Douglas Knehans, composer

Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and pursue a career in music?

I always wanted to find a way to communicate directly and emotionally with people, even people I do not know. Music affords this tremendous pathway directly to the human heart, so I took up this path, first through flute performance and then through composition.

Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?

This is a difficult question since there have been so many. But if I had to pick people, it would definitely be my teachers Thea Musgrave and Jacob Druckman, followed closely by Debussy, Mahler, Boulez and Lutosławski; the last two of which I was lucky enough to meet and work with for short periods. In terms of what has played a significant part in my career development, I would have to say the Australia Council, since this body afforded me the ability to live as a commissioned, working composer in the mid 1980s and through this I learned so much about the craft of musical composition and the business of working with ensembles, conductors and commissioners.

What have been the greatest challenges/frustrations of your career so far?

Feelings of uncertainty as an artist have been by far the most challenging and I think most artists have to learn to deal with these demons and this has certainly been a frustration (which is now, thankfully, somewhat on the wane). The biggest challenge was writing my two hour long Shoah Requiem for 4 vocal soli, chorus and orchestra. This was a compositional as well as an expressive, philosophical and emotional challenge. Even though I have heard a performance of the fifteen-minute introit, I hope very much to hear it all one day!

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?

The challenges are trying to fulfil the desires of the commissioner! We hope that, when commissioned, the work will be somewhat formed in the mind of the commissioner. This has been my usual experience: commissioners typically know the length, medium, purpose and occasion for the work so that is a HUGE head start. My current commission had none of those pre-formed in the mind of the commissioner and so we had to dialog for a little bit to figure it all out! There is no greater privilege or pleasure than working to commission in my opinion. It is purposeful and interactive and one always is considering “Will they like it?” and of course, hoping that they do!

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras?

This backs in a little to the subject of style for me. For a long period early in my career I used to write in a style with little care or concern for the musicians or the audience — I simply pursued my artistic goals. As I have had more experience — and lived longer! — I have come to appreciate the depth and multi-dimensionality both technically and expressively that great performers bring to musical performance. This is a hugely enhancing set of skills and abilities performers bring to a new work. Their thought, their feelings, their passions, their insights AS WELL as their tremendous executant skill. So in hands such as these composers thrust and entrust a new work. This subsequently brings us to the audience consideration. If composers empower performers through leveraging all of the skills they bring (and not just their virtuoso rhythmic and note reading skills!), this allows for nuanced, powerfully communicative performances to which audiences will respond in kind. When audiences respond with enthusiasm, performers are pleased, proud, and fulfilled and perhaps even excited. When the composer, through her/his work allows for this tremendously deep communication from performer to audience through a new piece of music it creates a three-way dialogue: composer to performer; performer to audience; and audience back to performer and composer. I call this a healthy composer-performer-audience ‘eco-system’ and one to which I thankfully observe we are seeming to return.

Of which works are you most proud?

This is a little like saying “which of your children is you favourite?”; I am proud of all of my works but for different things depending on the work. Some I am proud of because they presented some sort of challenge which I feel I met; some I am proud of because they capture most uncompromisingly what I wanted to say. I am very happy with my Shoah Requiem because I think it captures something universal, human, spiritual, emotional and profound. My works Unfinished Earth and Black City (my second cello concerto) both capture a huge emotional sweep and are really vast essays on the human condition of loss, betrayal, crisis and rebirth. Both of these come from a pretty troubled time in my life and so both are pretty confrontational, yet inward, longing and, I hope redemptively beautiful. I am also very fond of my work Lumen for cello and piano. This is a kind of chamber work companion to Black City and perhaps one of my deepest pieces. Finally, I am REALLY proud of my flute concerto Tempest, since I trained as a flute player and for the longest time could not write anything for the instrument as I felt I knew too intimately it’s clichés. After twenty plus years I finally got the chance to write it and, as luck would have it, managed to talk LSO principal flautist Gareth Davies into recording it. There is still a huge “beer deficit” I owe him as a result! He did a superb, artistically profound job on a quite challenging work.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

This is a kind of two-part question since compositional language, like any language, is about the nexus between syntactical structure and the conveyance of thought and meaning. One of my frustrations with more modernistic or avant-garde thinking is that it allows for artistic thought to define the relational and structural as well as the artistic shaping of content. This means that on every level the artwork is progressive or re-imagined. To me this means that no element is transferrable from previously known music. The result has a disorienting, dislocated, disassociated impact rather than a refreshing, even surprising or unsettling content with enough connections with past, known practice to actually communicate to listeners.

