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Douglas Knehans (b.1957)

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American Australian Composer

Douglas Knehans has been writing music for over thirty years for all media from orchestra to opera and electronics to vocal music. He has trained as an orchestra musician, a composer, theorist and music technologist. Get to know more about his unusual compositional voice that The Washington Post calls ‘beautiful’ and ‘exciting’ and the Miami Herald describes as ‘wildly inventive.’

Fractured Traces—New Music for Cello

spin was conceived as an interactive piece of sorts. Although the electronic sounds are fixed and pre-recorded, unlike most pre-recorded electronic works the performer is allowed to set the tempo of each section from within a limited range of four different tempi. This is simply achieved through recording the electronics in a variety of tempi then assigning each tempo for each section a different index number on the compact disc. So, while a performer may like the slowest tempo for section one, a slightly faster tempo may feel better for a subsequent section. Just as one may program the order of tracks on a commercial compact disc, so too can the performer program the order of tracks on the accompanying disc to this work, each section having four representative tracks each of a different tempo.
The image of spinning discs was also a compositional impulse for the piece. A collection of discrete gestures recycles through work as it unfolds, each spinning its own web of relations both with itself and with its context. The performer completes this aspect of spinning relationships as s/he selects the tempo for each section and so puts an interpretive "spin" on the music. The work was written for and is dedicated to Madeleine Shapiro and was premiered by Jiří Hošek in Prague, Czech Republic.

night chains
night chains takes its title from the psycho-emotional and compositional narratives explored in the work.

On the psycho-emotional level, the work is concerned with the conflicted worlds of dreams and actions, thoughts and desire, past and present. How these aspects of existence impact upon and influence each other in linked sequences of differing proportion and fluid hierarchy has its ephemeral manifestation for me in dreams and dreaming. So on this level, night chains can be seen as the realization of this complex human experience of dreaming; the freely associative, but linked subjective worlds of thought, emotion and desire coupled with their ritual transformation through the competing but also freely associative realms of fear, frustration and denial. Aspects of this complex, dreamlike associative experience, then, are subject to a more fundamental distortion and transformation through the natural and systematic forces of erosion, destruction and ultimately death. The death of one state giving rise to the evolution of another. Certain states are more associated with "good" dreams; other, perhaps more with so called "night terrors".

On a compositional level then, I was concerned to explore the transformation of materials through a range of devices including thematic distortion, elaboration and systematic, incremental destruction; competing and complementary extension of ideas into "strata," and the elaboration and amplification of such strata through distortion and destructive techniques. Concomitantly, I drew on the evolutionary and elaborative devices commonly used in Western music to extend and create new, but related ideas. Therefore, the contrast and balance of destruction and generation were a primary technical concern and framework for a highly charged expression.

The electronics used in coloring such expression were only generically specified, leaving a wealth of expressive choices open to the performer, while also clearly calling for certain broadly defined sonic worlds to be explored.

night chains was completed in New York City in March, 1991 and is dedicated to Jeffrey Krieger.

une seule femme endormie
une seule femme endormie was written very quickly after a long period of consideration of the brooding text of Jouve’s poem. Formally the work is very free and responds dramatically to the emotional nuances of the text. The work unfolds from a fragment of the opening ‘cello line which recurs in varied forms throughout the work. The unusual aspect of the ‘cellist being called upon to hum and sing was a response to the dense ambiguity of time and space evoked by the poem. Beyond this, however, the vocal contributions of the instrumentalist lend an added depth to the vocal line itself, while at the same time projecting a sense of mystery and longing that is also inherent in Jouve’s moving poem.

Par un temps humide et profond tu étais plus belle
Par une pluie désespérée tu étais plus chaude
Par un jour de désert tu me semblais plus humide
Quand les arbres sont dans l’aquarium du temps
Quand la mauvaise colère du monde est dans les coeurs
Quand le malheur est las de tonner sur les feuilles
Tu étais douce
Douce comme le dents de l’ivoire des morts
Et pure comme le caillot de sang
Qui sortait en riant des lèvres de ton âme.
Par un temps humide et profond le monde est plus noir
Par un jour de désert le coeur est plus humide.

Pierre Jean Jouve

When there came days sunk deep in damp your beauty seemed increased
And ever warmer grew your glow when rain fell in despair
And when days came that were like deserts you
Grew moister than the trees in the aquarium of time
And when the ugly anger of the world raged in our hearts
And sadness lisped exhausted through the leaves
You became as sweet as death
Sweet as teeth in the ivory skull-box of the dead
And pure as the skein of blood
Your laughter made to trickle down from your soul’s parted lips.
When there come days deep-sunk and damp the world grows still more dark
When days like deserts come, the heart is drenched with tears.

