Composer Douglas Knehans explains how his career and artistic sensibilities have been shaped by love, Mahler and his family.
I was lucky enough to meet and talk with Polish composer Witold Lutosławski when he visited Melbourne, Australia when I was a young composer. The vividness of his orchestral scores and the immediacy of his communication through music has always been tremendously impressive to me as an artist. I was lucky enough to hear the Australian premiere of him conducting his 3rd Symphony and to meet and socialize with him afterwards. Urbane, deeply human, tremendously kind and unpretentiously sophisticated, he and his brilliantly intense music have been one of my gurus for my entire career.
Mahler has always been one of my gurus since his music is so tied to the past and yet so iconoclastic, personal, quirky, timeless, and intensely communicative even as it presses towards the future. I think we are seeing a return to the immediacy and drama contained in his music and I am happy to be one of the composers seeking to return to simple and genuine compositional communication that is inclusive of but also somewhat outside of learned professional circles. For me this translates in music to boldness, drama, passion, fragility, sweeping large scale works and more. Mahler is master of all of this and has been a guru of mine my whole musical life.
Love, Sound and Flute
Even as a child I sought to connect meaningfully with others. I tried this through visual art, graphic design, photography and through music. Settling on music I studied the flute and composition. Each allowed me different paths into people’s emotions: performance was direct and visceral; but composition was these things and very personal.
Love is my artistic guru since without it, no matter how dark the music may be, I cannot sustain a connection with people. I also simply LOVE sound – it is the driver in all that I do since it is the conveyor of meaning, mood, thought and passion – and having trained as a flautist, the instrument has been such a central part of my life.
Though I do not play any longer, I am still a huge fan of this instrument and was excited to write my first flute concerto Tempest which was recorded by the brilliant principal flautist of the London Symphony Orchestra, Gareth Davies.
Holocaust and My Father
My father fought and was wounded in the second world war where he won a bronze star for bravery and a purple heart for being wounded in the line of duty. Growing up, WWII was always an historical talking point of great complexity for me and my father. As an adult I had the chance to travel to Poland and visit the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum. Here I viscerally encountered the realities of life and death at their most deeply sad, intense, and extreme. The more I read and learned about the Holocaust, the more I felt it was important to memorialize the tragic loss of innocent lives that happened there and elsewhere.
My Shoah Requiem was a turning point in my expressive and technical musical language since this subject matter demanded immediacy, emotional genuineness, and great empathy. This turning point in my expressive language took hold at that point and I never turned back, so the deep and real immediacy of message of the Holocaust has been a lasting influence on the type and style of music I write.
Making this change from a kind of intellectual academic music to one that is more human and immediate was a risk I had to take and that continues to pay dividends in all of my compositions from that point — about 2001 — onwards. I have to thank my father for this – he is definitely one of my gurus!
Last but not least is my family, without whom I could not do any of this compositional work. My wife Josephine and my children Katarina and Joshua really are a wellspring of emotion and hope for me. Without their support it would be hard to keep up the schedule I do and to spread myself so thin across all of the projects I continuously have going at once. They are also very grounding which allows me to explore really deeply the more tenuous aspects of life, human experience and emotion. They are my most important group of gurus!
Douglas Knehans is a composer and Director of Ablaze Records.