About this Recording
8.555847 - KOEHNE, G.: Inflight Entertainment / Powerhouse / Elevator Music (Sydney Symphony, Takuo Yuasa)

Graeme Koehne (b. 1956)
Composing “Freestyle”

Unchained Melody, Powerhouse, Elevator Music, Inflight Entertainment… just reading the titles, you would not suspect that this is a recording of ‘classical’ music at all. It is exactly the irony Graeme Koehne intends, for while he deeply appreciates the history and techniques of ‘classical music’, he laments the separation and exclusion of influence between popular entertainment and classical tradition which has developed since the early twentieth century. Indeed, there is a polemical intention behind the use of titles like these, aimed at undermining the modernist stylistic hegemony over contemporary classical music. With their self-deprecating edge, the titles take little digs at the pretensions of contemporary composition and of classical music’s institutions in general. They also provide indicators to the sources of an almost buried rival tradition of orchestral music in the twentieth century. Contradicting the assumption that orchestral music’s twentieth century lineage has passed smoothly from Schoenberg to Webern to Boulez, for example, Koehne’s titles reflect an interest in such examples of low culture as 1950s pop tunes, cartoons and television, lounge or easy-listening music and movie soundtracks. In his music, these influences come together with the techniques of the classical tradition on equal terms, so that they might gain vitality from one another. His aim is not a self-conscious polystylism: it is simply a natural expression of musical personality, for all of these elements have been present in Graeme Koehne’s musical upbringing.

Koehne declares as formative musical influences the music of the Bugs Bunny Show, the whole gamut of 1960s American television and the James Bond movies, and he rates their best composers as masters of twentieth century music, Carl Stalling, Raymond Scott, Henry Mancini and John Barry chief among them. In his youth these influences were absorbed alongside his passion for the great Romantic repertoire, Chopin and Tchaikovsky being early musical enthusiasms. Later, inspired by his principal composition teacher Richard Meale, the imprint of Boulez and other composers of the avant garde was profound. Subsequently he extended his interests to the music of Ravel and the neoclassicists, under the important influence of Virgil Thomson, with whom he studied in New York. All this illustrates just how uncharacteristic and novel an individual’s musical path can now be, particularly an Australian musical upbringing. Indeed this is perhaps the signal characteristic of ‘Australian-ness’. Joyfully lacking a dominant musical tradition, Australians are free to explore everything that comes our way and to synthesize our choices into a style of our own, freestyle, just as the great Australian swimmers practise.

The fundamental musical language that Graeme Koehne has developed is essentially neo-classical, in that it employs traditional compositional techniques of development and variation, and the endless expressive potential of diatonic harmony, all cloaked in richly imaginative orchestration. He places great emphasis on this aspect of his work, in the hope that audiences will appreciate the discipline, construction and craftsmanship behind the infectious rhythms and tunes.

The four works recorded here cover a period of more than ten years in the development of this musical individualism. Unchained Melody (1990) grows immediately out of Graeme Koehne’s feeling that contemporary music lacked the excitement and enjoyability of pop music. He wanted to seek a way of fixing the exuberance of this music to the symphony orchestra. To prepare for it, he turned away from his counterpoint and orchestration texts and studied instead the specialist magazines of pop guitarists, drummers and keyboard players, and adapted rhythmic and melodic concepts gleaned from these sources to the textures and capabilities of the symphony orchestra. For this piece, he took the title from an old, and at the time relatively obscure, 1950s pop song. He liked the song, especially admiring its construction, without realising that it had been penned by a composer of outstanding classical credentials, Alex North, but mostly he liked the association of ‘letting go’ which the title conveyed. He felt he was discarding the weighty baggage of contemporary ideology, and letting loose with the full resources of his own compositional technique to create a good time for the audience, and for the orchestra. Unchained Melody was a great success with both parties, if not with critics. Koehne immediately conceived the idea of completing a trilogy of short orchestral pieces exploring aspects of the musical language he began to conceive as the ‘vernacular’, echoing the architectural philosophy that he was studying in the work of Demetri Porphyrios, Quinlan Terry and Leon Krier.

Koehne’s next work in the trilogy, first performed by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra in 1993, would move further away from contemporary compositional models, this time germinating from a Rumba rhythm, as he has long been a fan of the early Latin band-leader, Xavier Cugat. The title, Powerhouse, was chosen in homage to Raymond Scott, the uniquely humorous and inventive composer featured in many Bugs Bunny soundtracks. Though there is little trace of Scott’s actual music about the piece, Koehne speaks of aiming to capture a spirit of bright humour and rapidly varying character for which Scott provides a model.

The final piece of the orchestral trilogy, Elevator Music (1997), grew from Graeme Koehne’s admiration for the music of John Barry, Henry Mancini and Les Baxter. Here the textures are darker, more dramatic, the rhythmic power intensified, undercutting the deprecatory ‘elevator music’ tag. In citing the inspiration of the three popular orchestral composers, Koehne was drawn by their interest, during the 1950s, in ‘The Beat’, a feeling for driving rhythm responding to rock’n’roll. John Barry, with his group the John Barry Seven, developed, Koehne observes, ‘a uniquely exciting form of instrumental music which accommodated The Beat’s powerful influence… As in the previous pieces of my “trilogy”, beyond the basic rhythmic drive I haven’t used any of these composers’ actual material. I’ve made some observations about the ways they “use” an orchestra, and launched my piece off on its own tangent. The basic material of Elevator Music is a twelve-tone row, consisting of two interlocking hexachords. I haven’t used any of the conventional twelve-tone methods of developing this material, though. That’s where Baxter, Mancini and Barry come in… which introduces a possibility I wish Schoenberg had thought of - one day while playing tennis with Gershwin, perhaps.’

The productive association between Graeme Koehne, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, its Chief Conductor Edo de Waart and Artistic Administrator Timothy Calnin during the course of the 1990s culminated in the concerto for amplified oboe and orchestra, Inflight Entertainment (1999). The piece belies all expectations of this form, or its title. It is a concerto of symphonic proportions, a showpiece for orchestra as well as the brilliant soloist for whom it was written, Diana Doherty. Graeme Koehne’s programme note for the work explains his unconventional approach:

‘The oboe, by virtue of a classical association with the music-making of shepherds, more often than not finds itself occupying green and pleasant pastoral landscapes. In this concerto, I’ve taken the oboe away from this traditional scenery into some landscapes in which the instrument might seem strange and alien. It’s as if the shepherd had a secret life of adventure and travel… The landscapes are those conjured up by various genres of the popular cinema, places which excite our imagination and our memories. The title Inflight Entertainment aims to imply an association with movies and the “shepherd’s” adventures into strange lands.

“Entertainment” is also one of my favourite words. I particularly like to use it to see the shocking effect it has on many of my composer colleagues and newspaper critics. I’ve often heard it said that “entertainment” is not a value that a contemporary composer should consider, but I think that music which does not set out to entertain often ends up being boring. To entertain means to excite the senses and the imagination and it certainly does not preclude the possibility of a more “intellectual” engagement with musical materials.

In the oboe concerto, I’m aiming to bring the kind of imaginative excitement I get from the music I hear in the cinema or on soundtracks into the Concert Hall.’

James Koehne
(James Koehne is brother of Graeme Koehne and Artistic Administrator of the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra)

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