Douglas Knehans

Cincinnati-based composer Douglas Knehans may have come into the music game late in life (He wouldn’t be the only one as we’ve seen so far), but he has had quite a bit of experience thus far and is making the kind of music that media sources like The Washington Post and Miami Herald have been praising. Besides composing he is also the Norman Dinerstein Professor of Composition Scholar at the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music (My God, doesn’t that confuse people about his name??), and apparently he was once Jennifer Jolley‘s composition teacher (Hate that I forgot to ask him about working with her). Douglas’s last full CD of compositions titled Fractured Traces and the Pridonoff Duo’s current disc Virtuosity Squared (featuring Douglas’ piece titled Cascade) are both available on Ablaze, a label devoted to new and existing works by living composers.
Douglas had some time to speak to me.

CM: Can you take us back to your beginnings?

DK: I always wanted to be a composer, but I guess I felt I didn’t want to just be a paper composer, that I wanted to learn how to play an instrument and make music, therefore it was a little circuitous. I came to music late. I was in my last year of high school before I took up an instrument or learned to read music or anything like that. And then went straight from that into college-level music, and that was pretty scary because I was a little bit deficient in terms of my background–I had no music training in my childhood or anything like that. So, a lot of those undergraduate years were about just catching up and learning repertoire. But I also took lessons in composition at the same time that I took flute lessons and all the harmony and counterpoint stuff. I did kind of a double major then.

When I got out of music school, I started doing work as a freelance flute player, and that is a really hard life. Harder than being a composer! [laughs] So, I quickly became tired of that life, and one year I just decided I was going to try and go for it with composition. It was in the 80’s, and there was a lot of money around for commissions and songs, so I made a concerted push to move towards composition. At the end of that year I had about six commissions. That inaugurated a period where I was just really being a working composer and living from commissions. I did that for about three or four years, I guess. That was a great, but also a very busy time because I was composing during the week, but then had to really look towards my commissions for the following year as business on the weekend. That’s how it works in that game. The other side of it is working to a timeline because the commission money only lasts so long, so you know ‘Oh, I gotta write this piece in seven weeks’ or ‘2 1/2 months’! You’ve got to have a technique to move pieces along and just ruminate on them endlessly. After a little while of that, I got just a little bit overly pressed with [too limited] time to really think of the pieces the way I wanted to. And that coincided with a trip to the MacDowell Colony and meeting some people in New York and getting a scholarship to do a master’s at Queens College with Thea Musgrave before going to Yale to do my doctorate with Jacob Druckman.

CM: When did your music start to mature/gel?

DK: I was a mid-to-late career composer, if you will. I’ve been writing basically since 1980 [then aged 23]. In that time I’ve been through not only a number of cycles with my career, but also in terms of the style of music I write–When I went to school as an undergraduate, everyone was taught to write serial music. It was just not in question that you would do anything else! That’s what you did! And I didn’t really like that music that much, not even then, in my angry young man days. For me the path has always been trying to find the kind of expressive thread within a thorny language, and I think what’s happened is culture has fortunately developed enough now where we’re at a time where people can be quite a bit more honest about what actually interests them in sound, and if you want to write that thorny stuff, there’s lots of scope for that, and if you want to write simpler music like I do these days, I think there’s lots of scope for that too, and a public for both of those as well. So my first successes came with music where I kind of rejected that academic style, and then as I became more established as a composer, I was pulled back into a more academic stream, and things became less compositionally successful from my point of view, and I got an academic job. Now I’m in this lovely position of having a professorship here in Cincinnati, and a lot of time to write music and a lot of artistic freedom to do so. I feel like it’s a good period again for me because I can be expressive and strike forward with what I want to do in a language that I think is now finally kind of settled, and I feel I’m in a good place now!


CM: Let’s talk about the music–The piece Cascade you had written for 2 pianos, and another version for orchestra?

DK: I first did the two piano version, and then almost immediately after that premiered, I set about orchestrating it, and we recorded it in the Czech Republic this past June, and we’re still getting those recordings edited. I hope to have a disc out maybe by the summer.

CM: And The Pridonoff Duo recorded the 2 piano version–Can you talk about working with them?

