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Unquiet Earth – piano trio (2005)
(b. 18. June 1955, Denstone, Staffordshire)
Dedicated to Valen Trio
First public performance: May 11th 2014, Two Rivers Festival, Bushell Hall,
Birkenhead School, England
Clare Hammond (piano), Suzanne Casey (violin), Kenneth Woods (cello).
Recorded in 2010 by Valen Trio on “Unquiet Earth" - Spaceward Records SRS102
Andrew Keeling is a highly unique composer and musician who has deliberately followed his own path. He was a cathedral chorister during the 1960s, played rock music in the 1970s and shifted his focus to composition in the 1980s and ‘90s. His composition teachers were John Casken and Anthony Gilbert. He also studied part-time with Nicola Lefanu and was mentored by Howard Skempton and John Tavener.
Keeling's music has been performed, broadcast and recorded throughout the world by many leading ensembles and musicians, with music appearing on the Delphian, Metier, Riverrun, Burning Shed, Spaceward and DGM/Panegyric labels. It has been published by Faber.
He is also a prime authority on the music of King Crimson and Robert Fripp, having published scholarly musical guides on many of the group’s albums.
As an arranger and flautist/guitarist, Keeling has worked alongside Fripp to produce ‘The Wine of Silence’ – a series of orchestral arrangements of Fripp’s soundscapes – which received worldwide acclaim. He has also played on and arranged music for releases by Tim Bowness, The Gong Farmers and his alt-rock recording unit, Andrew Keeling and Otherworld.
He also works as a music improviser, with such releases as the David Cross/Andrew Keeling, English Sun album and the Banshee Engine's The Blue Place.
During the 2000s Keeling decided to withdraw from musical academia by seriously questioning both the music promoted by the establishment and musical pedagogy in general. He says:
‘My unconscious began to criticise the music I was writing. That which I’d previously felt valid now seemed to lack beauty and authenticity. I knew something different was necessary, but exactly what?’
A series of coincidences, or synchronicities – to use the Jungian term – put him on a different trajectory.
‘First, working with poet Alison Prince (1931-2019) on songs and opera projects allowed my former lyrical voice to re-emerge; then, subsequently, working in the context of improvisation – both as an arranger and a player – with Robert Fripp and David Cross of King Crimson meant approaching music “in the moment”. Another turning point was working with Stephen Fellows of new-wave band The Comsat Angels. I knew the path on which I was embarking would isolate me from the contemporary classical collective, but the individuation process had begun. At the time, I felt disorientated. It was something I didn’t particularly relish because it meant my career was effectively over. It felt like death. In retrospect, one dream I had at the time put the position quite succinctly: I was in a church and a well-respected establishment composition teacher was seated beside me slouching on a chair with his legs over the pew in front. I had to find the door by going around behind him. The meaning was clear: my contemporary music shadow lacked respect for the sacred aspect of music – something which, from my Jungian worldview, is paramount – and I was forced to circumnavigate him to find a suitable exit. Gradually, I began to see it not as foolishness, which is probably how some people viewed what I was doing, but as wisdom. I had no choice but to follow the promptings of the unconscious.’
Source: British Music Collection
Unquiet Earth was completed on January 1st 2005. As a program note the composer offers the closing lines from Emily Brontë’s “Wuthering Heights”:
‘I sought, and soon discovered, the three head-stones on the slope next the moor – the middle one, grey, and half buried in heath – Edgar Linton’s, only harmonized by the turf, and moss creeping up its foot – Heathcliff’s still bare.
I lingered round them, under that benign sky; watched the moths fluttering among the heath, and hare-bells; listened to the soft wind through the glass; and wondered how anyone could ever imagine unquiet slumbers, for the sleepers in that quiet earth.’
The key to understanding the music Andrew Keeling has written since, roughly, the turn of the century, is song. A return to melody and a simplification of the language were the direct consequences of the transformation he describes in the text above. To be fair, melody had always been present in his music but after 2000 or so, it became more dominant and the music more “denuded” as he has expressed it. He wants to give his listeners something they can remember and take home with them.
Song is at the very core of Unquiet Earth.
The piece had “Transit” as its working title, as it represented, in the composer’s words “a transition of former stylistic preoccupations into something newer”. An earlier version – written for an ensemble that, ultimately, withdrew their commission in favour of a better-known English composer – had the respective titles of “Nigredo” and “Albedo” – the two first stages of the alchemical Magnum Opus – for its two movements. However, Keeling thought better of it and removed them, finding them to be pretentious. Instead he headed the movements with the titles “Alla Fantasia” and “Alla Danza”. He also appended the above quotation from Wuthering Heights as a program note. He made the connection of the three graves in Brontë’s passage with the idea of a trio.
Although Keeling’s well learned lessons from his period of studies and institutional teaching are present and correct in this remarkably coherent and tightly knit composition, not the slightest tinge of academia is to be found in Unquiet Earth. The music stays fresh, inclusive, inviting and beautiful throughout. Even the moments of tension and discomfort have a backdrop of human sentience.
One can reduce the musical essence of Unquiet Earth to its smallest cell: the interval of a falling second. It is a major second to begin with, already present in the very first sound produced by the violin and cello: a B natural and an A played simultaneously. In the second measure the B is flattened. This signifies a process of transformation that will be felt throughout the 21 minutes of the work. The falling second is to be found in numerous places in the first movement (see, for example, mm. 2, 12, 14, 29 and 31). At times it is counteracted by the same interval played in contrary motion in another voice, such as in mm. 24-25 and 26-27 in the piano. At the harmonic level this can be seen in mm. 33-34, where F Major and Eb Major are played simultaneously. Even the rhythmical music that begins on page 7 is an alteration between the B and A harmonies. Mirror movements are also a prominent feature of the music, already from the opening six measures. They can also be heard in subsequent piano figurations, for example mm. 7 and 9 and, in a different form, in mm. 82-89.
