KOEHNE: Inflight Entertainment / Powerhouse / Elevator Music (Diana Doherty/ Stephen Snelleman/ Sydney Symphony Orchestra/ Takuo Yuasa) (Naxos: 8.555847)
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Graeme Koehne (b. 1956)
Unchained Melody, Powerhouse, Elevator Music,Inflight Entertainment... just reading the titles, youwould not suspect that this is a recording of 'classical'music at all. It is exactly the irony Graeme Koehneintends, for while he deeply appreciates the history andtechniques of 'classical music', he laments theseparation and exclusion of influence between popularentertainment and classical tradition which hasdeveloped since the early twentieth century. Indeed,there is a polemical intention behind the use of titles likethese, aimed at undermining the modernist stylistichegemony over contemporary classical music. Withtheir self-deprecating edge, the titles take little digs atthe pretensions of contemporary composition and ofclassical music's institutions in general. They alsoprovide indicators to the sources of an almost buriedrival tradition of orchestral music in the twentiethcentury. Contradicting the assumption that orchestralmusic's twentieth century lineage has passed smoothlyfrom Schoenberg to Webern to Boulez, for example,Koehne's titles reflect an interest in such examples oflow culture as 1950s pop tunes, cartoons and television,lounge or easy-listening music and movie soundtracks.
In his music, these influences come together with thetechniques of the classical tradition on equal terms, sothat they might gain vitality from one another. His aimis not a self-conscious polystylism: it is simply a naturalexpression of musical personality, for all of theseelements have been present in Graeme Koehne'smusical upbringing.
Koehne declares as formative musical influencesthe music of the Bugs Bunny Show, the whole gamut of1960s American television and the James Bond movies,and he rates their best composers as masters oftwentieth century music, Carl Stalling, Raymond Scott,Henry Mancini and John Barry chief among them. Inhis youth these influences were absorbed alongside hispassion for the great Romantic repertoire, Chopin andTchaikovsky being early musical enthusiasms. Later,inspired by his principal composition teacher RichardMeale, the imprint of Boulez and other composers ofthe avant garde was profound. Subsequently heextended his interests to the music of Ravel and the neoclassicists,under the important influence of VirgilThomson, with whom he studied in New York. All thisillustrates just how uncharacteristic and novel anindividual's musical path can now be, particularly anAustralian musical upbringing. Indeed this is perhapsthe signal characteristic of 'Australian-ness'. Joyfullylacking a dominant musical tradition, Australians arefree to explore everything that comes our way and tosynthesize our choices into a style of our own, freestyle,just as the great Australian swimmers practise.
The fundamental musical language that GraemeKoehne has developed is essentially neo-classical, inthat it employs traditional compositional techniques ofdevelopment and variation, and the endless expressivepotential of diatonic harmony, all cloaked in richlyimaginative orchestration. He places great emphasis onthis aspect of his work, in the hope that audiences willappreciate the discipline, construction andcraftsmanship behind the infectious rhythms and tunes.
The four works recorded here cover a period ofmore than ten years in the development of this musicalindividualism. Unchained Melody (1990) growsimmediately out of Graeme Koehne's feeling thatcontemporary music lacked the excitement andenjoyability of pop music. He wanted to seek a way offixing the exuberance of this music to the symphonyorchestra. To prepare for it, he turned away from hiscounterpoint and orchestration texts and studied insteadthe specialist magazines of pop guitarists, drummersand keyboard players, and adapted rhythmic andmelodic concepts gleaned from these sources to thetextures and capabilities of the symphony orchestra. Forthis piece, he took the title from an old, and at the timerelatively obscure, 1950s pop song. He liked the song,especially admiring its construction, without realisingthat it had been penned by a composer of outstandingclassical credentials, Alex North, but mostly he likedthe association of 'letting go' which the title conveyed.
He felt he was discarding the weighty baggage ofcontemporary ideology, and letting loose with the fullresources of his own compositional technique to createa good time for the audience, and for the orchestra.
Unchained Melody was a great success with bothparties, if not with critics. Koehne immediatelyconceived the idea of completing a trilogy of shortorchestral pieces exploring aspects of the musicallanguage he began to conceive as the 'vernacular',echoing the architectural philosophy that he wasstudying in the work of Demetri Porphyrios, QuinlanTerry and Leon Krier.
Koehne's next work in the trilogy, first performedby the Sydney Symphony Orchestra in 1993, wouldmove further away from contemporary compositionalmodels, this time germinating from a Rumba rhythm, ashe has long been a fan of the early Latin band-leader,Xavier Cugat. The title, Powerhouse, was chosen inhomage to Raymond Scott, the uniquely humorous andinventive composer featured in many Bugs Bunnysoundtracks. Though there is little trace of Scott's actualmusic about the piece, Koehne speaks of aiming tocapture a spirit of bright humour and rapidly varyingcharacter for which Scott provides a model.
The final piece of the orchestral trilogy, ElevatorMusic (1997), grew from Graeme Koehne's admirationfor the music of John Barry, Henry Mancini and LesBaxter. Here the textures are darker, more dramatic, therhythmic power intensified, undercutting thedeprecatory 'elevator music' tag. In citing theinspiration of the three popular orchestral composers,Koehne was drawn by their interest, during the 1950s,in 'The Beat', a feeling for driving rhythm respondingto rock'n'roll. John Barry, with his group the JohnBarry Seven, developed, Koehne observes, 'a uniquelyexciting form of instrumental music whichaccommodated The Beat's powerful influence... As inthe previous pieces of my "trilogy", beyond the basicrhythmic drive I haven't used any of these composers'actual material. I've made some observations about theways they "use" an orchestra, and launched my pieceoff on its own tangent. The basic material of ElevatorMusic is a twelve-tone row, consisting of twointerlocking hexachords. I haven't used any of theconventional twelve-tone methods of developing thismaterial, though. That's where Baxter, Mancini andBarry come in... which introduces a possibility I wishSchoenberg had thought of - one day while playingtennis with Gershwin, perhaps.'The productive association between GraemeKoehne, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, its ChiefConductor Edo de Waart and Artistic AdministratorTimothy Calnin during the course of the 1990sculminated in the concerto for amplified oboe andorchestra, Inflight Entertainment (1999). The piecebelies all expectations of this form, or its title. It is aconcerto of symphonic proportions, a showpiece fororchestra as well as the brilliant soloist for whom it waswritten, Diana Doherty. Graeme Koehne's programmenote for the work explains his unconventional approach:'The oboe, by virtue of a classical association withthe music-making of shepherds, more often than notfinds itself occupying green and pleasant pastorallandscapes. In this concerto, I've taken the oboe awayfrom this traditional scenery into some landscapes inwhich the instrument might seem strange and alien. It'sas if the shepherd had a secret life of adventure andtravel... The landscapes are those conjured up byvarious genres of the popular cinema, places whichexcite our imagination and our memories. The titleInflight Entertainment aims to imply an associationwith movies and the "shepherd's" adventures intostrange lands.