Are you ready? Are you listening? Mark O’Keeffe, trumpeter extraordinaire, would like to play for you. Like a wandering minstrel or – as in the title of one of the pieces here – a knight errant, this modern virtuoso undertakes a journey to entertain you and a voyage to prove himself. Sometimes, it seems, he is merely showing off, in pure display with no other object (tilting at windmills, to adopt knightly parlance). At other times the obstacles he has to overcome are real, and substantial. At several points he is joined by a companion on the road, to lend assistance or perhaps just to fill in the scenery. Sometimes he is alone, but rarely for long: he is a past master at dreaming up company for himself, and even when he doesn’t … well, after all, you are there. Listening. Watching, even, with your mind’s eye. Answering back? That’s up to you.
The journey starts, appropriately enough, with a very well-known beginning indeed: the beginning of the universe. Eddie McGuire’s Prelude 22 (The Big Bang) is the most recent in the series of solo preludes McGuire began in 1975, and in which he hopes eventually to include a work for every instrument. The solo trumpet work shares its astronomical subject matter with McGuire’s Orbit for trumpet duo, Five Stars in Auriga for brass quintet and Earthrise for brass band. Out of chaos, concrete musical images solidify, at first as fragments: a slow reel, a jig, a polka. These dances represent the entry of life into the universe, and in extending the fragments into complete performances the trumpeter seems to find his own place on Earth, to become an actor rather than a narrator.
Prelude 22, like most of the pieces brought together here, was premiered by Mark O’Keeffe, and appears specially tailored to his dramatic capabilities as well as to his virtuosic musicianship. Those not written for O’Keeffe were, with one exception (John Maxwell Geddes’ Etude d’execution transcendante), composed for his teacher and mentor John Wallace, who has passed on to his protégé the mantle of virtuosity as well as setting an example of passionate commitment to promoting new work. Even Geddes’ etude, the oldest work on the disc, is only twelve years old; none of these pieces would have been imaginable more than twenty or thirty years ago, since which time advances in technical construction and performing technique have expanded the instrument’s repertory almost beyond recognition. But the idea of a display piece for a solo instrumentalist is much older, and in that sense all of the music on this recording draws on a distinguished history.
How does a composer make music out of a single line of notes, a sequence of sounds to be performed on an instrument which (unlike, say, a piano) can only play one note at a time? More often than you might expect, the answer has to do with counterpoint: with the simultaneity of different lines. At its simplest, counterpoint suggests two melodies sung or played in harmonious combination. Composers from the fourteenth century to the eighteenth were much occupied with the art of combining such lines, and when Baroque composers such as Bach and Telemann began to write music for solo flute, violin or cello the distribution of high and low notes often produced the illusion of distinct but intertwining strands in music played by a single instrument. Today, with its vastly expanded range and flexibility, a solo trumpet can do something similar. Today, too, the more familiar patterns and gestures of Baroque trumpet music may themselves be one of the elements which a new piece evokes. Music can be a polyphony of so many different things, and counterpoint is music’s third dimension, opening it up to the past as well as to other presents. You are not alone, it says. In life, as in music, someone is talking or singing and someone else is listening.
© 2007 John Fallas
[from the booklet notes to Knight Errant: solo music for trumpet (Mark O’Keeffe; Delphian Records, 2007)]