The man who split music's atom

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 the1970s 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 Barraqu, 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 Flock of Scarecrows 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