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Andrew KEELING (b.1954)
Reclaiming Eros
Piano Quartet - Reclaiming Eros (2000) [16:25]
Scarlet Letters for guitar (2003) [15:04]
Powered by Joy for mezzo-soprano, two tenors and baritone (2003) [13:37]
Black Sun for lute (2001) [7:01]
Gefunden for four viols (2003) [12:21]
Seule for mezzo-soprano (2001) [7:16]
A Child Divine for bass viol (2004) [3:32]
Stor Quartet, Torlief Torgersen (piano), rec. Grieg Academy, Bergen, Norway, February, 2005 (Reclaiming Eros). Abigail James (guitar, Scarlet Letters), rec. London. November, 2004. Gothic Voices (Powered by Joy), rec. Toddington, UK. April, 2005. Jacob Heringman (lute, Black Sun). London. May, 2005. Yukimi Kambe Viol Consort rec. Lilis, Sakae Ward Culture Centre, Yokohama, Japan, February, 2005, (Gefunden). Catherine King (mezzo-soprano), rec. Toddington, UK. May, 2005 (Seule).
Susanna Pell (viol), rec. London. May, 2005 (A Child Divine).
BURNING SHED (no catalogue number given) [75:53]
 
Andrew KEELING (b.1954)
Blue Dawn
Distant Skies, Mountains and Shadows [10:22]
MirAre [15:00]
Petit Requiem pour Basil [11:33]
Blue Dawn [31:16]
3-Orm: Dominy Clements (flute), Hans Witteman (clarinets), Eric van Balen (piano), rec. Korzo Chapel, The Hague, Netherlands, 2000 (Distant Skies…); Mtthew Wadsworth (theorbo), rec. St. Mary’s Church, Wadsworth, UK, 2005 (MirAre). TripleSec: Lynne Bulmer (flute), Peter Churchill (piano), Rosalind Rawnsley (narrator), rec. The Scot’s Kirk, Paris, 2006 (Petit Requiem). Steven Wray (piano), rec. The Westminster School, Westminster, London, 2006 (Blue Dawn).
BURNING SHED (no catalogue number given) [70:21]

 


Burning Shed is an interesting label, which has a variety of ‘off the beaten track’ musicians, bands and composers on its books. Some of them can be sampled for free on the site. The titles are available either as MP3 downloads, or, as is the case with this review, CDs burnt onto CD-ROM stock, and supplied in Burning Shed’s trademark cardboard envelopes, with basic track information on a paper inlay card and the title hand-stamped onto the front of the envelope. I won’t claim that this is the most informative or convenient of formats, but with a basic premise of low cost, further information available online (I hope), and allowing the music to speak for itself, I’m not about to launch a diatribe about lacking texts and booklet notes or wondering how I will ever find these CDs again once they have vanished into a library of thousands.

I don’t know a great deal about Andrew Keeling, other than that he sent my short-lived ensemble 3-Orm the score of Distant Skies, Mountains and Shadows and somehow charmed us into recording it for him for free and at long range – the present version being a second attempt after the first location managed to be even noisier. More of that later. He has written for illustrious artists such as the Hilliard Ensemble, Evelyn Glennie and the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra. He is a recognised advocate of the music of Robert Fripp and King Crimson, and his own website here is full of fascinating stuff. The recordings presented here are inevitably something of a mixed bag, but the results are generally of a high standard. While some tracks are a little fluffy and vague as regards sound quality the performances are all convincing and genuinely involving.

Reclaiming Eros was Keeling’s first release on Burning Shed, and is a well-filled album of high quality music commissioned and performed by a plethora of excellent musicians. The eponymous Piano Quartet is an exciting and energetic work, with plenty of ostinati and punchy rhythmic writing. There are moments of repose and a valedictory ending, but the nervous energy is maintained through the first half by micro-dialogues between the instruments, and secretive string trills and piano splashes. Keeling’s idiom is recognisably tonal – there are even some moments where Michael Nymanesque textures creep in. Even where more lyrical moments are allowed to develop the music resists easy sentimentality. Andrew Keeling has a penchant for open intervals in some of his other works, and in this one there is an almost oriental feel at times, with open fifths in transposition giving the tonality a pentatonic feel. At about 9:00 into the work, the cello is given an aria accompanied by the piano, and the mood elongates and is allowed more expressive breadth. There is some seriously gorgeous music in this piece, and with responsive playing from the Stor Quartet and pianist Torlief Torgersen this is a good introduction to Keeling’s work.

