Interview: Douglas Knehans
Douglas Knehans (b. 1957) is a world-renowned composer. His fresh and energetic style contains a captivating vitality that makes every listener feel alive. If the broader audience has not heard of his music yet, time will certainly tell. Primephonic met him in Brno where his label ABLAZE Records recorded a brand-new album with the Brno Philharmonic Orchestra.
Your latest release, Unfinished Earth, is a large-scale work for orchestra. In fact, it fulfils all the requirements of a symphony. Did you deliberately avoid the word ‘symphony’ in order to evoke an abstract narrative?
Douglas Knehans: Well, I was definitely thinking more traditionally. But there is something about our society, culturally, that if you say Symphony, there are some strong connotations with it. People might think “Oh boy, this guy thinks he is Beethoven or something”, so this word triggers a lot of connotations.
‘Concerto’ does it too, ‘Sonata’ as well. All these words are loaded in a hyper-saturated traditional way. Although I think that way - I think very symphonically when I think of orchestral music- I don’t want people to pigeon-hole the music before they have heard it by using those words. It is about Earth, but also about how the Earth reflects human development. Unfinished Earth is one of my major pieces, and - apart from being a major piece - it fulfils a lot of goals that I try and set out to do in every piece.
And that is reflecting a certain abstract story?
Yes, definitely, but also being powerful, and visceral, dynamic, and dramatic, as triggers for taking people on different paths and detours as the piece unfolds! That is what I am trying to do. Music per se doesn’t mean anything at all to me. Music for me is a vehicle, a medium. What I really want to try and do is communicate first. I always have a non-musical idea that I am trying to portray or get across. And that typically will have a metaphor that will serve as an entry into an emotional world. Music, therefore, is just something I use to fulfil that mission.
The third movement of Unfinished Earth has a rare power that reminded me of Tchaikovsky.
Probably not many living composers would take that as a compliment, but I do! I use the orchestra in a very dynamic way, whereas these days it is often about texture and timbre. To me, I guess I am more figurative than that. I am trying to create something that is more a dedicated journey, not just to portray sound.
Tempest seems to revolve around the same topic; human development. Each movement reflects different wind patterns, which reflect different aspects of human conditions?
Yes, I think what is interesting about this approach that I have been using now for probably 10 years, is that if people are not reflective, if they are not soul searchers, they can still relate to the piece on a pictorial level. But if they are, these searching souls, there are resonances I hope, psycho-emotionally within the works too that I try and craft in.
Are you a searching soul?
Yes, I think so, I think all artists are. Why else do we do it? It is perhaps like the difference between a painter and a house painter. I don’t think house painters are searching for anything, they are just painting a wall, right? But an artist is trying to do more.
If we go back to your time at Yale, in the early nineties, you wrote quite a few pieces with digital effects, such as the music on your album Fractures Traces. You have said that Night Chains was about dreams and dreamlike states, but that you probably wouldn't write such a piece today. Why is that? It is a very personal piece.
Yes, personal, and, there are aspects about the language I like, but there are things about it I don’t like, anymore. The aggressive tone of it, I am not so much a fan of it anymore. Well, I don’t know if that is entirely true…I do like aggression in music, but it has got a different cast for me now. Nobody likes that piece by the way! One time someone came up to me and told me he really liked Night Chains. I was really surprised! You know, it is long, immersive, it is difficult, unrelenting, and has a quite aggressive timbre. I do like the piece, I’m the one who has written it, but it is not something that so much resonates with me anymore.
Does that also count for the other works written around the same time Night canticle for example?
Not as much. Night Canticle is a softer piece. Originally, it is a companion piece to Night Chains. I was going to write a tryptic of these three, and I wanted to do a very energetic last movement that I in the end never wrote. I still might do it! The technology is a bit different, but I went back to Night Chains and “stole” all the pitch material and reworked it for Night Canticle. So they are related, they are brothers.
It is striking to see how you gradually moved from composing a lot for electronics in the ’90s, to a much more accessible style, such as in Soar, the Cello Concerto.