[David Gascoyne]

night canticle
night canticle is the second of a projected three movement work for solo electronic 'cello of which night chains constitutes the first. Although each work is to a certain extent self-contained, my approach to night canticle was heavily influenced by viewing it in the context of being preceded by the aggressive, dark world of night chains. Resultantly, night canticle is rather more delicate and meditative in nature though certainly not devoid of some more lively sections. Formally the work recycles a proportional division of a basic nine bar cell, oscillating from a very still texture to a quite agitated one. The opposition of these textural polarities was intensified through the use of the technological extensions to the basic electronic 'cello. In this work the electronic 'cello is joined by a synthesizer and effects processor all under the control of the performer through the addition of a computer running Max software.

soar was written in response to a long-held desire to write a work that would capitalise on Christian Wojtowicz’s cello sound, style and technique. Most of all I sought to write for his ability to translucently and constantly evolve new and unique colorations and inflections of expressive, carefully molded musical line.

With this as a background, I set out to write a cello and piano work that I could not help thinking of as a short score for a cello concerto. This led to thinking of the work as a deeply hybridised, even consciously contradictory amalgam of sources: chamber music for cello and piano, yet big and dramatic music suited to a concerto; a chromatic, ‘roving’ harmonic structure that is yet rooted in firm centres around E; a thorny, expressive language that is florid and exhibitionistic yet one that is also lyrical, passionate and intimately, inwardly emotional.

From this powerful set of contradictory impulses the work took shape. Over the initial few measures the piano unfolds a bass line that captures the harmonic ‘contradictions’ of the work: a firm centre of E, extended and elaborated through progression to the minor third above via progressive chromatic unfolding. Insistent accented sixths articulate implicit rhythms that are overtly taken up as the work unfolds. The cello enters boldly and dramatically: unfolding triplet sixteenths that form an important basis for the fast sections of the work. These three fast sections are separated by two slow, expressive and exposed sections of related thematic character thus forming the loosely knit five-part ‘rondo’ type structure of the work.

The style of argument used in elaborating materials in soar is very distinctly similar to that of all of my recent works: a reliance on traditional motivic and thematic development of ideas, balanced with an approach to repetition of ideas that allows the musician and audience to re-engage with the traditionally formative elements of music.

But beyond all of this, soar is about the human spirit and our lifelong dance with life’s challenges and even demons. From its searching and worried opening measures to the bright climactic final moments of the piece the work seems to constantly betray its concerto-like drama of contrasts. The work seeks to capture some of the breath and texture of life: struggle and triumph, defeat and redemption, nobility and loss.


Douglas Knehans' works have been broadcast on ABC National Radio and TV, NPR Radio and PBS TV (USA), RAI Television (Italy) and Ukrainian National Radio. His music has been commissioned and performed by some of Australia and America’s leading ensembles and soloists and he has been featured in two books on Australian music (A Handbook of Australian Music and A Companion to Music in Australia) as well as the International Who's Who in Music and Musicians Directory (U.K.).

His work night chains is featured on the CRI compact disc of the same name and in 2009 three new discs featuring his piano, chamber and orchestral music were issued in the USA, Australia and Europe. Knehans’ music is published by Armadillo Edition, New Haven, American Composers Alliance and the Australian Music Centre.

Knehans holds degrees in music from ANU, Queens College, City University of New York and Yale University where he completed his doctoral degree with Pulitzer Prize winning composer Jacob Druckman. In 2000, Knehans was invited to participate in the Czech-American Summer Music Institute in Prague. In 2001 Incontri di Musica Sacra Contemporenea mounted a large work for orchestra, soloists and chorus in Bari, Taranto and Rome Italy. In 2002, his work seraphic ride was given its world premier at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. by soloists from the National Symphony Orchestra. 2003 saw his new work rive played in Brisbane, Melbourne, Adelaide and Hobart as well as in London, Athens and Thessoloniki by the acclaimed Verdehr Trio. In 2005, Knehans was invited to return to the 2005 Incontri di Musica Sacra Contemporanea where a new work for mezzosoprano and orchestra was given in L'Aquila and Rome. In 2006, he was invited to the New Music - New Faces Festival in Krakow, Poland. Resulting from this performance he was invited to the Music Premieres of the Season Festival in Kiev, Ukraine, 2007 and to lecture in electro-acoustic composition at the Academy of Music in Krakow, Poland and the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance in Israel.

Between 2000-2006 he was the Tasmanian State Chair, Federal Board member, Federal Chair and Executive Director (Syllabus Development) Music Craft of the Australian Music Examinations Board. He has been Professor of Music and Director of the University of Tasmania Conservatorium of Music since 2000, and Artistic Director of the Australian International Summer Orchestra Institute since 2005. In May, 2008, his appointment as the new Dean of the College-Conservatory of Music at the University of Cincinnati was confirmed, a position he held until 2010. Knehans is currently the Thomas James Kelly Professor of Music at the College-Conservatory of Music, University of Cincinnati.

Knehans’ music has been recorded by CRI, ERM Media, Move Records (Australia), Crystal Records and Ablaze Records and is available world wide on iTunes.