Paul Keenan


Paul KEENAN (1956–2001)

Born in 1956 in Birmingham, Paul studied composition with Anthony Gilbert at the Royal Northern College of Music and privately with Bill Hopkins. In 1999 he was awarded a PhD by University of Edinburgh, supervised by Nigel Osborne and Peter Nelson.

In 1977, his Concerto for Groups of Instruments won the Royal Philharmonic Society Prize and in 1978 his Music for Wood and Strings won the silver medal of The Worshipful Company of Musicians. However, the most important work of this period is The Ruin, set to part of the Anglo-Saxon poem. The Ruin is a 'double time refraction' evoking the strong, though not specific, sense of place which permeates his later composition.

Paul's fascination with nature underpins all his music, and his tireless quest for scrupulous honesty in his writing led him to investigate a range of scientific phenomena. The beating wings of swans in flight were woven into the rhythms of Palimpsest; the pitches rendered from their calls. Nonetheless, it was the mathematics of a rainbow which developed into Paul's groundbreaking research into trombone 'lip' multiphonics, and the musical ideas thus generated were, like the rainbow, to have no end! A Field of Scarecrows was consequently based on the multiphonics discovered in birdsong; Squaring xlvii on spectral analyses of the vocal sounds of the poem, used with the kind permission of Seamus Heaney.

All this attracted the interest of Border Television, where film director Peter Chapman was intrigued by the overlap between art and science. He made a documentary about how Paul's research 'fed into' his compositional technique and its relationship with the natural world. The programme, which included a complete performance of Cloudscapes, was broadcast in October 1998.

In 1999, Paul was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, but he continued to compose. His last piece, I quattro libri dell’architettura, is a musical 'map' of Paxton House and its grounds, where he lived with his family. He died on 26 June 2001, aged 44.

Since his death, Paul’s music has gained increasing recognition and appreciation with numerous performances in the UK, Europe and America, in addition to radio broadcasts on BBC Radio 3 and in Europe. Most important of all was the world premiere and broadcast of Palimpsest, in which the pioneering sound world of the electronics were described as: 'thrilling surges of sound ... like listening to Bach played on a cut-glass organ in an enchanted cathedral'. Concerto for Groups of Instruments was performed and broadcast by BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Garry Walker, and A Field of Scarecrows has been extensively toured in Britain, Europe and America, broadcast on radio, and is available on CD.

In 2015, Cloudscapes received its US premiere in the prestigious Monday Evening Concert series in a programme curated by Paul Griffiths celebrating the music of Barraqué and his musical descendants. Griffiths also refers to Keenan's Palimpsest in his latest edition of Modern Music and After.

Other performances include The Ruin by Chimera Ensemble at the University of York and numerous performances of Cloudscapes for Ballet Bewegung, choreographed by Jane Keenan.

Comet Hale-Bopp, the work Paul considered his finest, still waits to be performed.

List of works

Concerto for Groups of Instruments


Awarded Royal Philharmonic Society Composition Prize 1977

Duration: 25'

Scoring: 2(I=picc,II=afl).1.1.1––pft.elec org–

3 pieces for solo flute

1973 rev.1978

Duration: 8'

Solo flute

Music of wood and strings


Awarded Worshipful Company of Musicians Silver Medal 1978

Duration: 10'

Solo violin

The Ruin


Duration: 25'

Soprano, countertenor and ensemble
Scoring:––pno.cel/org/hpd–perc(2):mar,vib,crot(chromatic octave),t.bells,tam-t(large),3gongs(high-medium-low),susp.cym(large),4bongos,conga drum,wdbl,2claves,3cowbells(pitched)–S.CT–string quartet(

Duo: In memory of Bill Hopkins

1981; extended 1984

Duration: 10'

Guitar duo

Towards Happisburgh


Duration: 17'

Tape electronics



Duration: 10'

Guitar duo



Duration: 45'

Soprano, ensemble, live and tape electronics
Scoring: 0.1(=ob,corA).1.0––pno–perc(1):vib,glsp,3tam-t(high-medium-low)–S–string quartet(–tape electronics

Movement for Jane


Duration: 1'30

Version 1: Flute, violin, 'cello, vibraphone, harp
Version 2: Clarinet, violin, 'cello, pianoforte



Duration: 10–14'

Clarinet, violin, 'cello, and pianoforte

Squaring xlvii


Duration: 30'

Soprano, trombone (alto/tenor-bass), percussion (1 or 3), live and tape electronics

Comet Hale-Bopp


Duration: 23'

43 musicians in three groups and tape electronics
Scoring: 6(III=fl,picc;IV=afl;V=afl;VI=bfl).2(I=ob;II=corA).1.0––perc(5):vib,2glsp,claves,6tam-t,2hand-held crot(high,medium),3 tuned Balinese gongs,tuned Chinese gong,crot,BD,tongue-drum(8-slot),6gongs,marimba,small bell,maracas(high,low)–2harps–pft––tape electronics

A Field of Scarecrows


Duration: 25'

Trombone (alto/tenor-bass) and pianoforte [trombonist reads spoken word]

I quattro libri dell'architettura


Duration: 28'

String quartet and electronics