quickening the dead - Andrew Keeling (RVRCD55)

Andrew Keeling's new release on Riverrun Records illustrates the range and power of his interests and skills as a composer rooted in a broad set of intellectual and ethical concerns. (It is no surprise that his website diary - http://www.discipline.co.uk/diary/diary.htm - he operates has attracted 25000 visits in the last year.) At the heart of the new record is an intricate trilogy - two solo pieces and a duet - which illustrate well the power of his musical intelligence.

I was immediately drawn to the flute solo - In the Clear - for a number of reasons. I play flute myself and duetted with Andrew about eighteen months ago at a memorial concert for a musician we both admire. Furthermore In the Clear is based on a poem in Sylvia Plath's Letters Home and I share Andrew's interest in the musical implications of that extraordinary creative life.

The piece starts in the low register and immediately establishes a vocabulary that I applaud - "chiff" effects, overblowing, microtonal variation, wide interval trills. The tame pastoral soundworld that the instrument bears as a cliché is banished - this music is about integrity rather than prettiness and the immediate desire to please. This is an instrument that can howl spit and shriek. (There is an irony that the Plath poem which inspires this is, if anything, slightly too concerned about the beauty of its surface as compared with the strength of the underpinning emotion.)

The most conventional element in the writing are the fast highly articulated lines which Alison Hayhurst executes with great precision but without any self-regarding fetishising of technique. The recording ambience is "fair" but not over-flattering and true to the piece and the performer's capabilities. Energy and excitement accumulate until the piece finishes on a final prolonged projection of high frequency sonic energy.

This exploration of individuality is followed by One Flesh - a duet for viol and lute - written to celebrate the marriage of the performers, Susanna Pell and Jacob Heringman. By contrast with the preceding track this is a soundworld where mutual tolerance of individual idiosyncrasies exist in their fullness against the preconceptions of the other half of the music. In this symbiosis incivility is encompassed and encouraged rather than blunted into facile compromise.

Another perspective on individuality is revealed in solo piece which completes this central section of the CD - Tjarn - a solo piano piece performed by Stephen Wray, a long time collaborator with Keeling and inspired by Inominate Tarn in the Lake District, an area which is a recurrent inspiration for this composer. The is a glorious compression in linking the metaphysical depth of a place whose name is (apparently) about not having a name and a contribution to a long tradition of piano-writing about water, its surfaces, reflections and duplicitous properties. Keeling does not disappoint in the way he tackles this complex field of allusion and illusion.

Tjarn itself slides into O Ignis Spiritus - a song cycle spectacularly realised by the Hilliard Ensemble. The sound perspective slips superbly from external to internal landscape. Keeling has set four texts – by Hildegaard von Bingen, William Blake, William Wordsworth and one of his own. My personal favourite is the setting of Blake's Auguries of Innocence written in memory of Rodney and Molly Drake, the parents of Nick Drake. The rising parallel harmonies reflect Keeling's deep study of Drake's compositional approach, while the lyric: to see the world in a grain of sand and heaven in a wild flower: aptly condenses the best of Drake's mature work. The Hilliard's performance is taught, sensitive and utterly appropriate to the marvellous density of the material.

Keeling rounds off the set of seven pieces with a piece for viola and prepared piano commissioned and played by Cathy Stevens and accompanied by Steven Wray - Off the Beaten Track, also inspired by a specific locality in Lake District. This opens in lyrical and expansive mood before the piano introduces dissonant material - eventually coaxing the viola to join in the more frenetic mood. But the lyricism of the sustained viola notes prevail although there is a final provocative graininess in the long high note under which the piano slowly drifts back into minor modality. The day ends with dusk anticipating further falls in temperature.

So the set of pieces imply a narrative in which duality is ultimately unstable and the omens are at best indifferent. But how does the story start? Keelings interest in matters Jungian provides the inspiration for the opening pieces - the first two tracks are the Quickening of the Dead and Unseen Shadows. Strangely it is the opening track, the title track which gives me most problems, partly because of the technical problems inherent in its instrumentation - two pianos and soprano sax. The soundscape is quite lively - the music is presented as if we are sitting half way back in a mid sized recital room. After several hearings I crave a more intimate perspective - like those which are realised further into the set - a forensic dissection of the musical content. Bacchanalia are a trio with a mission and the musical possibilities in this combination of talents and instrumentation is a great opportunity for composers and performers alike and commissioning this work from Keeling is very much to be applauded.

Keeling's interest in landscape and atmosphere and the deep psychological resonances of these externals pervades this recording. It is a creative agenda which is traditionally English - the England of Wordsworth and Ruskin - perhaps one might better say - within an important English tradition. The psychological dimension is evident in Tippet's autobiography and his operas, in the art criticism and painting of Adrian Stokes and in Blake and the Victorian radicals who followed him such as Samuel Palmer.

This is not just a matter of being bewitched by the picturesque Lake District vistas as a means of escape. It is no wonder that Keeling is drawn to the revolutionary later work of Sylvia Plath, much of which was written in the Dartmoor area, and whose creative agenda embraces projects deep violence and intense beauty into the landscapes which surround her. Palmer depicted Kent with visionary intensity. Ruskin was an outsider who took a materialistic culture and turned it upside down. That passionate and committed energy is seldom far from the surface of this recording which I can heartily recommend.

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