As a result of this perspective—which I freely acknowledge may well be debated by many composers—I seek a language that marries enough of known syntactical elements of music with a very personal, intimate world of emotional meaning. So let’s discuss these two elements in my own music.

For me, when I refer to musical syntax it relates to all elements that allow the music to unfold with parsable meaning: phrase; shape; intensity; harmonic structure, relation and rhythm; closural and transitional strategies and tools; the wonderfully malleable counterpoint between surface rhythm and meter; the emotional impact and intensity of melody and melodic shape; counterpoint; and apprehensible small and large scale structure and form. There are also additional elements that I consider secondary but also to which I give a lot of attention: timbre, texture and color. So these are the tools, the levers and layers if you will, of communication.

The content, of what I seek to communicate has grown and deepened enormously along with my deepening ability to control these syntactical elements. I like to think that my music is about much more than simply sound itself. I like to try to reach inside the hearts and viscera of the listener and to communicate the things I feel are true through my works. I like to try to communicate about life and life’s deeper experiences through what I do.

How do you work?

I have to establish what I am writing about and then a broad structural framework and the foreground musical ideas for a piece before I begin. I start with what because it so helps me to define how the ideas will shape over the long structure of the work as well as the actual musical materials that will convey and fill that broad structural shape. I don’t like to be too constraining in these plans such as one might see in a work of high modernism but rather have them as a kind of fuzzy frame that allows for bar to bar adjustment if the foreground of the work expressively requires it, and yet still fulfils the structured goals and broad structural articulations in the work.

Once all of this is established, I feel very free to compositionally ‘surf’ the middle ground of the piece mediating the form with the content and controlling the content with the form.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

Wow, how much time have you got? The musicians I love are people like violinist Anne Sophie Mutter, pianist Danill Trifonov, conductors Louis Langree, Paavo Jarvi, Daniel Barenboim, Simon Rattle as well as my pal and brilliant conductor of so many of my works Mikel Toms. Although they are no longer with us I am very fond of the performances I have witnessed and the profoundly beautiful recordings of Pierre Boulez and, diametrically, Leonard Bernstein.

Composers who are my “favourites” is a much trickier question: JS Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, Mahler, Debussy, Messiaen, Lutoslowski, Stravinsky and too many living composers to name them all. If an artist is communicating in an elegant, technically well-crafted way, I am usually pretty sold on that music!

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

OK, so there is an artistic and a worldly side to this question. From an artistic side it is easy, I really want to get into the minds and hearts of the people playing and listening to my music. I want to give them a rich experience. I want them to feel it has been time well spent.

From a more worldly side, it is actually a trickier question since I have a lot of opportunity for performances, commissioned work as well as holding a superb teaching position. I think for me then, success is the ability to continue to work for a long time which means being in good health physically and intellectually. If the fruits of my work are recognized in any dramatic way by the world that would be nice, but my deeper focus is on the work itself and continuing to develop and deepen my voice.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

To feel. It is imperative that music carries with it intense feeling. So much new music is still stuck in a modernist mode of timbre and texture as the drivers of the work, but very frequently beyond this there is little or no feeling, only aesthetic thought and compositional technique. This is why I like composers like Oscar Bettison, Harrison BIrtwistle, Missy Mazzoli, Lutosławski, Christopher Rouse and gosh the list could go on. These composers and some others besides have all of the focus on timbre and texture and other technical issues, but they also are driven by passionate feeling. Note I did not say just passion because there are many types of passion and what can frequently drive new music is a kind of intellectual passion, where a composer can talk a lot about what has gone into the work, but then the work itself does not deliver. Technique, aesthetics, style — all of these things, in my mind, take a huge back seat to feeling. One cannot adequately evoke feeling without them, but simply being gifted in thinking through and deploying these technical resources is no guarantee of creating and evoking feeling in one’s work. The focus must be on all of those elements, with a passionate work that communicates human emotional truths as the end goal of it all.

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?

Still writing the best music I can within close proximity to my family and friends, good food and excellent wine!

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Stimulation without stress.

What is your most treasured possession?

My memories of times with music, people, art and food!

What do you enjoy doing most?

Obviously I am pretty enamoured of composing and having my music performed and recorded, but beyond that I love going to see films, I really love cooking, walks, occasionally hiking and when I have the time, skiing.

What is your present state of mind?

Looking forward!


Douglas Knehans’ latest work, ‘Unfinished Earth’, features the London Symphony Orchestra’s principal flutist Gareth Davies, with the Brno Philharmonic Orchestra
and Mikel Toms, conductor. Released 6 April on Ablaze Records and Naxos Music Library. Further information and sample tracks here
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