Expression and Texture: interview with Douglas Knehans

Douglas Knehans has been a fellow of the Victorian Council of the Arts, MacDowell Colony and Leighton Artist Colony (Banff), has won awards from the American Music Centre and Meet the Composer and has fulfilled commissions for a wide variety of works from orchestral, to chamber music, opera, dance, choral, electronic and film. He was a visiting professor of composition at the National University of Singapore (2006) and the Krakow Academy of Music, Poland (2007). His music for the short film ‘A Song of Air’ commissioned by the Australian Film Institute was screened at the prestigious Une Certain Regard section of the Cannes Film Festival and over a dozen others world wide.

1. Let me start this interview by asking you how you came to interest in music. What have been the most important musical influences for your work as a composer?

Douglas KnehansThis is an interesting question with a number of answers! First, I remember when I was a little boy, about 5 or 6, we had a recording (an LP in those days) of a Brahms symphony. The cover had a photograph of Brahms when he was about fifty-five. I loved the gravity of his expression, but of course the music was a little beyond me for that age. I vividly remember thinking at that time how cool it would be to have been him! A weird thought for a young kid, don’t you think? Fast-forward to high school. I was on track to be a graphic designer. One of my best friends was an excellent realist painter (see his site here). His skill level intimidated me and it acted to repel me from pursuing graphic design because I could not draw well. At the same time I was exploring yoga, meditation and classical music. I got out all of the classical records we had at home, admittedly not too many, and also joined a record club where I could order new releases of classical music I did not previously know. The remarkable genius of such composers as Bach, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Mahler and Shostakovich really captured my imagination at this time. It was during this time, late in high school, that I took up serious music study, always with a view to composition.

Knowing that it was important to be able to play an instrument I began to try out different instruments to see how quickly I could gain skill in instrumental music. Having tried the violin, piano, clarinet and flute, I quickly settled on flute and made pretty rapid progress on this instrument. I also took music theory and music history at this point. Then I entered university music studies (at the Australian National University), about eighteen months after first starting playing an instrument. I also took a wide range of other courses at university: flute lessons, choir, chamber music, orchestra, electronic music, new music performance, the usual history and theory courses, and of course, music composition lessons, etc. By the time I finished my undergraduate studies I moved from Canberra back to Melbourne. There I worked as a flutist and flute instructor for about two or three years and then made a transition to working as a composer. Australia’s national arts funding agency, The Australia Council, supported my work very generously during this period and as a result I received numerous—six or seven— commissions every year for about five years. This was fully ample work to allow a reasonable living and I so I really lived and worked as a full time composer living off of commissions during this period. Because I was a working young composer in Melbourne, one of Australia’s biggest cities and perhaps its most important cultural center, I had the opportunity to have back stage and reception invitations to meet important composers such as Pierre Boulez and Witold Lutoslawski when they toured to Australia. These meetings were highly significant for me and these two composers, in particular, have left deep influences on my work in additional to the beautiful work of Kaija Saariaho and less recent masters such as Debussy and Mahler.

2. The catalog of your work is very rich…A significant portion is occupied by the chamber music. You can tell me which pieces are most important to your artistic work?

The chamber music that I have written has been mostly as a result of the various commissions and performers I have come to know over the years. That said, I would have to say that my heart is more drawn to larger scale music—music for orchestra, chorus, etc. There is something about massed sound that has a weight and impact that I am really drawn to. Chamber music, in contrast, is more about intimacy and solo or ensemble virtuosity. Although I am very much at home writing chamber music and quite enjoy it, increasingly, as I get older, I want to deal with larger forces and larger issues than chamber music seems to allow for me. My recent work cascade for two pianos is pretty significant and has a lovely slow movement of which I am pretty proud. This work does have a type of ‘orchestral weight’ about it that almost denies it being called chamber music (and indeed I have orchestrated it and called it a concerto for orchestra)! Another ‘chamber music’ piece that seems quite orchestral is also my recent drift for solo oboe and strings. This work sounds quite large even with a small string group, so I think there is something about the kind of ‘muscularity’ larger forces lend that is attractive to me now. I also notice that certain sounds are becoming quite unattractive due to their timbral thinness: sounds like left hand pizzicato on strings and piccolo trumpet all sound to me a little “weightless.” I mention this only because these sounds seem to embody a type of sound I am moving more away from rather than towards. This is also influencing how I am reconsidering the use of electronics in new works. I have not used electronics in a long time now and the types of sounds I want to use now are fuller, richer and not synthesized sounds but rather manipulated concrète sounds.

