Graeme Koehne

b. 1956

Australian

Summary


Graeme Koehne’s music achieves that elusive synthesis of sophisticated compositional technique and a popular touch, giving his music an emotional eloquence, visceral appeal and aural pleasure. His orchestral compositions such as Elevator Music, Powerhouse, Shaker Dances, Inflight Entertainment (oboe concerto) and High Art (trumpet concerto) have long been among the most popular by any Australian composer, and Koehne’s music is now a regular presence on the international stage through the advocacy of musicians such as conductors Vladimir Jurowski and Kristjan Järvi. He was one of a select group of Australian, New Zealand and Turkish composers commissioned to contribute to the Gallipoli Symphony, a 10-year project culminating in 2015 that commemorated the legendary World War I military campaign.

Graeme Koehne served on several occasions on the Australia Council, the Australian Government’s arts funding advisory body. In 1998-99 he was the state of South Australia’s Composer-in-Residence. He was awarded a Doctorate of Music from the University of Adelaide in 2002 and in 2004 received the Sir Bernard Heinze Award from the University of Melbourne. In 2014 he was appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO).

Biography


Graeme Koehne is one of Australia’s leading compositional figures.

In Koehne’s earliest compositions (the late 1970s), the Boulezian aesthetic is present through the influence of his teacher, Richard Meale. Then in exploring the work of Toru Takemitsu, Koehne grew to incorporate the influence of Debussy and Ravel, evident in his Rainforest, a piece that drew inspiration from the verdant tropical forests of north-eastern Australia. It was ranked overall third at the Paris International Rostrum of Composers in 1983 and is now recognized as one of the major Australian orchestral works of the 1980s, having received a large number of performances throughout Australia and in Europe led by conductors Christoph Eschenbach, Louis Fremaux, Leif Segerstam and Ronald Zollman.

Rainforest also attracted the attention of Graeme Murphy, Australia’s foremost choreographer, who in 1983 commissioned Koehne to compose the score for his Sydney Dance Company’s new production based on Oscar Wilde’s The Selfish Giant (subsequently made into an orchestral suite, the Visions of Paradise). The ballet’s success led to a continuing association between Murphy and Koehne (Limited Edition, Old Friends, New Friends, Nearly Beloved, Gallery and Tivoli).

At this time, Koehne also received commissions for a variety of more intimate works, including the Ricercare & Burlesca for string trio (Reger String Trio), the Capriccio for piano and strings (Australian Chamber Orchestra) and the Divertissement: Trois pieces bourgeoises for string quartet (Australian String Quartet). His organ work, the Gothic Toccata, has become popular among organists in Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States, and is the most recorded organ work by an Australian composer.

In these works, Koehne strives for a balance between the orchestral richness of Rainforest and his increasing desire to find a personal style of simplicity and eloquence. When the opportunity to advance his studies was provided by a Harkness Fellowship in 1985, Koehne based himself at Yale University, which provided the opportunity to undertake private studies with Virgil Thomson as well as Louis Andriessen and Jacob Druckman.

In Australia’s Bicentennial year 1988, Koehne received prestigious commissions from the Australian Ballet (Nocturnes for the ballet Gallery), the Queensland Ballet (Once Around the Sun) and the Western Australian Ballet (Rhythmic Birds of the Antipodes for the ballet Voyage Within).

Upon his return to Australia, Koehne succeeded Richard Meale as Lecturer in Composition at his alma mater, the University of Adelaide in South Australia. His chamber opera Love Burns, to a libretto by Louis Nowra, was a highlight of the 1992 Adelaide Festival of the Arts, and has subsequently been given new productions by the Lyric Opera of Queensland and Sydney’s Belvoir Street Theatre (including performances at the 1998 Melbourne International Festival).

Koehne has made several excursions into writing for film and television, usually in collaboration with colleague Michael Atkinson. The movie Heaven’s Burning (an early vehicle for Russell Crowe), the television documentary Giants of Time, and an award-winning advertisement for the South Australian Tourism Commission designed for cinema screening, have been scored by this team.

Since his early experimentation with the avant garde, Koehne has progressed towards an approach grounded in the musical vernacular, aiming to draw classical music closer to the elements and highly varied styles of popular music. Influenced in particular by the "radical aesthetic conservatism” of the visual arts critic Peter Fuller, and by the "new classicism” movement in architecture, Koehne set out to broker an encounter between the techniques of classical music and popular music.

The orchestral concert-opener Unchained Melody (1991), in giving expression to the composer’s own feeling of hard-won liberation from the constraints of modernist thinking, draws upon the rhythmic and melodic materials of contemporary popular music. Its companion piece Powerhouse (1993) is a perpetuum mobile built on a rhumba as its rhythmic base. The work celebrates the music of Carl Stalling and Raymond Scott, creators of the soundtracks for the famous 1940s and 50s Warner Brothers cartoons. The third work in this trilogy, Elevator Music (1997) was commissioned by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and was premiered by the orchestra under Chief Conductor Edo de Waart. Elevator Music takes its cue from the work of the postwar popular orchestral composer-arrangers such as Les Baxter, Nelson Riddle, Henry Mancini and John Barry. All three pieces have become popular choices for orchestral concerts, recordings and tours. They have been incorporated into ballets, television documentaries and versions have even been made for US marching bands, most notably the spectacular performances of the "Concord Blue Devils”.

The interest in byways of popular culture and their interaction with "classical” modes is also demonstrated in smaller-scale works such as Nashville Tuning (in versions for guitar quartet, premiered by Guitar Trek, and for two pianos, premiered by Nurit Tilles and Edmund Riemann). In 1998, Koehne became the first composer commissioned by the Australian Ballet to write a full evening work. The ballet 1914 is based upon the novel "Fly Away Peter” by David Malouf, with choreography by Stephen Baynes. Following its premiere at the Sydney Opera House, the production subsequently toured to Melbourne, Adelaide and Canberra and was recorded by Orchestra Victoria for ABC Classics.

The Sydney Symphony Orchestra has commissioned Koehne to write two concertos: a concerto for the orchestra’s principal oboist, Diana Doherty, called Inflight Entertainment (featured on an all-Koehne CD on Naxos), and a concerto for jazz trumpet master James Morrison, called High Art (2003). Conductor Kristjan Järvi subsequently directed performances of the concerto with Morrison - both with symphony orchestras and in a special reduced version for the Absolute Ensemble - in Europe and the United States.

As the company’s major work for the 2001 Australian Centenary of Federation, the Sydney Dance Company commissioned Koehne to compose a score for the ballet Tivoli, which traces the history of the popular entertainments of 20th century Australia.

Recent works include a concerto for two cellos and orchestra (Sleep of Reason), a children's puppet theatre work (Shadow Dreams), and a long-requested orchestral suite from his ballet 1914, entitled Between Two Worlds. He was one of a select group of Australian, New Zealand and Turkish composers commissioned to contribute to the Gallipoli Symphony, a 10-year project culminating in 2015 that commemorated the legendary World War I military campaign.

Graeme Koehne served on several occasions on the Australia Council, the Australian Government’s arts funding advisory body. In 1998-99 he was the state of South Australia’s Composer-in-Residence. He was awarded a Doctorate of Music from the University of Adelaide in 2002 and in 2004 received the Sir Bernard Heinze Award from the University of Melbourne. In 2014 he was appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO).


Photos

Discography