The Nature of Sound

Douglas Knehans writes for IAM on composing musical landscapes

I became fascinated with the power, organicism, unrivalled beauty and vast complexity of nature and natural forms some years ago. Clouds, mist, rain, sea, earth, sky, mountain, plains, trees, snow, sand, and more have all held a kind of primal magnetism for me. As I matured as a composer, these elemental aspects of nature and natural phenomena began to creep into my work from an evocative, even painterly, perspective. One of the first works directly tied to this approach was a short piece for solo violin and strings entitled ‘mist, memory, shadow…’.

This work was written to a commission from the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, and I was drawn to the verdant island’s amazing natural beauty and the various mists and shadows that the sun and fog enact on the earth there. The principal shift for me with this work was really in the evocative nature of the harmony and how melody of the solo violin was used to etch in this perspective of the Tasmanian ‘experience’.

Added to this was the “memory” aspect: nature sticks to our memory and immortalises time. Time, memory and nature all fused at this point into a superb amalgam of meaning, memory, emotion and worlds: internal and external, past and present.

Some years later I turned again to nature, this time water, in two piano works turned to concerto called Cascade; a rather large work in three movements: Drift Echo, Waves and Torrent. In this work I was more interested in exploring water impact and aftermath in both gentle and powerful forms. Cascade seeks to portray the beauty and primal power of nature.

In Cascade, the natural forms of water were captured in the very thematic ideas of the work; sometimes in the developmental and especially harmonic development of materials that, at times, is really not theoretical but rather linear, sketch-like and painterly in seeking to create worlds of movements that, although harmonic, don’t “behave” like harmony but rather use harmony as a vehicle for movement: musical movement, emotional movement, and a kind of sonic “sweep” of motion.

Fast-forward to now: my latest two works capitalise on these perspectives. My latest disc Unfinished Earth (Ablaze Records, ar-00036) features two major works: Tempest, my concerto for flute and orchestra and the eponymous Unfinished Earth.

Tempest is a concerto in three movements based on three winds that sweep the earth: Ostro: the traditional Italian name of a southerly wind in the Mediterranean Sea; Mistral… Funerailles: a cold northerly wind from central France and the alps to the Mediterranean; and finally, Etesian: the strong, dry north winds of the Aegean Sea, which most of the time are a good steady sailing wind. The idea of wind, gentle and strong, tender and rough, played on my mind as I wrote this work. In this recording, the superb British flautist Gareth Davies (principal, London Symphony Orchestra) makes an effortless job of this tremendously difficult new concerto.

The other work on the disc is Unfinished Earth. Here, I return to the holistic sense of earth and sea as both tremendously powerful and complexly beautiful and variegated natural elements tied to our complex inner lives of emotion, memory and psycho-emotional ‘landscapes’. In this work, I explore basic notions of earth and sea motion in the three movements. Tempering refers to the formation of earth through molten cooling as flowing lava becoming earth, or, as I also saw it, the ‘laying down’ of our thoughts, ideas, feelings and history in a way that actually forms us as people, just as the earth forms itself through eruptive forces.

The second movement, Eternal Ocean, is one that explores the various crosscurrents and drifts of liquid ocean moving across each other, much as our wave-like emotions carry us from one state to another with a deep, primal pull. This is a highly emotional, intense and passionate movement that contains moments of tremendous repose and quiet reflection.

The third movement, Tearing Drift, refers to the massive motion of continental drift and how this pulls and tugs at the earthen surface. This movement’s title also has a kind of double meaning that references, too, our internal lives. In this aspect the title is pronounced not as a tear in cloth or paper, but as a tear shed by humans as we endlessly evolve, shift, even drift and grow. Unfinished Earth is a big scale commentary on nature and natural forms and the influence on our human internal worlds. The muscular metaphor of the piece is a pointer to our own human growth, our change, our memory and our humanity.

Unfinished Earth was a further step in my exploration of internality/externality and world/individual dualisms. My next major works are two deep concertos: my first violin concerto Darkest Sea will be about, again, a deep, deep development of our emotional truths and how these shift-like waves, and even how some strange and alien creatures, live deep within us and within the seas. I imagine this as a deeply impastoed work of thick depth and surface brilliance and I can’t wait to get started on it. The work after that will be a viola concerto, again, tied to earth and nature, but I think this time it will be about va­­pours, mists and cloud. I expect it to be a light but darkly-hued work that will compliment the viola’s sound and delicacy so well.

These complex narratives really attract me. They are all so rich, deeply textured and so full of emotional depth as well as musical and psychological expanse that I feel I am at a point of real synthesis between these two complex narratives, each well-served by technique and deep emotion.

Listen to Douglas Knehans’ work here Ripple for orchestra; Concertos; Unfinished Earth.

Douglas Knehans' Unfinished Earth
Douglas Knehans’ Unfinished Earth