The material the cello introduces on page 8 remains fairly consistent throughout the piece, but changes character according to its context. In the initial dancing music from page 8 onwards, it fits well with the music that surrounds it. However, it begins to feel ill at ease from m. 115 onwards. By the time the first extended song-like episode takes over the music at letter K (p. 26) and particularly from letter L onwards, the once playful cello figures now sound grumpy and belligerent, like an unwanted guest or someone who has not managed to move on but is stuck in the past and blames his woes on everyone else. The cello finally manages to taint the piano with its awkwardness (mm. 109 and 167-176). All the same, the above mentioned song-like sequence goes a long way towards casting a calm spell over the music. As such, it is not a full fledged melody but, again, a succession of falling seconds. The sequence occurs five times, first sketched by the piano (letter K - m 27), then repeated four times by the strings with two alternative harmonisations and in ever varying textures. After the final iteration of the sequence, the melody finally goes upwards (m. 167). Landing on an F minor harmony (m. 173) that will become significant in the second movement, the music finally melts into an unresolved diminished harmony and descends into darkness.
With its sprightly triple rhythm, the second movement, “Alla Danza”, soon dispels the sombre sounds heard at the end of the first one. It is indeed dancing music, albeit with a tinge of melancholy. The melodic material consists of two falling tetrachords a major second apart – the main tones of the tetrachords themselves, D and C, sketching a falling second. A harmonic frame is first provided in mm. 4-5 with F Major and Eb Major again playing simultaneously. Eventually C minor is reached at letter A. The open harmonies (5ths and 4ths) in the piano leave room for the alternative modal coloration provided by the melody: Aeolian, then Phrygian. This simple idea takes the music all the way to m. 55 (letter F) by shifting the key centre between C and E, using imitation (mm. 16-19; 29-34), playful octave displacements (mm. 37-42), diminution (mm. 52-54); and also by varying the harmony while keeping the melody unchanged, such as in mm. 48-54. There is also a passage of freely composed music between letter B (p. 39) and m. 26, and a brief return of the mirror images the kind of which we saw in the first movement (piano, letter C – m. 33).
Having reached a peaceful Cmaj7 harmony in m. 61, a startling event occurring two measures later (letter G) becomes the turning point of the piece: the music points simultaneously to the past (violin) and the future (cello) from the perspective of the present (piano). The energy unleashed from this one concentrated measure splits the music into fragments, making us ready for what becomes the heart of the work.
At letter H (p. 49) we arrive at the moment for which the music has prepared us hitherto. We are already well acquainted with the mixture of F Major and Eb Major. Now however, it is coloured by an open G harmony. All the notes of the F Mixolydian mode are thus represented, creating a misty atmosphere. Perhaps this is the moment where we can imagine the three tombstones described at the end of Wuthering Heights. In an ambiguous F minor/C Phrygian landscape we hear the cello sketching the beginnings of a melody, interspersed with desolate violin recitatives. The general texture is dark. We soon realize that the melody into which the cello is warming was hinted at, long ago, in the first movement (see. mm. 25-28). At letter J (p. 52) all of a sudden the texture lightens up, opening for the most extended melodic passage in the composition: all of 34 measures of uninterrupted melody – if we disregard the accompaniment-only measure 117. And a marvellous passage it is, too. The bona fide emotional core of the piece.
Once this section is done with, we hear the interval that opened the piece, again played by the strings: A-B, on top of mysterious piano chords (mm. 137-140). At letter M the piano “sings” a chorale in unstable metres. The strings recall the beginning of their melody, first in unison, then – very sweetly – in thirds. Of itself this is unremarkable enough. In the context of a piece that has been subjected to the “tyranny of the second”, however, it is startling: it is the only time the strings play melodically and explicitly in parallel thirds. Although seconds will reappear thereafter, they somehow no longer hold sway over the music. These gentle, innocent thirds may well be the music providing the composer with a symbol of the individuation towards which he found himself heading.
Seriousness and contemplation are done with. We now hear the bell-like chords and snippets of the playful piano figurations from the first movement. At m. 165 the old, angular cello figures reappear but, something has happened to them in the meantime: they again appear cheerful and well adjusted to their environment. Gradually we are taken back into the carefree world of the first half of the opening movement and transported into the music that opened the second movement. Only now the triple metre is gone, a syncopated 4/4 taking its place. By way of culmination the melody that had dominated the last part of the first movement is now reinstated in properly grand apparel. All three instruments play at the top of their energies in this D minor apotheosis. Unexpectedly the strings hold a long note, the piano semiquavers getting stuck on an A Major harmony. The end consists of a chord progression of seven triads descending by thirds. This happens three times, each time faster than the previous one. After landing twice on C# minor, the music ends on a C Major chord, a very high major seventh connecting this proper ending to the tentative one we saw at mm. 61-61, right before the music changed direction.
However impressive all these technical descriptions may appear, little or none therein can give a clue as to how and why Unquiet Earth is the extraordinary work it is.
Keeling believes in inspiration. This alone sets him apart from the modernist school of thought. Although a form of craft is needed in order to create order out of inspired ideas, it only becomes a means to an end. Unquiet Earth is undoubtedly the work of a superb craftsman, but it is also a genuine piece of music. A work that has been created, rather than constructed. It is pleasing and challenging in equal measure. When it sings it really sings; when it dances it really dances. It contains music for and of the outdoors. It also contains music for introspection. And it is all held in perfect balance.
Ricardo Odriozola, October 27. 2021
German preface not available ...
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