Instrumentation: Clarinet, violin, 'cello and pianoforte

I (vln and pft)
II (vln, vc and pft)
III (cl and pft)
IV (vc and pft)
1 (cl)
2 (cl, vc and pft)
3 (pft)
4 (tutti)
coda: noctilucent cloud (pft)

Like many twentieth-century composers, early and late, Paul Keenan would often re-use compositional material in a context distinct from that of its conception. The story of Cloudscapes (1996) began twenty years earlier with the composition of The Ruin (1976–9), setting part of an Anglo-Saxon elegy from the eighth century, and thus initiating Keenan’s life-long fascination with literature in Old English. The significance of Anglo-Saxon literature in Keenan’s music echoes that of Beckett in Hopkins’s and Broch in Barraqué’s, a fascination so strong it became central to the composer’s musical language. Cloudscapes is thus part of the direct lineage Barraqué–Hopkins–Keenan, besides reflecting Keenan’s broader admiration of twentieth-century French music.

As implied by the full title of The Ruin, Keenan always intended to return to this text, and among his sketches is a note to himself: "Remember the logic of the piece was the extension, elaboration, of each of the expansion sub-sections." Though no further setting was ever completed, the extension and elaboration clearly continue into Palimpsest (1992–5), for soprano, ensemble, and electronics, and from that work into Cloudscapes.

Written as a partner piece to Messiaen’s Quatour pour le fin du temps, and playing for twelve to fourteen minutes, Cloudscapes explores the ensemble through a series of solos, duets, and trios before arriving at the full quartet in its penultimate movement. Movements I-IV are based on the first part of Palimpsest, the subject of which is "ice", whose quality is conveyed by Keenan’s use of sustained pedal pitches, slowly evolving and eventually giving way. The four movements with Arabic numerals derive from the "sun and moon" music of Palimpsest, relinquishing electronic drama in favor of shades of light.

The inspiration for Cloudscapes came one evening in 1996 when Keenan was driving home as the sun set. The colors had a strong resemblance to those he had just been seeing in images of spectrographic analyses, while the shapes of the clouds resembled a musical stave.

Programme note © Paul Griffiths 2015, reproduced with permission