A WEEK ON Friday, an extraordinary musical event will take place in, of all places, Edinburgh’s Morningside Baptist Church. For those interested in the cutting edge of technology-led contemporary classical music it will indeed be a case of total immersion. For those simply eager to open their minds to fascinating new sound worlds, it’s again something not to be missed. Central to the whole event, which is being promoted by the highly regarded Edinburgh Contemporary Arts Trust (ECAT), is the world premiere of Paul Keenan’s major groundbreaking work for soprano, mixed ensemble and electronics, Palimpsest.
What makes this premiere so poignant, however, is the fact that Keenan will not be there. He died tragically four years ago from cancer at the age of 44, leaving behind a wife and five children and a canon of unperformed works. Many of his colleagues still describe him as a visionary in the field of electro-acoustic music, where he was developing techniques that were both jaw-dropping in their complexity, and revolutionary in their potential practical application.
It helps to know something of the research Keenan was involved in. And the best person to explain it is John Kenny, the man who will direct next week’s performance. Kenny is a trombonist of extraordinary ability who specialises in raw-edged contemporary music. He can get noises out of his instrument that would sound out of place even in a farmyard menagerie. He was also a lifelong friend of Keenan. Both were of Anglo-Irish stock, grew up in Birmingham and both, by chance, ended up living and working in Scotland.
First, some background. En route to Scotland, Keenan studied with Anthony Gilbert in the 1970s at the Royal Northern College of Music, where he also encountered Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, then a visiting lecturer at the Manchester college. He then took lessons from Bill Hopkins - a pupil of the influential Frenchman Jean Barraqué, who, along with his contemporary, Pierre Boulez, was one of Olivier Messiaen’s proteges. That golden lineage revealed itself in a style of composition ECAT’s artistic director, Peter Nelson, describes as "French decorative, beautiful, but full of unending complexity".
Keenan settled in Berwick-upon-Tweed in 1988, signing up for a PhD at Edinburgh University four years later. His interest lay in the field of electronic music, in particular defining new expressive techniques in a medium generally deemed to be dry and soulless.
According to Kenny, Keenan’s greatest achievement was to develop an intellectual bridge that brought together the technological aridity of the studio and the searching inspiration of the genuine artist. "It all arose from a feeling that the old avant-garde had moved so far away from public appreciation, and that, in the wake of philistine money-tight Thatcherism, a whole genre of ‘soft porn’ contemporary music had taken over," he says. "Paul saw a drift towards the more commercial, in which composers were stealing the clothes of rock, jazz and pop."
Having been touched by the French avant-garde tradition, it’s not surprising to discover that Keenan’s didactic musical philosophy corresponded so closely to Boulez’s, and to a large extent, Messiaen’s. "Paul’s starting point was the melody, from which the harmony evolved," says Kenny. "He also felt that nature [as did Messiaen in his preoccupation with bird calls and prime numbers] held the answer to the big question he kept asking himself - why write contemporary music?"
Kenny’s ability to perform "lip multiphonics" on the trombone - playing more than one note at a time - attracted Keenan’s curiosity. "It can be done by either manipulating the embouchure, or singing another note into the instrument," Kenny explains. "On the other hand, the effect can simply result from a mistake - brass players are terrified of splitting notes, which happen if you hit just above the centre of the note."
Keenan decided to analyse the harmonic outcome scientifically. In the physics department at Edinburgh University, he "froze" the moment of the split, opening it up to discover that the resulting notes formed a perfect harmonic series - a similar process to passing light through a prism and seeing the component colours of the spectrum separate as a result of refraction.
Keenan discovered, too, that the patterns of multiple notes were replicated in nature. And when he analysed independently a recording of swans beating their wings in flight, he found that they, too, generated an identical pattern to Kenny’s lip multiphonics on the trombone.
From this process of "spectral analysis", Keenan had found a means of marrying electronic processes to creative inspiration. The computer was not the end, but the means to the end. In many ways, he was no different to the late serialists in seeking inspiration in the medieval world - its poetry on one hand, its numerical underpinning on the other. Where Maxwell Davies uses magic squares to generate systematic logic in his music, for instance, Keenan’s toolbox was his computer. Without genuine craftsmanship, however, the tools would have been completely ineffective.