3. Another important part of your work is about choral music. What differences there are, according to your opinion, between the composition for ensemble and composition for voice?

I think the differences are vast and perhaps underappreciated. Much of the choral literature in the twentieth century modernist tradition is not easily performed well by the common very good choir. I think the reason for this is some key elements of choral writing are completely different to instrumental writing. First of all, many members of choirs are not trained singers, but rather people with nice voices that love music and want to sing. In choirs such as this, it is not uncommon for the choir to have one or two strong leaders who are trained, even professional, singers who act as section leaders and help the rest of the section to learn their parts through being reliable and strong ‘reference’ voices. Of course this is untrue of fully professional choirs, but such choirs are relatively rarer than the type I have just described. So, a good choral director can shape the sound and create a wonderful blend and relatively good rhythmic and timbral flexibility with such a semi-professional group comprised of such a wide spread of ability. However, it is important not to write for choirs as though they are fully and professional flexible ‘instruments’ such as one would find in a string quartet.

The second thing that makes choirs different is that they are fully interdependent from beat to beat on pitching their notes. So, a passage that has every voice moving freely to new pitches on every beat is quite tricky because everyone’s reference pitch disappears with each new chord. This very much constrains how one writes for choir and the freedoms one has in writing well for choir. It was not until I started writing seriously for choir that I deeply understood all of those lessons in my undergraduate harmony classes. Voice leading, for example, is really what it says it is: leading each voice to its new pitch through the creation of reliable reference tones and good motion in all of the voices. This absolutely does not mean that all choral writing needs to be easy and tonal, but what it does mean is that an intricate, detailed and highly nuanced understanding of the motion of each voice against the other needs to be developed in the composer. Since so much of the choral literature is a cappella this notion of voice leading and reference pitches is not at all trivial.

A third thing that is critical to understand is about rhythm and dynamics. Choirs are not percussion ensembles and intricate rhythmic execution is not the foundational skill of most choral groups. This is partly why some more complex works are performed less frequently than some other more approachable modern works—the rhythmic precision some composers call for in their work is somewhat antithetical to the foundational strengths of good choirs. The element of dynamics is also frequently misunderstood. Choral voices are simply not loud in the lower half of their ranges. Additionally, choral voices are not soft in the upper half of their ranges. Again, this is not a weakness but simply a reality a composer must address in effectively scoring for vocal forces.

Lastly, and by no means least important, is the fact that choirs most frequently perform through singing a text. Sung text carries with it two truly tough aspects: marrying the meaning of the text with the emotional ‘arc’ of the setting (hopefully such that they are complimentary), but also doing this through reliance on key vowel sounds that makes vocal production sound well. Italian and French and even Latin are great languages rich in wonderful open vowels. English is a much harder language with its mix of open vowels and nasal or vocally ‘pinched’ vowel sounds like “ee” or “ie” or “i” and the like. As singers seek to execute these vowels they will often transform them into more vocally open sounds thereby obscuring a little the direct and natural sound of the spoken vowel. To the extent that this is done, the understandability of the word is compromised. So, the composer is constantly juggling ALL of these things when approaching text setting for voice. Virtually none of these considerations come into play in the writing of instrumental music apart from a simple consideration of weak and strong registers on some instruments and how fluent and flexible an instrument is.

4. The relationship between the composer and the interpreter is not easy. What should be the qualities of a good performer?

The thing that unites composer and performer, I believe, is that we both serve music. The nature of our service is different though. The composer must learn to understand the performer and the constraints and pressures on the performer. My views on the nature of the composer-performer relationship have pretty radically changed over the years. When I was a younger composer, I was all about trying to write virtuosic and impressive music and relied upon and required performers of a tremendously high level of skill in contemporary music. Usually this meant at least a very precise and sophisticated rhythmic skill coupled with a virtuosic technical flexibility across the instrument. I think I used to require this in a way that was a little unsympathetic to the traditional technical foundation most instrumentalists bring to performance. I don’t mean that I did not write technically performable and instrumentally apt music, but rather that intense demands on an instrumentalist were not something I viewed at that time as my problem as a composer. Over the last decade I have engaged in a kind of self-review of what is exactly necessary in my music in order for it to deliver its message. As a result of this review, I have discarded a number of more ‘advanced’ techniques—microtones, extended techniques, highly complex rhythms. This was not just because I felt that affectively I did not require them, but also because even in the hands of dedicated ‘new music’ performers I was often disappointed with the reliability and often with the sound quality of some of these techniques. I also felt that too often I was failing at achieving a high quality in the level of integration of ‘new’ techniques with traditional ones. The more I came to listen to music of people like John Adams, Philip Glass or even post 1980s Boulez, Birtwistle or Lutoslawski, the more I was sensitized to the relative simplicity of their technical languages. So I felt that these more complicated techniques were largely non-essential to the development of the language I sought and am still pursuing, but also not even required by composers across a range of styles writing sometimes quite challenging music.