Well, I got really tired of people closest to me, not knowing what the hell I was doing. My wife would say “Hmm, that’s interesting!” in this kind of mystified way. On the other side are also the performers. A lot of the music I was writing was fiendishly difficult.
Rhythmically, expressively, on every level! After a while I saw so many performers struggling with the language, struggling with the techniques, struggling with the rhythms, struggling with trying to understand what the thing was about. At some point, I just thought “What are you doing? Why are you doing this to people?” My whole attitude has shifted almost 180 degrees now, where I feel that my job, as a composer, is to reach out to people in a language that they can grasp, so that they can actually enter your world. When a language is too assaultive, and foreign, that they haven’t got a hope in hell of entering your world, it doesn’t matter how profound you think you are saying anything. The door is closed! So, what I am trying to do is to write in a language that is inviting, and then, once the listener or performer is “in”, to say things that I hope resonate with the people, that is what I am on about now.
Yet I have the feeling that, although your style became more accessible, both your earlier works and your more recent works such as Drift, Soar, Cascade, and the Unfinished Earth album very much contain the same type of expression.
I am really happy you think that! That is something I have wanted to do. My music is often dark and emotional, and I felt a lot of the times in those thornier pieces, that I was being thorny for the sake of being thorny. I actually was trying to cover expression, trying to be not too obvious about being expressive. There was another moment where I had to slap myself: “What are you doing? Why are you covering expression? Just do it!” The difference is that, since moving into a more accessible style, people have started to like my music! Like duh! But that is nice, to actually touch people with what you do, is a special thing.
You also have written a lot of choral music. What is the background of your album Lux Dei?
Actually, my very first commission was for a choral piece! That was for girls’ choir, organ, two pianos and two percussions. I did not write much choral music since then, but at some point, I started to write a disc of choral music. I am very lucky to have a good friend and colleague at the CCM (College-Conservatory of Music, Cincinnati), his name is Brett Scott and I call him the Choir Whisperer. He has every semester a new chorus, and they always sound like it is the same group. I don’t know how he does it, but he gets them all sounding the same! Most of these compositions on Lux Dei were written between 2010 and 2015, and they were written for the disc. These pieces are a lot more modal, approachable, melodic and expressive.
Besides being a composer and a professor at the CCM in Cincinnati, you have also founded your own label, ABLAZE Records. How did that happen?
In 2008 I was still director of the Tasmanian Conservatorium and the government in Australia is responsible for all research funding. Schools are given certain amounts of research funding depending on their research performance. For a long time, only written publications would qualify as research, which of course worked out disadvantageously for performing arts. They would barely recognize a published score, let alone a CD! So, the cultural community within Australia pushed back pretty hard and got the Australian government to acknowledge that people in the arts were doing research too. But this isn’t expressed through journal articles and so on, it is expressed through works of art, through an exhibition, or a CD, or a publication of a composition. When that became the order of the day, I looked around at my school, and few were publishing or recording. This prompted the idea of starting a record company, so that students and faculty could record through my company. After the first release, it went quiet for a while, but when I had more time in my new position at CCM, I gave more energy to the company and started to really market it and reach out to composers. It is a parallel line and is part of my service in giving back. I think all composers need to do that through more than just writing music. We are a community of strivers, and we need help, so this is my way of trying to help.
What is the concept of success? How many different projects does ABLAZE Records do?
We have a range of different series: Orchestral Masters, Sinfonia Series, Pierrot Ensemble Series, Electronic Masters, New Choral Voices and also composer portraits. We try to comprehensively deal with wherever the composer’s expression and media lies: “We have got a place for you at ABLAZE”, that’s the whole idea!
ABLAZE Records gives composers a little push in the back.
Yes! We give them a platform. So, the idea is quite simply to pull a bunch of people together on one disc, where they have a chance to shine, a chance to get published, a chance to get their work out there. This is all part of what I think our mission is.