To what extent Keenan ultimately succeeded as a composer can be assessed through next week’s performance of Palimpsest. A clue to its long gestation lies in the title, which means "a manuscript in which the original writing has been rubbed out to be make way for new".
The origins of Palimpsest lie in an earlier work written for soprano and piano, which Keenan reworked as a setting of an Anglo-Saxon riddle (the answer to which is "swan"), increased to 45 minutes in length, and extended its instrumentation to include string quartet, percussion, electronics, trombone and woodwind instruments. "It’s a work that takes no prisoners," says Kenny. "Paul never compromised his music by softening it".
Keenan himself worked doggedly at his music. "He had his eyes firmly fixed on his artistic goal," says Nelson, with whom Keenan collaborated closely during his doctoral research. "I watched him sit for seven months with a chime bar and pencil, transcribing the electronic sounds into musical notation. If he hadn’t succeeded I’d have thought he was bananas." Kenny adds: "He did so at enormous cost to himself - working himself to the point of exhaustion."
Both are convinced the music is special. "Paul would have been very influential," says Nelson. In Britain, where funding for electronic studio research is virtually non-existent outwith some universities and colleges - compared to the major international centres in France, Canada, Germany and Holland - Keenan was something of a lone voice, which makes his early death all the more tragic.
Kenny is determined to let the music be heard. He has already recorded A Field of Scarecrows1 with the pianist George Nicholson, but larger-scale works such as Comet Hale-Bopp remain unperformed.
Kenny and Nelson, together with Edinburgh University music professor Nigel Osborne, did put together a partial performance of Palimpsest just before Keenan died, but "didn’t have the money to do it justice". "We vowed then we’d do a complete world premiere," says Kenny. Kenny and colleagues have also fought hard to get Keenan’s name known in wider spheres. "We’ve sent music to various ensembles, but one of the problems is that musical activity is driven by media support," he says. "Paul’s music was never published, so as a composer he is simply not known."
The very least we need is to hear what all the shouting is about.
ECAT perform Paul Keenan’s Palimpsest in Morningside Baptist Church, Edinburgh, Friday 28 January, 7:45pm
Picture: Jon Savage
1 - The original article incorrectly refers to A Flock of Scarecrows. This has been amended here.
MORNINGSIDE BAPTIST CHURCH, EDINBURGH
THE main focus of this ECAT/ Society for the Promotion of New Music co-promotion was Paul Keenan’s Palimpsest, one of the SPNM’s shortlisted works. Friends of the late composer, including trombonist John Kenny who conducted the piece, have been pushing for a performance for many years. Although Keenan heard a read-through before he died in 2001, this was the world premiere.
Written for soprano, small ensemble and electronics, Palimpsest reflects Keenan’s remarkable and often complex musical language that turns sound inside out: creating something solid out of the intangible and giving substance to the most fleeting of images or sensations. Each of the three sections explored different ideas, experimenting with different combinations of instruments and sounds. Some of the most haunting passages were the evocations of the swans that flew over the River Tweed near the composer’s home.
However, it was in the last movement, where Keenan’s inspired use of electro-acoustics speaks directly and most emotionally to the listener, that one caught a glimpse of the extraordinary world the composer had only just started exploring. The thrilling surges of sound were like listening to Bach played on a cut-glass organ in an enchanted cathedral.
Keenan leaves a rich legacy in terms of his pioneering approach to making music.
Paul Keenan is a musical timetraveller. His roots are in the European avant-garde of the Fifties and Sixties, in particular composers such as Barraqué and Boulez who are now desperately unfashionable. But he infuses the language quirkily with universals and ancient archetypes and suddenly there is the breath of the new in it. I have to declare an interest here: I'm a fan, and had a hand in this portrait concert, but I'm prepared to stick my neck out and say that Keenan has a unique and essential voice.
The concert began with the ethereal Cloudscapes, performed by the Hebrides Ensemble1 with diamond-cut solos from pianist Peter Evans and clarinettist Lawrence Gill. Palimpsest was given a courageous workshop reading by the Edinburgh Quartet with some virtuosic playing by oboist Janie Miller.
