Music under clear skies: Songs, Chimes and Dances: chamber music of Rob Keeley

May 12, 2014

The sun-drenched opening clarion call of ‘Music for Art and Tom’ sets the scene for the whole of Songs, Chimes and Dances, a survey of chamber music written between 1994 and 2007 by British composer Rob Keeley.

The opening piece displays Keeley’s trademark lyrical melodic writing in the saxophone’s woven lines, punctuated by prismatic chordal textures in the piano. Moving in step, the two instruments chime together in the second, more sedate section, with some beautifully struck sonorities in the accompaniment. There’s a charm to the music – but this isn’t to damn it; instead it’s a robust charm, one that is assured, supported by a good bone-structure – less simplistic than it is solid in its evolving form and musical language, a characteristic that runs throughout Keeley’s music.

Song_Chimes_DancesThere’s a questing sense to the opening widely-spaced sonority of the second piece on this disc, ‘Bells of Halkis,’ a question posed that the rest of the piece endeavours to answer in the ensuing, gradually unfurling lines. In contrast, the following ‘Little Trio’ moves with a bustling character in its combination of clarinet, cello and piano.

The two-movement ‘Two Ways of Looking At A Spider’ is reminiscent of that other, great work for classical guitar, Tippett’s Blue Guitar. Filigree textures contrast with vibrant struck chords and plucked harmonics in the opening ‘A Spider Dances,’ followed by the contrasting, evocative nocturne, ‘The Spider Laments at Night’. The piece is here exquisitely performed by guitarist Jonathan Learwood.

The opening of the Andante of the ‘Trio for Horn, Violin and Piano’ employs a falling gesture enriched with the timbre of the French horn, a languorous figure which slowly draws out its colours as it repeats. A dancing scherzo pitches the piano against deftly-stepping violin and horn duo; the final movement (subtitled ‘Piccola Scena Amorosa’) explores a darker hue, drawing on the rich ochre colour of the French horn at the heart of the ensemble.

The suite which gives the disc its name is a series of six studies; lithe, agile, lyrical, Puckish, including the warm hues of no.V, or the minimalist-style exploration of a fixed set of pitches gradually evolving in no. VI. This is music under a clear sky, open, lyrical and inventive, effortlessly played by oboist Melinda Maxwell

Rob_KeeleyThe last suite, ‘Oregon Moods,’ for clarinet, alto saxophone and piano opens with a beautiful series of chords, a gestures which, in typical fashion, repeats and evolves as it explores its own potential. There’s an hommage to the quixotic Erik Satie in the lyrical yet sad third movement, ‘Gallic.’

I first heard Keeley’s music in the lithe On The Tiles (2003) for violin and piano, the brisk, energetic Concerto for Piano and Twelve Instruments (2007) and the lissom Six Inventions for Flute and Clarinet written in 2011. What struck me immediately was the vigour, the energy combined with an assured ear for textural detail and a radiant harmonic language, which this music imparted. The music on the current disc is from an earlier period, and whilst the later chamber works display a tonal language that becomes less openly Mediterranean, perhaps, in its tonal palette, Keeley’s harmonic language remains clear, full of colour; at once immediately accessible yet rich in its tonal colours. There’s a Ravelian quality to the piano writing, with occasional reminiscences of George Benjamin; there’s mischief too, alongside the sonorous landscape evoked by pieces such as Bells of Halkis. Keeley’s formal organisation seems to rely less on traditional methods than on evolving patterns, hinted ostinati that evolve, or question-and-answer exchanges between instruments, musical lines engaged in dialogue, and through-composed, singing melodies possessed of a resourceful inventiveness. Keeley writes great endings to his pieces, too; either darting, scurrying lines that conclude abruptly, inconclusively, or sonorities that are left deliberately poised, waiting to pursue harmonic avenues left unexplored; as a listener, you are left wanting more.

This disc is released on the NMC label, which in 2013 celebrated its twenty-fifth year, an age belied by the youthful vigour of its catalogue; the survey on this album shines a light through the stained-glass hues of some of Keeley’s chamber music.