Douglas Knehans, the Norman Dinerstein Professor of Composition Scholar at the University of Cincinnati’s College Conservatory of Music (CCM), has had a crazy couple of weeks. Two of his compositions are making their world premiers this week in two separate states.
“Black City,”a five movement cello concerto which Knehans wrote over the last year and a half, premiered Sunday at the University of Louisville. And his three movement orchestral composition, “Unfinished Earth,”will premier at CCM’s Corbett Auditorium Friday.
Knehans has contributed musically all over the world, including — among others — the U.S., Asia and Australia, where he taught at the University of Tasmania, created the Australian International Symphony Orchestra Institute and founded the record label, Ablaze Records.
In lieu of these performances, Knehans spoke with TNR about his upcoming performance at CCM, what it’s like for an orchestral composer to develop a piece and his record label.
The News Record: Can you break down the three movements of“Unfinished Earth”?
Douglas Knehans: It’s kind of a symphony in all but name. And the
first movement is called“Tendering” because there is a process geologically where when Earth is being formed, it’s kind of pliable and is kind of wet. The process of that hardening up is called tendering. Things are kind of in a process of becoming.That’s kind of how the movement works too. It starts real firm and changes more into something else by the end of the movement.
The second movement is called“Eternal Ocean” and that’s really just about all the currents and cross currents that happen in the sea. I’ve tried to kind of simulate that in the rhythmic elements of the piece.
Then, the last movement is called “Tearing Drift.”That again is about the idea of Earth coming apart and it’s kind of about continental drift a little bit.
This might all sound a little abstract, but really these external things — geology and even built environments — have this sort of analogue with our internal life. Over the course of our lives, we put in structures internally, intellectually, emotionally, psychologically. These are all kind of things that we build inside ourselves that build and change just like the Earth.
A lot of my pieces have natural elements. I’ve written pieces based on clouds, earth, sea, all that stuff, to kind of externally mirror an internal progression within humans.
TNR: What inspired you to write “Unfinished Earth”?
DK: My pieces increasingly are internal journeys, so that’s got more to do with how this piece was formed.Those physical process serve as that analogue for the human struggle and experience.
TNR: How does travel and having seen so much of the world affect your music?
DK: Well, I haven’t been everywhere, but I’ve been a few places. I think traveling, especially for a musician, is extremely important. Musical traditions are so different in different parts of the world. So, when I go to Chicago or NewYork and hear an orchestra, it sounds very different than an orchestra in Vienna, for example.
So, it’s really great to have those different traditions play out in real sound.
To a musician, it is extremely important and influential. Influences your whole notion of sound and sound world, and that’s a really important part of the creative act.
TNR: When you sit down to write a piece, where do you start? There is so much to think about when dealing with many instruments.
DK: There is. Fortunately, a lot of it is technical. For example, for an orchestra piece, there’s so much technical stuff. So, the way the piece really starts is just like any other piece — could be a piano piece, or cellos, it doesn’t matter. It’s just a bigger scale, you’re just dealing with much bigger forces.
It’s almost like — if you could imagine a visual artist, a painter making preparatory drawings for a painting — that’s kind of what it’s like writing orchestral music.You think in kind of a reductive form about what is the actual music, then you think,“how will I color that and project that out?”Because a lot of it has to do with how much power you want, or how sinewy, or how brittle, or how lush. So, all those things kind of influence how you’ll orchestrate it.
That kind of compliments how the music is conceived. It’s kind of hand in glove like that.