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by Timothy White
From Billboard magazine, issue dated April 27, 2002
Brian Keane Shares Ansel Adams' Vision
Chance, favor, and the prepared mind. That's how Ansel Adams described the evolution of his nature photography to a plane of poetic excellence. In his search for the right proportion of humility, vision, and drive with which all artists attempt to achieve an original portrayal of the truth, Adams' essential checklist was succinct. Since he was also a trained classical pianist, his outlook resonates in the realm of sound as well as sight.
"Music is wonderful, but the musical world is bunk—so much petty doings, so much pose and insincerity and distorted values," Adams also observed, by way of explaining his decision in young adulthood to pursue photography rather than music as a career. On April 23—two days after the national PBS TV premiere of Ansel Adams: A Documentary Film by noted documentarian Ric Burns—Green Linnet Records releases the soundtrack to the project. Produced, arranged, and conducted by Brian Keane, an equally gifted musical scorer of documentaries, the music has a crisp lucidity and spaciousness to rival both Adams' awed environmental portraiture and Burns' careful historical insights. And, like the sum of Keane's own exceptional career, it meets the film's subject's aforementioned recipe for inspired results.
"I started out as a musician who was very intellectually based, being in jazz and classical music," Keane says with a laugh. "But like Ansel, I have also realized over time that the infinity in any art form is its emotional and spiritual substance, and music is the most direct at expressing that substance."
An only child born to a once-wealthy San Francisco timber baron who went bust, Adams grew up an eccentric soul encouraged by a tender father and tolerated at a distance by a depressed mother. Respect for civility kept the highly stressed family on course, and controlled benevolence became the Adams boy's quiet creed. On a family trip to the spectacular Yosemite Valley in 1916, the shy 14-year-old saw with one sweeping gaze that there would always be something far greater than the fortunes or follies of mortal guile. Adams took his first serious photo in 1927 (two years after he began giving piano concerts), and for the rest of his career—although he occasionally collaborated with such human-interest-minded photo-journalists as Dorothea Lange—Adams took to what he called "the high places" of the western American wilderness. Poised before nature's immensity in every psychic and artistic sense, he used his camera to depict humanity's small but critical place in the landscape. Through chance, favor, and a prepared mind, he became a pioneer artist/conservationist who chronicled one person's luminous intersections with eternity.
"In his time, the most popular photography was depicting human suffering from the Depression, the rise of Nazi Germany, and so on," Keane says. "He was criticized for taking pictures of nature while all of this was going on. But he saw a more lasting truth in man's relatively insignificant relationship with the whole of nature, and, in a strange way, with a more correct sense of balance than many of his contemporaries."
For Keane (born Jan. 18, 1953, in Philadelphia, the first of three offspring by businessman/amateur Irish tenor George Keane and his avant-garde composer/wife, Winifred), the "chance" aspect of his own musical growth occurred when the Juilliard School-educated guitarist—who'd built an early jazz reputation recording with Larry Coryell and touring with Coryell, Polish violinist Michael Urbaniak, flamenco legend Paco De Lucia, and the group Spyro Gyra—was invited in 1981 to score his first documentary. It was Against Wind and Tide: A Cuban Odyssey, a study by filmmakers Jim Burroughs and Suzanne Bauman of the Mariel boat lift. The film earned an Academy Award nomination, and Keane's verve as a musical storyteller was established. Between jazz dates during the next six years, he toiled on other film projects with Bauman or Burroughs, including her 1987 documentary Suleyman the Magnificent. Suleyman led to collaborations —among them the classic Beyond the Sky (Celestial Harmonies, 1992) with Turkish multi-instrumentalist Omar Faruk Tekbilek. Keane also began an acclaimed solo career that yielded such admired albums as Snowfalls (Flying Fish, 1986) and Common Planet (Blue Note, 1992).
But in an Adams-like gesture of resolve, Keane left Blue Note and solo jazz work because the commercial demands of the genre felt too confining. Despite scoring nearly 200 documentaries (including such renowned PBS series as Eyes on the Prize, The Great Depression, and Long Journey Home: The Irish in America), creating his own lucrative Winter Solstice and Summer Solstice album collections, and becoming an in-demand music producer, Keane has opted not to cut another album as a featured solo artist. "It's hard to reconcile art and commerce much of the time," he says. "What most corporations' stockholders are looking for is safety and a high return—fast. You couldn't ask for worse conditions to manufacture art, because they will mean copying somebody else with whatever's popular to try to cash in quick. I prefer documentaries, because the subject matter is worth documenting—that's why they're made."
In 1989, Keane was working on the score for Chimps: So Like Us—the Emmy Award-winning HBO film about Jane Goodall's field studies of chimpanzees—when he met Ric Burns, who was collaborating one floor up in the same building with his brother Ken Burns on The Civil War. Ric asked Keane to score Coney Island, his own PBS film for the American Experience series. Keane has since scored all Ric's films, including The Donner Party, The Way West, New York, and now Ansel Adams. "Ric is an artist himself," Keane says, "and he wanted to focus the film on Ansel's life but also the process and the value of being an artist. The responsibility of the film composer is to the emotional truth the director's trying to convey. It's also the ideal of artists, in terms of what they're trying to convey in their art. Adams was someone who experienced the world in emotional and spiritual terms."
Keane captures that experience in all its lonely, purposeful rigor and trepidation, bringing a vast tenderness to the piano and guitar themes, as well as the full orchestrations. There is a vulnerability to Ansel Adams: Original Soundtrack Recording From the Film by Ric Burns that is by turns poignant and transporting, the music often redolent of a solitary climb to a succession of impermanent plateaus. (A thoughtful coda Keane included on the album is a portion of a primitive 1944 recording of a Bach prelude played by Adams himself.)
In the process, Keane has made one of the most distinctive instrumental albums of the decade. "Getting back to emotional truth," Keane says in summary, "sadness, of course, is a part of longing—the knowledge that you may not achieve your dreams. But you have the courage and conviction to go after them anyway. Those emotions are in Adams and all of us, or they wouldn't resonate so strongly."
to Brian Keane Music website