Michael Small

This month, Michael Small is the featured composer of the Journal. His fantastic new oboe quintet, Jali, was written for his father Jonathan Small (Principal Oboe, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic).

Jali (2017/18)

Instrumentation: Oboe Quintet
Duration: 16 mins

Jali was prompted by the work of the Afghan artist and woodcarver Nasser Mansouri. Among the stunningly crafted works Mansouri creates are geometrically patterned wood-lattice screens, called “jali” or “jaali”, which can be seen throughout the Middle East, the former Moorish areas of Spain, and India. In one exhibit, the artist suspended the screens with a spotlight, so that a constantly shifting, kaleidoscopic composite pattern would be cast in shadows on the wall. Sometimes these were the same pattern over itself, or contrasting patterns.

My piece, Jali, is made of aural versions of these patterns, sometimes canons of similar patterns, in different tempi, or superimposed elements which are starkly contrasted – very accented double stops, a long legato line, or a scurrying kind of music.

The piece is in two equal parts. The first explores these patterns in a very strict manner, with the vertical positions set in the score. The second presents them with greater flexibility, through the use of some uncoordinated playing. At one point, an argument breaks out between a faux-gigue and a courante, before sinking into a vastly stretched and slowed down version of the oboe’s opening line.

© Michael Small

About Michael Small

Michael Small is a British-American composer whose works are regularly performed by international calibre musicians. Michael’s music has been featured by Ensemble 10/10, the American Composers Orchestra, the Aspen Contemporary Ensemble, the Momenta Quartet, Music from Copland House, and soloists including Grammy laureate Gloria Cheng, and the BBC Music award winning violinist Fenella Humphreys.

In 2014, Michael received the Alan Horne Prize from the Royal Philharmonic Society, which resulted in a commission for a new solo work for Fenella Humphreys. White Space for solo violin was premiered at Presteigne Festival in 2015, and has been subsequently performed in London, New York, Bristol, Oxford, Liverpool, and at the National Galleries of Scotland in Edinburgh before a painting which inspired the work. In 2018, Gloria Cheng released a CD called Garlands for Steven Stucky, comprising 32 short tributes by internationally renowned composers, colleagues, and friends of the much missed composer. Michael’s short fugue Debussy Window is included among several other pieces by students of Stucky.

Michael is recently completed work for oboe quintet, entitled Jali for his father Jonathan Small, the noted British oboist. Jali was premiered in March 2019 at the University of Liverpool Lunchtime Concert Series. Michael’s current projects include a piano duo for his virtuosic Cornell colleagues Andrew Zhou & Ryan McCullough, who form the group Ensemble HereNowHear. He is also working on a series of photography-inspired miniatures for string orchestra called Cape Light.

Michael began his training with David Horne at the Royal Northern College of Music from 2007-2011, and continued his studies at Cornell University under the tutelage of the late Steven Stucky until 2016. He has participated in masterclasses with Rolf Hind, Simon Bainbridge, Christopher Rouse, H.K. Gruber, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies. His work Alacrity commissioned by Ensemble 10/10 was premiered in May 2010 and described as “a brief but exhilarating ride” by The Guardian. He shortly thereafter received a Sage Fellowship to study at Cornell University. In 2017, Michael received his doctorate after successfully defending his dissertation on Julian Anderson’s Symphony. In 2019 Michael moved to Shenzhen, China to begin a two year teaching job at an international school, where he is developing a composition program for the high school students. 

Photograph by Acadia Mezzofanti