Born in 1959 in Prague. In the early 1980s he founded the Agon ensemble (with Miroslav Pudlák), later joined by Peter Kofroň, which in the late 1980 s and early 1990s became the most important promoter of the world avantgarde in Czech culture (then dominated by a pseudomodernism officially supported by the authorities). Smolka’s early works betrayed the influences of Webern, minimalism, American experimental music and the Polish school of composition.
In the 1990s, Smolka turned his attention to unusual instrumental techniques and sound sources, such as extremely retuned strings, old gramophones, various objects functioning as percussion instruments, etc. By using these elements, he aimed to stylise the sounds of the natural environment and the city. Smolka compared some works from that period to “sound photographs” (e.g. L’Orch pour l’Orch of 1990 is partly a portrait of the sounds of a freight train station at night). Smolka selected the sounds of the real world by looking at their expressive potential, or rather he stylised them to give them special emotional-expressive power (compare e.g. the telling title of one of Smolka’s most “powerful” pieces: Rain, a Window, Roofs, Chimneys, Pigeons and So... and Railway-Bridges, Too).
Metaphorically speaking, Smolka’s music oscillates between two extremes:
1) A rough, crisp cheerfulness: the music of a hobbling jukebox, specific sounds of civilisation, a folk band out of tune, a brass
2) Wistful memories, painful desires, a nostalgic playing echo of the sounds from point 1.
Smolka’s typical strategy for developing musical form is also related to the expressive effect: he juxtaposes internally homogeneous but mutually sharply contrasting segments, which in their binary oppositions (“slow and fast, sad and merry, loud and tender”) correspond in a sense to elements of the sonata form: first theme – second theme. Smolka uses sharp cuts as in film technique; evolution is subdued, the seams are revealed to the public, the dynamic and textural differences are sharpened, and repetition becomes the basic principle.
The eminently emotional atmosphere of Smolka’s music is related to the use of microtones, which the composer uses to evoke the sounds of the real world, but also – to “de-tune” traditional melodic and harmonic structures. Through this essentially subversive use of inherited sound material, he aims to intensify and activate its emotional potential (e.g. Solitudo for ensemble). Since the late 1990s, Smolka has been inspired by such “recycling” of elements of traditional music, deformed by microtones and collage (Remix, Redream, Reflight for orchestra, Blue Bells or Bell Blues for orchestra – for which he won the award of the Prince Pierre de Monaco Foundation). In the most recent decade, Smolka has focused more and more on vocal music, particularly choral (Poema de balcones for choir, Salty And Sad to words by Tadeusz Różewicz, Psalmus 114 for choir and orchestra, and others).
Martin Smolka’s music is mostly performed outside the Czech Republic, where the composer resides. His works have been commissioned by the most famous European ensemble and festivals. In Prague he is known primarily for his opera Nagano, which received the Alfréd Radok Award. Since 2003 Smolka has lectured in the Leoš Janáček Academy of Music in Brno (JAMU). He himself graduated from Prague’s Academy of Music (HAMU), but the crucial impulses for his musical development came from private lessons with Marek Kopelent.
Selected works (since 1985): Music Sweet Music for ensemble (1985–88), Music for Retuned Instruments for flute, viola, cello and piano (1988), Ringing for solo percussion (1989), Rain, a Window, Roofs, Chimneys, Pigeons and so..., and Railway-bridges, too for 18 instruments (1992), Rent a Ricercar for ensemble (1993), Euforium for four instruments and ensemble (1996), Eight Pieces for Guitar Quartet (1998), Walden, the Distiller of Celestial Dews for choir, to words by H.D. Thoreau (2000), Remix, Redream, Reflight for orchestra (2000), Mushrooms and Heaven for non-operatic alto voice and one or two string quartets (2000), Nagano, opera (2001–03), Solitudo for ensemble (2003), Hats in the Sky for seven instruments for silent movie Vormittagsspuk Hans Richter’s (2004), Semplice for baroque orchestra and new music ensemble (2006), Rush Hour in Celestial Streets for large ensemble (2007), Still Life with Tubas or Silence Hiding for two tubas and orchestra (2007), Die Seele auf dem Esel for ensemble (2008), Poema de balcones for two choirs (2008), Psalmus 114 for choir and orchestra (2009), Gloria for choir (2010–11), Blue Bells or Bell Blues for orchestra (2010–11), My Country for orchestra (2010–11).