Denis Smalley

Professor Denis Smalley is a composer specialising in electroacoustic music. He was born in New Zealand, and completed music degrees at the University of Canterbury and the Victoria University of Wellington (MusB, and BMus honours). In 1971-2 he studied with Olivier Messiaen at the Paris Conservatoire, and took the course in electroacoustic composition with the Groupe de Recherches Musicales, completing the DiplĂ´me de Musique Electroacoustique et de Recherche Musicale (Paris Conservatoire).


He then moved to England, living initially in York where he completed a doctorate in composition at the University of York. In 1976 he was appointed Lecturer in Music at the University University of East Anglia, and as Senior Lecturer became Director of the Electroacoustic Music Studio. He was Professor of Music at City from 1994 until he retired in 2009; he is now Professor Emeritus.


Professor Smalley’s works have been widely acclaimed, winning a number of international awards including the Prix Ars Electronica in 1988. In 2008 he was awarded an honorary Doctor of Letters by the University of Huddersfield for his achievements in electroacoustic music. He has made original contributions to thinking about electroacoustic music, in particular his investigations into the listener’s perception of electroacoustic music, and his development of the notion of spectromorphology (the shaping of sound spectra through time). His most recent writing has been concerned with the spatial image, and with spectromorphology in instrumental music.

Empty Vessel, electroacoustic work 1997


The empty vessels of the title are some large garden pots from Crete and an olive jar from Turkey. Recordings of the air resonating in these vessels provided the starting-point for the piece. Since these recordings were done in a garden (my garden in North London), sounds from the environment were also captured by the microphones inside the pots, and changes in the timbre of these sounds resulted from interaction with the filtering effect of the resonant vessels. These “natural” transformations were extended through computer treatments of the sources, and they also suggested relations with very different types of resonant sounds. The garden palette was expanded by recordings made in the same environment without the benefit of the vessels’ transformations. The resulting work may be regarded as a journey which passes through the highly charged and more restful events, textures and spaces inspired by the empty vessels.


Commissioned by the French State and the Institut National de l’Audiovisuel / Groupe de Recherches Musicales, and first performed in Paris in May 1997.