Scarlet Letters for solo guitar is, at just over 15 minutes, substantial to say the least. Abigail James’s playing is utterly convincing, and is the first thing which demands that you take it seriously and that demonstrates the piece to be worthwhile. Written using the full gamut and colour range of conventional guitar techniques, this has to be a work which should be taken up by serious performers looking to go beyond the usual classical and romantic repertoire; who are looking for something with melodic charm and expressive potential but which clearly demands considerable technical virtuosity. This work is filled with fascinating ideas and nuances, innocence and sophistication. Imagine something by Leo Brouwer, and if anything more so, and you’ll have some inkling as to what I mean.

Gothic Voices are an established ensemble, and have shown considerable imagination in commissioning new works over the years. Powered by Joy uses texts by Solage (Joieux de cuer) and Machaut (Il m’est avis), and plays with the words at an number of levels, using their inherent sounds to create rhythmic and colour contrast, but also at times setting the voices in almost barber-shop closeness of harmony. In this way Keeling and Gothic Voices have taken over the baton somewhat from the Kings Singers, who also ventured forth with new works from an elder generation of composers such as Paul Patterson, Richard Rodney Bennett and Malcolm Williamson. Keeling’s writing pays respect to medieval and renaissance in some aspects of the vocal writing in this piece, but gives it an edge and a sense of danger, crowding the notes into small spaces, inviting them and the words to collide in short, clipped phrases, as well as giving them longer, arching forms by way of contrast.

Powered by Joy sensibly cushions the guitar solo of Scarlet Letters from the ringing lute sounds of Black Sun. Without any notes for reference we are left guessing as to the significance of these titles. Black Sun might suggest some kind of science fiction doom, but is a fairly innocuous, certainly approachable piece of music, which, aside from the difference in sound from the guitar, would also seem appropriate for that instrument.

Gefunden for four viols also inhabits the world of ancient instruments, again bringing them squarely into the 21st century. This piece has been recorded less closely than most of the others on this disc, and the acoustic makes for a more tubby kind of sound. I know one should take into account the lesser brilliance of these instruments when compared to modern strings, but with my experience of Early Music in The Hague I know this ensemble might have been a little more sympathetically recorded. Never mind, the piece gives us some interesting new sonorities, giving the old instruments almost a Beatles-like tune at the beginning of the second movement, and making them pluck like harps and wend their way though unaccustomed melodic patterns and harmonies. The final movement, Semplice/Lamentoso e rigoroso is really gorgeous.

The two final works on this disc are both solo pieces. Seule, a setting of Nerval’s El Desdichado, is given a virtuoso performance by Catherine King, whose voice is sensitive to the breadth of expression given to the words. From virtually inaudible to coloratura display, the lines are beautifully drawn in this piece. The last note of Seule is nicely mirrored in the third of A Child Divine for bass viol. The ringing resonance is more sympathetic here than in Gefunden, though I’m not sure quite so much resonance was really required from the mixing desk – it sounds a little as if Susanna Pell is sitting, amplified, in the middle of an empty football stadium. There is also a little surprise at the end, in case you were about to fall asleep. 

Andrew Keeling’s second release on Burning Shed, Blue Dawn represents, as the website has it, the more meditative and spiritual side of Andrew’s work. From 1992, Distant Skies, Mountains and Shadows is the eldest work on either of these discs by quite a long way. The piece was originally written for ‘Het Trio’, the famous Dutch flute/bass-clarinet/piano combo who took it on tour and broadcast it on BBC Radio 3. This was the trio whose repertoire we in the alas now defunct 3-Orm were desperately trying not to duplicate. We recorded it in a ‘Chapel’ space behind the Korzo Theatre in The Hague, now used as a ballet rehearsal room and fortunate enough to have a decent piano. The horrendous amount of resonance actually suits this atmospheric music quite well, and aside from having to sit around and wait while the chimes of the Grote Kerk over the road finished every quarter of an hour, it was a nice place to work and at least isolated from most of the traffic noise. The extra ‘live’ sounds mostly come from the nearby theatre and offices, and the floor, especially designed to be easy on dancers’ feet but the curse of our wonderful sound engineer Rick van der Mieden. I don’t want to give the impression of a carnival of squeaks, slamming doors and jingling keys: it’s actually not that bad, but it does bring back traumatic memories. For those interested, the unusual sounding flute is a bass flute, while the clarinettist plays bass clarinet as well as the more common Bb instrument. In this piece the title makes a clear case for what you might expect from the music.

MirAre which follows, is cut at a higher level; so the solo theorbo blows 3-Orm away fair and square. Much longer than a lute, and with considerable bass wallop by comparison, the theorbo has plenty of dynamic punch, while remaining a softer instrument than this recording might lead you to believe. Like Black Sun, the piece is rich with ideas and effectively idiomatic writing for the instrument, and should provide pickings for players willing to move beyond the 17th century. It impressively received its première in the Wigmore Hall, London.

