DOUGLAS KNEHANS “Fractured Traces” = Spin for acoustic cello and computer; Night Chains for electric cello and digital effects; Une seule femme endormie for high voice and singing cellist; Night Canticle for electric cello, synthesizer, digital effects and computer; Soar for cello and piano – Jiri Hosek, Jeffrey Krieger, Paul York & Christian Wojtowicz, celli/ Douglas Knehans, computer/ Susan Narucki, voice/ Arabella Teniswood-Harvey, piano – Ablaze Records ar-00003, 54:44 ***½:
The use and blend of traditional acoustical instruments and electronic sound sources is not new. The earliest pieces in the genre go back to the 1940s and 1950s. However, both electronics as well as the sound worlds that composers and performers have been listening to, “grew up” with and trained in over the past thirty years in particular have become amazingly sophisticated. Such is the case with this example of new music for cello by Douglas Knehans.
While I was not familiar with Knehans, I am familiar with some of the new and amazing works and composers represented on the Ablaze label. Douglas Knehans is a much touted composer, having received recognition from as far as Australia and Poland and throughout the United States. He has most recently been serving as a composition and new music professor at the University of Cincinnati. These pieces indicate that Mr. Knehans is a very gifted experimenter with a very high level of skill in the electronic media as well as very well versed in the possibilities and probabilities of advanced cello playing.
The opening work, “Spin”, is an immediate attention getter, filled with absolutely virtuostic cello playing, in this case by the incredible Jiri Hosek, as well as some captivating, atmospheric electronic effects realized by Knehans in live performance. The very detailed booklet notes indicate that the “spin” of the title is a reference both to the other worldly demands on the cellist but on some performance time decisions regarding duration and intensity that allow this work to be culminated in as little as seven minutes or close to twenty. The net effect here, from a live performance in 2000 in Prague, is excellent and very attention-demanding.
Knehans’ two works “Night chains” and “Night canticle” have some elements in common, aside from the titles. Both works do rely, quite effectively, on an almost seamless blend of electric cello and digital effects. Both pieces were composed for specialist Jeff Krieger and, according to the composer’s notes, “night canticle” is based on some of the pitch elements as are found in the “night chains”. Additionally, it is interesting to imagine that the “…canticle”, with its somewhat quieter and more relaxed sound, would serve as the middle movement to a projected three-movement work that has yet to be realized. As they are, both pieces provide some very interesting and demanding listening. The interplay between various timbres and motion in the digital electronics is at least as fun to follow as that found between the electronics and the cello. Krieger is a very skilled, energetic player and brings energy to these works.
The remaining two works on the program have less in common with the others and are intriguing individually. “Une seule femme endormie” (a lone woman asleep) is an almost surreal setting of a poem by David Gascoyne involving obsession and love gone wrong. The musical effect is almost a post-Schoenberg sound, like perhaps Berio or Lutaslwaski and the vocalizations by the cellist, sparing but unsettling, do provide for a very beautiful, but eerie, experience. The performance by cellist Paul York and modern music specialist Susan Narucki is stunning. This fairly short work contrast quite a bit with Knehans’ “Soar” for cello and piano. “Soar” is the most recent work on this program and the composer comments that it stands as an example of his “distance travelled” and how he has “evolved” as a composer. Probably, the most conventional sounding work on the disc this work does ‘soar’ with long dramatic cello lines, distantly tonal, and ponderous undercurrents in the piano. Performers Wojtowicz and Teniswood-Harvey perform wonderfully, almost rhapsodically. Knehans also comments in the booklet notes that his most recent pieces such as his “Shoah Requiem” for chorus and orchestra or his “Glow” for violin, clarinet and orchestra do reflect a more conservative and intentional connection between the music and the audience.
That certainly does make me curious about Douglas Knehans’ other works but , I admit, I rather liked the earlier, abstract, strange but captivating sounds of his electronics enhanced pieces. I recommend this disc for anyone who does like very interesting, very unusual music. The bonus is that if works like the two “night” pieces are just not your thing, then “Soar” cannot help but make you want to find out more about this composer. It did for me.
— Daniel Coombs