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IN MEMORIAM | Finding One’s Freedoms — A Tribute To David Keane

By William Beauvais on September 15, 2017

Lessons from a life well-lived: Memories of the late Canadian composer, performer, educator, and writer David Keane (1943-2017) (Photo: The Canadian Music Centre)

It was a hot summer day, and I was sitting outside David Keane’s house with a refreshing glass of Sauvignon Blanc. David was telling me about his days at Ohio State University where he had done his undergraduate and graduate studies. In those days playing in the marching band was important at most US music schools and the Ohio State Field Commanders – the people who led the marching bands, were required to attend the opera singing for non-majors class. Juxtaposing military training and opera seemed absurd. From a practical side, it resulted from too many commanders losing their voices: speaking over a bevy of trumpets and drums requires a big voice. This delightful absurdity makes me smile even today.

Back in the early ’90s, I was watching my students play a concert at Queen’s University. One of my gifted students was playing a study for guitar by David, that I had only just edited and recorded. It was a challenging work, but as an audience member, different qualities emerged, and at one point I laughed. Turning to the woman next to me — Melba Cuddy-Keane — the composer’s wife, I saw that she was smiling as well. She leaned closer to me and said, “David’s music has lots of humour in it, but many people don’t seem to notice.”

I started teaching at Queens’ in the mid-’80s, and David Keane was a notable but mysterious presence. Commuting to the school, I was only there one day a week and only met David near the end of my stint. It was in the mailroom, and he asked if I would be interested in working with him on a guitar piece. At the time “music that hadn’t been heard yet” was my speciality. Two weeks later David had placed a piece in my mailbox. This promptness was very impressive and characteristic of David’s commitment to the tasks he set for himself. I was also impressed by his openness to my suggestions as we edited the work over the next months. After the editing, we recorded it at the Music Gallery. He invited me to release my next CD on the label he had created with the university — Queens’ University Records.

He proceeded to write a companion piece to the study called Danza, which took Leyenda by Albeniz as its inspiration. Over the ensuing months as we worked together, I was to benefit from David’s generous hospitality. One day over lunch he was sharing some Ontario Vidal wine made by Lisette LeBlanc. I had just read about her in the Globe and Mail, and was thrilled to be able to try some of her product. David loved to go to the Vintages new releases, even though at that time he’d had some surgery which prevented him from drinking wine for a while. He asked numerous questions about the wine, and even quoted some of the tasting notes asking for verification.

Later that summer I was invited to a dinner at his home. There was a young couple from Marseille in Toronto for the weekend to stay with him and Melba. The French couple had won a prize awarded by the Canadian Electroacoustic Community — which included a residency at the Queen’s University studio. They were a charming couple and explained that being outside of Paris meant looking elsewhere for recognition. The IRCAM studio sucked up so much of the economic resources, that they had to help their own school find the resources to establish an appropriate studio.

David explained that such a prize fostered an international exchange of ideas, and advanced the profile of the Canadian Electroacoustic Community on a worldwide scale. It cost virtually nothing, the winners stayed with David and Melba, the university music studio was free in the summer, and the department of external affairs was happy to pay the winner’s travel expenses.

This is the most important lesson I learned from David: to locate one’s freedoms. By making a complete and accurate assessment of one’s assets, it is possible to find riches. A vacant room can be a prize; a school can become a record label. Wine can be enjoyed vicariously, and laughter can brighten any day. We have more at our disposal than we think and can always make a valuable contribution with those tangible and less tangible resources.


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