarnacao, put it: "[Wesley-Smith] was always willing to challenge the prevailing attitudes towards composition in terms of music that was difficult - he wasn’t afraid for his music to be accessible.”
Whether on tape and percussion, on the Moog synthesiser he had to build himself in Adelaide in the early ‘70s and the groundbreaking Fairlight CMI electronic sampler in the 1980s, or for choirs, children’s TV and multi-media productions, Wesley-Smith’s compositions, like his teaching, have always sought the line between being demanding and being heard.
Even if it went against the orthodoxy. And especially if it raised the issue of human rights in East Timor, West Papua and in the Stolen Generation, for which he has campaigned and composed for since the 1970s.
“I've always tried to be, in my own music and I've tried to encourage my students to be, listenable,” said Wesley-Smith. “To have at least a surface attraction that gets people in and then you can be as complex as you like underneath."
It is this attitude which is in part why so many former students, colleagues and musicians have come together for a concert celebrating the work and influence of Wesley-Smith on Saturday.
To be held at his old stomping ground of the Conservatorium, where he taught for 26 years and founded the institution’s first electronic music studio in 1974, it will feature choral, instrumental and film/sound works, some of which haven’t been performed in years.
All of the work was created with an attitude of openness summed up by Smetanin – who as a school student received guidance and encouragement from Wesley-Smith even before applying to the Con – as “allowing yourself to think about music as being not just a single genre in which you work but a multi-lingual thing” so that composer, musician and audience would “be able to think in a worldly way” about music.
"I'm flattered but a bit embarrassed by it all," Wesley-Smith said from his Kangaroo Valley home where he’s been dealing with quite threatening cancer and now downplays the admiration of musicians and other participants who asked to participate. "That's partly because it's my 70th birthday and partly because I've been crook and a few people were thinking we better see him before he carks it.
“But I’m actually doing better than what it looked and I'm going to hang around a bit longer.”
While Wesley-Smith’s attendance at the concert will give friends and colleagues a chance to see him in better health than expected, the concert will showcase the mark he left on those he taught and those he inspired.
"He was head of composition when I was at the Conservatorium and he really made us think around corners,” said Encarnacao. “He really challenged us to question our choices as composers and musicians.”
That’s something which would please Wesley-Smith who said he is yet to write his “ultimate piece” but is fine with that.
"The life of a composer is frustrating and difficult,” he said. “But it is also, I've found, ultimately satisfying."