Petit Requiem pour Basil is for narrator, flute and piano, and is about the death of one of narrator Rosalind Rawnsley’s esteemed colleagues. The news of this event arrived when the composer was staying with Rosalind and her husband, and the work is a direct response to this devastating moment. The ‘live’ recording of Scottish-based ensemble TripleSec has a slightly home-made feel, but the playing and delivery is heartfelt, even though the music is not always entirely in the nature of a lament. The text is in French, so for a poor cultural barbarian such as myself it is not always easy to know what it’s all about. That said, the quotation from Fauré’s Requiem and the mood and intent of other passages are all clear enough.

The one remaining work on this disc is a 30 minute cycle for piano called Blue Dawn. The first movement of this, Caela, was written for a charity event at St. Martin-in the-Fields in London and performed there by Steven Wray. He has has premiered several of the composer’s other pieces, and will be including Keeling’s works Pneuma and Tjarn on his own soon to be released CD. Like Distant Skies …there is plenty of pleasantly static, atmospheric writing here, but I found myself struggling a little against my own associations with composers like Satie, Debussy, Gurdjieff, and even the kind of atmosphere conjured up by something like Morton Feldman’s Rothko Chapel. Rather than allow my initial preconceptions and literary stumbling around to spoil things, I asked Andrew to provide some comment, and he very kindly wrote back. The titles referred to are the seven movements in the piece, though not described in order of performance:

“There’s a history to these pieces. While I was on holiday in Slovenia in 2003 I had this dream: Walking through a graveyard. Someone has just died and the newly-dug grave has hundreds of roses on it. Wotan is walking with me - long grey coat and large grey felt hat. I can see the first light of dawn through a Baroque archway some way ahead. Just after that I heard a voice, in a dream, say Caela to me. I looked up the word which means ‘out of the forest.’ Next to be written was Kindertotenlied after I’d had a dream about an old man’s daughter who was dying. Then, after a walk to Top Withens on Haworth Moor some days before my mother-in-law’s death (and reading Sylvia Plath’s poem ‘Two views of Withens’); The House of Eros. Then Mana (a Jungian term); then Resurgam (after J.O.) (I heard the Offenbach piece, which is quoted in it, played at my mother-in-law’s funeral (The word Resurgam was on the altar of the crematorium). Then Hymn: Blue Dawn. I thought it was finished, but then, one Saturday afternoon some time after I sat at the piano and wrote Forget-me-Not. It was really the postscript.

I felt the Blue Dawn pieces were the turning point in my music. It seems like the Blue Dawn CD is the end of a cycle and the beginning of another which has just started with two new pieces: Maximon for soprano sax & piano (Maximon is the Guatemalan god of procreation and healing); and Scry for guitar quartet. Scry, as you’ll probably know, is occult terminology for looking into the future.”

Blue Dawn is one of those pieces in which you have to go beyond the superficial, and look properly into the ‘what’ and ‘why’ of both the music, and one’s own response to it. At first I felt it was missing a personal element, the fingerprint of the composer less visible through economy of means, tintinnabular harmonies and widely-spaced notes. You might indeed find it to be a bit too close to the middle of the road at first: eyes wide-open and clear, but seeing no further than the bright lights of an oncoming juggernaut stacked with soft duvets. I however found it useful to come back to it after a day or so, and found that it had been beavering away unconsciously at the soft, slushy, stupid part of my lazy musical brain and had made a little home, becoming established as something rather rich and strange.

I am very grateful to Andrew Keeling for supplying the discs for this review, and for his helpful comments. I’m also proud to have been able to contribute to one of the tracks, and look forward to seeing what this fascinating composer will come up with next.

Dominy Clements

 

Message received

I'm writing with a (very belated!) response to a review on your site by Dominy Clements of Andrew Keeling's CD 'Reclaiming Eros' in the hope that you will forward this to him.

I am the flautist from the group TripleSec who recorded Andrew's Petit Requiem pour Basil on the CD - although the review of the recording of this track is not overtly negative, I wanted to point out that the whole piece was intended as a joke. The Basil of the piece was, in fact, a herb - the email was written from France by a friend of Rosalind Rawnsley (the narrator of the piece) who had been given the responsibility of looking after her houseplants including the herbs and he wrote in a tragi-comic style of the death of the plant! This might explain why 'the music is not always entirely in the nature of a lament'! As the words are all in French, I can appreciate that it is not easy to understand what is going on - Andrew read the email when Rosalind first received it and after laughing at it, decided to set himself the challenge of setting the 'tragedy' to music as a requiem for the dead plant. Personally, I think he wrote a rather beautiful little piece which is necessarily full of ambiguity.

Anyway, I hope this explains the nature of the piece a little more as well as TripleSec's style of delivery!…

Yours sincerely,

Lynne Bulmer


 

 


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