Dave Smith’s 24 Sonatas (1985-6) appear at first as a collection of self-contained caprices. Each one is in a single movement of 4 or 5 minutes and they are all dedicated to friends and colleagues of the composer. Each gently mocks a particular genre or style – Bossa nova, Mambo, Cornelius Cardew’s political songs – first mimicking it precisely, then pushing it around just enough to become caricature. You’re reminded of a stand-up comic delivering a series of spot-on impressions. Smith’s treatment of his materials is so deadpan he doesn’t appear to do much more than don the appropriate wig and glasses and raise a quizzical eyebrow. The gags speak for themselves.
Nevertheless, after a while you notice that, despite the ragtag bundling-up of genre imitations, the collection, played like this with in a single stretch with only a short break halfway through, has a consistency of its own. This arises from certain harmonic preferences (tending towards the late-romantic scrunch), rhythmic quirks (regular dance rhythms disrupted by added or subtracted beats), formal constructions (episodic and sectional forms), abrupt shifts in tone and a taste for surprise endings. Somewhere in all that we might say there is a style, an overall sheen of ‘Dave Smith’ that glues the disparate source materials together.
The issue of transcription is one that occupies a lot of compositional brainpower in Great Britain. I suppose Smith’s methods here lie somewhere between Laurence Crane’s stark, bleaching approach and Michael Finnissy’s critical dissection of found materials. We’re not really being asked to confront anything here but, rather, play along. But that’s not to say that we’re getting the same joke 24 times over. One of the most interesting aspects of 24 Sonatas concerns precisely this matter of transcription. The 24 genres chosen sit at quite different distances from the traditional pianistic style into which Smith transcribes them. Either the style can be evoked relatively transparently, and time can be spent on original tweaks; or the process of recreation demands more compositional capital, leaving less opportunity for original intervention. ‘Rag’, for example, is very close to standard pianism and can be copied precisely. ‘Dub’, however, is very far removed and Smith’s skill at conjuring up the essential character of the genre is thoroughly tested. In between these two we see a range of mixtures between stylistic fidelity and compositional invention. Every sonata therefore exhibits its own tension between its generic models and original ‘Dave Smith’: the collection fractures once again into 24 little mementos, slightly wiser than before.