DK: The Prinonoff Duo are amazing people. They’ve got a very long performance history, and they’ve played all over the place. The two of them have a real blue chip kind of lineage. It was just really good to work with them because it was my first piece for 2 pianos, and that’s a very special animal to write for! [laughs] You would think one piano would almost be enough to do almost anything, but when you have two, there’s a special thing you can do with spatialization and rhythm that is a lot more difficult to do with just one piano. Also there’s a big orchestral kind of conception that you can more easily bring to mind than if you’re writing for a single piano. So all of those things were kind of in my mind as well as the Pridonoffs’ own incredible facility and unanimity of ensemble. It was really inspiring and a little humbling to write for those guys. I’m really happy with the result and I think it’s one of the best pieces I’ve done.

CM: What about Soar, that piece on your Fractured Traces disc? That’s a piece for cello and piano and also for cello and orchestra.

DK: It’s probably less pianistic a piano part, because when I was writing that piece I really was thinking of the orchestration, so, all these repeated nonsense note things at the beginning are pretty ungraceful, actually, but they sound great on the orchestra, and that concerto will be another piece that will come out on my next disc along with Cascade.

CM: That’s what I love about Liszt’s music, he had so many different arrangements of his pieces for different instruments and ensembles, like he wanted to show people it can be done more than one way.

DK: I think Ravel was very much the same way. For me it’s like, if it works very well on a two piano version, why not orchestrate it? It takes almost no time to do, and you’ve got a whole other dimension to the piece then, so, that’s why I do it.

CM: Liszt’s solo piano transcription of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony still blows me away! It is believed that he almost couldn’t finish writing it because he was having trouble with the last movement with the chorus.

DK: I think whenever you go from one medium to another, there are compromises and benefits. Kind of “swings and roundabouts” as it were, because if you do it well, you’re capitalizing on the strengths of the instrument you’re transcribing for. For instance when I did Cascade for orchestra, I had to change quite a lot of the detail to make it work orchestrally, but if I were to transcribe exactly what I’d written for two pianos for the orchestra, it wouldn’t necessarily work so great.

CM: If I was going to guess, I’d say you are probably going to have a lot of percussion in there to sort of fill that out, right?

DK: There is some percussion, but the biggest real changes that I made were to how lines were transcribed for the strings, because the way that things were written for piano and piano figuration does not necessarily work so great on strings, so I workshopped a lot of that with a close colleague of mine to make sure that these things were all kind of negotiable on the string parts, and the first attempts were really bad! [laughs] So I’m glad I did that, to make sure that by the time it goes to orchestra, you’ve really done your homework with it!

CM: Can you talk about the piece …mist, memory, shadow… for violin and strings?

DK: It’s kind of an elegy for Tasmania. Tasmania is a place that has a pretty dark history, because the British set it up as a penal colony. There’s a place there called Port Arthur, which was the big jail that they had on this island, and before I went there for the first time, I had already been to Auschwitz in Poland–My God, Chris, they’re just so similar! And you’re thinking the British, 2 centuries before, thought of all the same awful atrocious things…

CM: It was just as bad as any Nazi takeover…

DK: Yes, only against the poor! And so, this kind of dark history really pervades the whole island, and it’s hard to explain unless you’ve really been there. It’s kind of in the land, and in the landscape, and in the weather, everything! It’s just this misty kind of elegiac, bordering on gloomy kind of place, much of the time. Fog kind of hangs in the hills. It is just a really beautiful place. This piece was really about Tasmania and about the influence of one of the major string teachers in Australia who lived in Tasmania and who cast a really long shadow throughout Australian music–A really formidable force and the loveliest man in Tasmanian music: Jan Sedivka. The piece was commissioned for the celebration of his 90th birthday and at the same time for the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra’s 70th birthday.
What I tried to capture was a little bit of all of that. The really huge influence that someone like that has, captured within this unique landscape that is Tasmania. That piece will also be on the next disc.

…mist, memory, shadow…

CM: Do you have any dream projects you’d like to share?

DK: I guess writing a new concerto for Hilary Hahn would be a dream project for me and most composers. Apart from her lovely sound, poetic approach to phrasing and enthusiasm for new music, she brings a real interest in new music and in how composers think. I therefore imagine her to be an ideal collaborator and that is my dream project, to work with uniquely gifted, powerfully musical collaborators and [she] strikes me that way.

[EDITOR’S NOTE: Here’s hoping for an invitation to the premiere!]

BONUS CLIP: Drift (for oboe and strings)

Click here to purchase the Pridonoff Duo’s CD Virtuosity Squared (featuring Cascade) on Amazon
It is also available on iTunes for 10.99

Click here to purchase Douglas’ CD Fractured Traces on Amazon
It is also available on iTunes for 10.99

Douglas’ official website

Douglas’ Wikipedia page


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