The second half featured stunning and committed performances from trombonist John Kenny. In A Field of Scarecrows he was a wizard of sonority, a plumber of sound who bends the instrument in any way he wishes. George Nicholson offered an imaginative piano accompaniment - a dappled field of resonance and a luminous background to silhouettes stalking the horizon. Above all, Squaring xlvii reveals itself as a magnificent work. There are words by Seamus Heaney and the poet could have no better advocate than Frances Lynch who speaks and sings with wit, austerity and thrilling lyricism. The work is electro-acoustic in the French manner but knocks the IRCAM repetoire for six. The alchemies of bells and gongs were diffused with impeccable taste by Alistair MacDonald and Simon Atchinson. Percussionist Joby Burgess preyed on the tam-tams and vibes like a panther at bay - for my money, a star in the making.
Nigel Osborne, The Scotsman 9.9.99
1 - This performance was not by the Hebrides Ensemble, but by a miscellaneous group of musicians.
Listening to Paul Keenan's music is like stepping into an enchanted forest full of brightness and wonder, where sounds shimmer into being only to be transformed before your eyes.
His special abilty to metamorphose electronic and acoustic material into dazzling, ethereal effects as heard in Squaring xlvii would be hard to equal.
The piece for soprano (Frances Lynch), trombone (John Kenny), percussion (Joby Burgess) and sound diffusion (Simon Atkinson and Alistair MacDonald) takes its title from a poem by Seamus Heaney which imagines what happens to the sea when it is not being looked at.
Keenan's most recent work, A Field of Scarecrows, for alto/tenor-bass trombone, features the text of an Anglo-Saxon poem, Ruin, spoken by John Kenny. This is woven in and out of the music, providing the point to which the trombone and piano - brilliantly played by George Nicholson - gravitate.
Cloudscapes for violin (Katie Hull), cello (Juliet Welchman), clarinet (Lawrence Gill) and piano (Peter Evans) was the least satisfactory of the pieces. Somehow the different fragments never quite gelled.
Susan Nickalls, Edinburgh Evening News 9.9.99
Paul Keenan's new work "I Quattro Libri dell'Architettura" was performed recently at the concert series "Summer Music at Paxton House" by the Edinburgh String Quartet and Paul Keenan at the electronics desk....The music: an extraordinary interweaving of acoustic (live string quartet and pre-recorded piano (representing the distance in time of a musician from the past)) and electronic sounds - at times playful and at times mind blowing; at times emotional and at times supremely peaceful, was enthusiastically received by the wide spectrum of listeners in the audience...
Lucy Cowan, violinist - extract from letter to the editor of The Herald.24.7.00
"...If the Ligeti concerto [the Chamber Concerto] hardly seems a masterwork, words almost fail me when it comes to (student?) Paul Keenan's "The Ruin", apparently inspired by the opening section of an Anglo-Saxon poem describing the deserted Aquae Sulis (Bath) and scored for 13 instrumentalists and two singers. (The conductor was David Fanning).
The instrumental music in the first section is apparently concerned with the breaking down of a "very rigidly structured" music. To me, however, it seemed - like the rest - merely an amorphous mass. I could detect no real sense of direction. There seemed to be no reason why it should not last for twice (or half) as long as it did - 23 minutes.
As I watched Anthony Gilbert (who teaches composition at the college) applaud enthusiastically, I could not help thinking that there might be something to be said for what - on the evidence of the previous night's concert by students of the Prague Academy - would seem to be the stricter discipline of the Eastern European conservatoires..."
Paul Dewhirst, The Daily Telegraph 28.2.80
"...Paul Keenan's last three major pieces have all been involved with myself, and have been at least in part stimulated by a preoccupation with the phenomenon of trombone lip multiphonics. He has carried out research that I began...at IRCAM in Paris, and has now analysed these complex phenomena more deeply and effectively than any other researcher to date. His conclusions have enabled him to use these multiphonics to generate a web of harmonic structure which is an alternative to both conventional tonality and to serialism, but which yet has a natural gravity. ...The search for a harmonic language of contemporary relevance is a matter of great concern to composers at the end of the 20th century - we need to know if there is an alternative to simplification, the absorption of commercial styles, and minimalism; indeed, is there a future for "serious" music!? To my knowledge, he is the only British composer working so exhaustively in this field, and as such I believe his work to be of international importance."
John Kenny (trombonist/composer) 1998