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
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,
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
“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.”
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.
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!