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Martin Wesley-Smith (1945–2019)

by Vincent Plush

from Australian

Many regarded Martin Wesley-Smith as one of the most versatile composers this country has produced, equally at home singing with amateur ensembles in country pubs as twiddling in the world’s most sophisticated electronic music studios. In China he is revered as the father of computer music. In Australia, he was a pioneering figure in computer and audiovisual composition.

Martin was one of four sons of Harry and Sheila Wesley-Smith, well-known identities in Adelaide society. One of his brothers, Peter, his identical twin, became a professor of law in Hong Kong and provided librettos for many songs and theatre pieces.

The four boys would gather around the family piano and provide inner harmonies for sing­alongs with their parents. Martin took piano lessons and learned the cello but soon gravitated towards the guitar and the banjo. He wrote and sang songs with folk trio the Wesley Three and for ABC children’s radio series.

In the mid-1960s he was among the first composition students at the University of Adelaide. One of his teachers was Peter Tahourdin, who tutored him in the potential of the Moog synthesiser, which arrived in Adelaide in 1969. Electronic music was to become a lifelong fascination and platform as much in politics as it was in technology.

At the height of the Vietnam war, Martin undertook a doctor of philosophy degree at the University of York in Britain. Rather than stay in London, where he could have become a professional banjo player, he returned to Australia in 1974 to create an electronic music studio at the NSW Conservatorium of Music. He was an early advocate for the Fairlight CMI computer and arranged for the Con to purchase the second instrument produced by that Sydney-based company; the first was purchased by Stevie Wonder.

With brief pauses, he taught at the Con for almost 25 years. For hundreds of students, he provided an introduction to electronic music. Among that prodigious rollcall were many who became international figures, among them composer Elena Kats Chernin and conductor Simone Young.

Many of his students were enlisted in various audiovisual performance collectives, notably a group called Tree that presented memorable community based events at Wattamolla, a small beach in the Royal National Park in Sydney’s south.

By the mid-70s several important strands had emerged in his career. Inspired by the political activism of their brother Robert, an agronomist based in Darwin, Martin and Peter took up the cause of East Timor as it struggled for independence.

This unleashed a string of heartfelt musical activism, notably Balibo (1992) for flute and tape and the “documentary music drama” Quito (1994), which received the Paul Lowin Award that year. That work was championed by Roland Peelman and The Song Company, who performed it throughout the world. Martin went on to write many works for that extraordinarily versatile ensemble.

Martin was a fervent believer that, across time, art could have a political effect or at least bring political issues before audiences who might not have considered such matters previously — no more so than in his work espousing environmental causes, often in the form of vocal works to Peter’s texts. Beginning with Who Killed Cock Robin? (1979) — answer: pesticides — the twins addressed political issues such as the still unresolved debate about an Australian republic and the place of indigenous culture in our political discourse.

In 2000, Martin left the Conservatorium and went to live with Peter at a large property near Kangaroo Valley on the NSW south coast. There he created ­pieces for the annual Buster Keaton Film Festival, the Thirsty Night Singers and for the Kangaroo Valley/Remexio project that supported a Timorese village. In September 2014 the three surviving Wesley-Smith brothers travelled to Dili to be awarded the Order of Timor Leste.

All the while, Martin was creating music based on the life and writings of Lewis Carroll. The recent revival in Adelaide of his “musical fantasy”, Boojum!, served to remind us of the sheer lyricism of his music; he could create melodies to rival anything of Stephen Sondheim or even Leon­ard Bernstein.

The breadth of his inventiveness was perhaps unparalleled in recent Australian music. Many regarded him as the model composer, the consummate profes­sional who could turn his hand to any task and who engaged audiences at any level. Underneath a sometimes grumpy curmudgeon was a heart and passion as wide as any this country has produced.

In 1998 Martin was awarded the Order of Australia (AM) for “services to music, as a composer, scriptwriter, children’s songwriter, lecturer, presenter of multimedia concerts and a member of various Australia Council boards and committees”.

He is survived by his brothers Peter and Robert, his former wife Ann, and their three children: Jed, Olivia and Alice. Following a private family funeral he will be remembered at “celebration of life” events in Kangaroo Valley and Sydney in the weeks ahead.

Original publication

Other Obituaries for Martin Wesley-Smith

  • Limelight, 27 September 2019, by Vincent Plush

Additional Resources

Citation details

Vincent Plush, 'Wesley-Smith, Martin (1945–2019)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 22 May 2024.

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