The rejection of this highest order of technical demand in turn brought me closer to the performers since increasingly my music was more immediately playable and understandable. In this new relationship to the performer I found myself able to open out conversations about performability, reliability and virtuosity. It struck me that many works of the canon are reliably performable due to the fact that so many performers—typically those who have premiered the works, but also subsequent performers—have ‘fine tuned’ the works in performance and in collaboration with the composers. This then became my model of working with performers: respectfully, equally and with a view to realizing, after all, my compositional vision. I have taken on board tremendous and detailed advice from performers in order to make my works simply lay better and more idiosyncratically on the instrument and most of all be enjoyable and gratifying to play and perform. This has occurred even when the work is tremendously difficult. In fact, working with performers this way has allowed me to really push technical and expressive boundaries very hard and then allow the performers to say exactly where and to what extent I have ‘stepped over the line’ as it were. This then allows for little tweaks to the piece that ultimately have almost no impact on the piece as a whole except in making it the most vivid expression possible of my idea. So, I value very much the expertise, technical nuance and expressive world that performers bring to my music and think of the composer-performer relationship as a cooperative one aimed at securing a terrific premier of the work.

5. What do you think about the contemporary music scene in your country? There are musical movements or composers that you follow with interest?

The scene in the USA is, as you probably know, much more aesthetically open than exists in Europe. Music in the USA seems to me to have three great traditions: the experimental, the avant-garde and the nationalistic. Another interesting element of American music is that these three aspects are not usually self-contained, but draw to a certain extent on one of the others in order to create new modes of expression. So if we look at minimalist music closely and with an historical eye we see clearly its experimental roots, yet examples of later minimalist work such as Philip Glass’s opera Hydrogen Jukebox or John Adam’s Nixon in China clearly are focused on nationalistic (or maybe anti-nationalistic) themes. A composer like Elliott Carter, in contrast, seems to belong more to a type of European avant-garde stream, though his harmonic language and novel innovations draw on a really American ‘sound’ and the experimental aspects of American music culture. Within the latest new music the streams seem rather different. Clearly minimalism lies at the root of very many composers from David Lang to Julia Woolfe. Experimentalism is not any longer a word that I think can be justly used since Twentieth century composers so fully and thoroughly explored every aspect and nuance of the ‘new.’ This places composers such as the recent Pulitzer Prize winner Caroline Shaw in an interesting light since she uses well-known techniques that seventy years ago may have been experimental, but today represent a sort of language that is more historical and referential to the time when these sound experiments were truly novel and even shocking to the ear. So is this an extension of post-modernism in music, perhaps?

Then there are the composers who are working in more of a neo-Post-Romantic style with a minimalist edge. Composers I think of in this frame are ones like the hugely talented and expressive Missy Mazzoli or Anna Clyne or Aaron Kernis. Finally, there are the opera composers. These are composers whose work is very successful yet really confined to the operatic stage and one really does not hear of them much, if at all, in other contexts. These composers seem influenced pretty deeply by Broadway and the American Musical and seem to be seeking development of an operatic language that is direct, emotionally immediate and expressively and dramatically simple: qualities that are all very much at the core of effective and successful Broadway shows, rather than the nuanced psychologico-dramatic lineage of Mozart, Verdi, Puccini and Britten. Resultantly, much of the music has a somewhat less than truly deep quality for me and so I only follow its development casually.

I suppose I follow composers in the style I have perhaps inelegantly classed as neo-Post-Romantic more than any other. The reason for me is simple. I am at a point where I feel the experimental age is receding and that much of that music has, for whatever other strengths it exhibits, failed to consistently touch, reach and edify audiences. I am increasingly seeking a deep language that builds on the traditions of Mahler, Debussy, Boulez, Lutoslawski, Adams, Saariaho and right down to my contemporaries like Kernis and Lang and through to an even younger generation like Mazzoli and Clyne. In seeking this language and trying to develop personal nuances and resonances within it I hope to be creating music that touches the performer and audience and that may also reflect our time and have some ability to endure. This is an exciting time to be a composer in America and I am thrilled to hear the new work of the culture that surrounds me.

Musical excerpts on the web site: www.douglasknehans.com

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