What does it mean to work with so many different composers? The Orchestral Masters series alone now is recording its 7th volume! How many composers are there in the catalogue now?
Over a hundred now, living composers. Working with composers is working with people, and it is as variable as people. Most are nice, and then you get sometimes the person that can be tricky to work with. But overwhelmingly, the vast majority of people we work with are really great. I like to work with young people, I like to work with people who have a different vision to mine because I learn from them, I am broadened by that. And it is nice to meet new colleagues too, I have met a lot of people through this company that I wouldn’t normally have met!
Composers can apply for a place on a new disc. What are things you pay attention to when you review a score?
Most important is the practicality of a score. It can be any style, but if it gets too complicated, for example, every instrument with different ‘nested’ tuplets, there is no way! You would spend an hour on six measures. And we could do that, but that would make the cost so insane! You also have to be careful with performers, especially large groups. If you keep throttling them over the same measure, “do this, do that”, they tense up, and they don’t play well, and you don’t get a good result. So first, we filter out the clearly amateur stuff and the compositions that are unrealistic for how we work. I am not saying they are bad pieces, but for us, they might be unrealistic for how we work. I have done this for so long, looked at so many scores, and seen how those scores sit with, for example, the orchestra, that you can tell whether someone knows what they are doing and whether a composition is going to actually work with an orchestra. There are state-run orchestras, and those that will take a week of time to work through all sorts of ‘nested’ tuplets and various other hyper-complexities in a score. I think it’s laudable, and it’s great, but we can’t work that way. I mean, at the end of the day, we are hiring professional musicians, and it sounds so hokey, but time is money, and so, if you’ve got a very complicated composition that is going to take three hours to record a 4-minute piece, that doesn’t work out business-wise.
What does it mean to work with Mikel Toms? He has conducted over 10 discs now for ABLAZE Records.
Well, Mikel is a friend and a colleague. We just hit it off immediately, it just worked! I knew of him and I did a little research on him. I asked people that had worked with him before I approached him. Just like I tried out the Brno Philharmonic, I tried out Mikel.
Recording your own music with a conductor is one thing, but to record other people’s music, that really is a high-wire act. But fortunately for us, it worked great, there was a real chemistry there! We are in a real flow now, we know each other, we work great together!
Do you have any memories or anecdotes either as a composer or in your function as Director of ABLAZE Records?
So many things! On the very first disc, we had a composer from Japan. He was an older gentleman, and he brought special Japanese cookies for the orchestra. We were recording his piece, and I was checking frequently whether he was happy with the process. And he was, but he was more concerned about when the orchestra members would get the cookies! He really wanted the orchestra to have the cookies that he brought, so we made sure they got them.
What are your plans this year?
I’m working on a few things. I am finishing a big symphonic work, it’s a disc-length work for string orchestra, harp, two percussion, English horn and trumpet and soprano called Cloud Ossuary. It is set to a text by my daughter, Katarina Knehans, that’s just really beautiful. I also have a commission from an ensemble in Cleveland called No Exit, for a piece for string quartet and cimbalom for the great American cimbalom player Chester Englander. And then a new flute sonata followed by a work for two pianos and two percussion for the amazing icarus Quartet! After that, there are a couple of concertos—for soprano saxophone and another for viola and then I am planning a new symphony in homage to Beethoven in his 250th year. So, that’s the next lot of things I have got on my plate.
Douglas Knehans was born in 1957 in Saint Louis, Missouri. He finished his BA--Mus at the Canberra School of Music and continued to work as a freelance composer for five years. He then continued his studies for a MA--Mus at Queens College in New York, where he studied with Thea Musgrave until 1991, after which he concluded his degrees with an MMA and DMA at Yale University where he worked with Pulitzer Prize winning composer Jacob Druckman. He was Director and Head of School of the University of Tasmania Conservatorium of Music from 2000 - 2008, and is currently the Norman Dinerstein Professor of Composition Scholar at the College-Conservatory of Music in Cincinnati, Ohio, USA.