Douglas KNEHANS (b.1957)
Fractured Traces: New Music for Cello
Spin, for cello and computer (1996) [9:23]
Night Chains, for electric cello and electronics (1991) [16:20]
Une Seule Femme Endormie, for high voice and singing cellist (1991) [5:58]
Night Canticle, for electric cello, synthesizer and electronics (1995) [7:46]
Soar, for cello and piano (2005) [16:16]
Jiři Hošek (cello); Douglas Knehans (computer); Jeffrey Krieger (electric cello, synthesizer, electronics); Susan Narucki (soprano); Paul York (cello, voice); Christian Wojtowicz (cello); Arabella Teniswood-Harvey (piano)
rec. Cité des Arts, Chambéry, Savoie, France, 18-20 May 2011. DDD
ABLAZE RECORDS AR-00003 [54:44]
American-born, frequently Australia-based composer Douglas Knehans looks a trifle bored in the cover photo. His cello music on this new release by newish Australo-American label Ablaze is anything but dull: with acoustic, electric, electronic and singing cellos on offer. Knehans has thrown in something for everyone, even if such heterogeneity runs the risk of actually satisfying few listeners.
For more acoustically-oriented tastes, the programme includes Knehans' relatively orthodox Soar, a lyrical work for standard cello and piano that Knehans "could not help thinking of as a short score for a cello concerto." Written for the soloist Christian Wojtowicz, Soar is a story about the human spirit and does indeed soar ultimately, with numerous passages of drama, melancholy, intrigue and passion along the way. Soar was written a decade on from the other works, and may mark the beginning of a more mature phase in Knehans' writing, where tonal acoustic music usurps experimentalism and brings the composer, in all likelihood, wider recognition and persistence.
At any rate, the CD opens with Spin, for cello and computer, the latter supplying various instrumental effects at speeds over which the cellist has considerable control - the interpretive 'spin' of the title, though it might also refer to the blur of movement from Jiři Hošek's limbs as he scuds through this meaty, virtuosic appetite-whetter. This is not one of the works scored for electric cello, although in this recording it does sound amplified. It is ironic, by the way, that with all the technology on display old-fashioned page-turning is also audible about halfway through.
Une Seule Femme Endormie is a setting of 20th century French writer Pierre Jean Jouve's poem. On paper it does not sound too promising: Knehans' scoring "for high voice and singing cellist" smacks of gimmickry - the cellist hums by way of "response to the dense ambiguity of time and space evoked by the poem." Moreover, Jouve's text, included in the notes in French and English, is likely to strike many as pretentious or nondescript. As it happens, Knehans' piece turns out to be rather atmospheric, and innocuously short for those not impressed by his singing cellist idea. That said, Paul York's contribution is in any case restrained, allowing Susan Narucki to do the real vocals.
According to Knehans, Night Canticle is the second of "a projected three movement work for solo electronic cello", following on from Night Chains. He describes it as "rather more delicate and meditative in nature" than the latter, but it is in fact reminiscent of a 1950s sci-fi B-movie soundtrack, and is more likely to engender nightmares than deep thought. As with much of his music, it is outlandish, eerie and extravagant; in smaller doses at least it is also entertaining.
Knehans outlines in his notes the "psycho-emotional and compositional narratives" Night Chains itself explores, but here perhaps doth protest too much. The electric cello often calls to mind an electric bass guitar, and sceptics may find the stop-start riff-based episodes and spacious acoustic redolent of the self-indulgent soundcheck of a 1970s or 1980s heavy rock band at a stadium. The frequent fade-outs only add to this effect.
Sound quality is very good, although clearly the music has been mixed. The booklet provides only two sides of notes, but the font is so small that there is nevertheless plenty to read. A magnifying glass would come in handy, but the complete notes in bigger print can be read for free on the Ablaze website here. Those that do enjoy this disc can look forward to an imminent new one from Ablaze entitled Cascade, which features new orchestral works by Knehans.
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Outlandish, eerie and extravagant; in smaller doses it is also entertaining.