Graeme Koehne, one of Australia’s leading composers and Elder Conservatorium’s director, tells The Adelaide Review that his ideal listener is the interested, ordinary person.
Ever one to defy orthodoxy when it comes to forging his path as a composer, Graeme Koehne these days finds himself thinking differently about music’s role and purpose in people’s lives. Now in charge of an academic institution, his views have changed again, subtly but pervasively, and have taken him even further away from modernism, postmodernism, or other evolving strands of new music where convergence on a particular set of ideas becomes unquestioned and taken for granted.
‘Orthodoxy’ has really been Koehne’s bête noire since he broke new ground in the 1990s with a trio of orchestral showpieces that surprised audiences with their commonplace musical references and powerful rhythms, and simultaneously jilted the academic establishment. Unchained Melody drew on American pop duo the Righteous Brothers, Powerhouse, saluted Looney Tunes cartoon composer Carl Stalling and Elevator Music journeyed into film and easy listening music with allusions to John Barry, Henry Mancini and Les Baxter.
Ballets, concertos and songs have also flowed from his pen, cementing his style as unashamedly melodic, affectionate and wittily downbeat. His Mass for the Middle-Aged for choir, for example, set to text by Peter Goldsworthy, joyously pleads: ‘Grant me, Lord, this last request: to wear bikie colours in heaven’; while his cabaret piece, The Ringtone Cycle, another collaboration with Goldsworthy, depicts the sordid world of internet dating via a call centre in India and humorously quotes The Song of India, made famous by jazz musician Tommy Dorsey in the 1930s.
All of which turns new music on its head delightfully. Koehne speaks frequently about the tendency in new music toward earnestness and disconnection with listeners, and how he much prefers a lighter touch.
“I have no interest in the professional ‘new music’ scene, whatever that might be,” Koehne says. “I’m pretty much concerned with the interested ordinary person. By that I mean someone who is musically open-minded and adventurous enough to want to listen to something that consists of more than a couple of guitars and keyboard, and who is sick of down-the-line commercial pop.”
He explains that the audience he aims for could be listeners to ABC FM’s Classic Drive or regulars at Musica Viva concerts. “When I was a composition student [at the Elder Conservatorium] we were terribly disparaging about those audiences, but I have come to realise that they are as good as it gets,” he says. “I really want to communicate with them, which to me means offering a certain amount of familiarity and a certain amount that is challenging.”
Right now, Koehne is finishing off another score for The Australian Ballet. A prolific writer of ballet music and indeed the most successful ballet composer in this country, it follows The Selfish Giant, Nearly Beloved, Once Around the Sun, 1914 and Tivoli — the latter two also for the Australian Ballet. “It’s well advanced and about seven-tenths orchestrated,” he says.
“Ballet is an area I really enjoy. I’m not really a concert music composer, much more a composer for theatre,” he adds with characteristically self-deprecating modesty. “Composing is such a solitary activity that I much prefer collaborating with people in theatre. I also love text setting, so it’s often the extra-musical things that are important to me. If someone asked me to write a 10-minute orchestral piece, I’d find that daunting. I’m really more of a workman — I don’t have any great pretension of being an artist.”
Koehne says it might be correct to say that above all he is a melodist. Virgil Thompson, his teacher in the US, made him sit and write melodies in different modes, and he says this was invaluable. Recently, he says he has refined his stance further to take account of new research in cognition that suggests the roles of tonality and melody are central in making music intelligible.
“If music is a form of communication, which if it isn’t god knows what it is, the brain needs to make order out of chaos, when you get too far from that it becomes incomprehensible.”
He adds that it has also been enlightening in his current role as director of the Elder Conservatorium “to get to think about music more broadly apart from my own compositional work”.
He says he has become particularly interested in new areas on music’s role in health, wellbeing, social cohesion and education.
“Perhaps professional musicians have regarded them with a little disdain, but attitudes are changing. While I still value the notion of art for art’s sake, I see what music can do in these broader areas, and I want to gather expertise in them.”
Koehne says he wants to see music boosted in schools, especially those with few or limited resources to teach the subject: “There’s an increasing recognition that there is a lot more we can do, and Adelaide’s UNESCO designation as a World City of Music is an opportunity to make this happen. I am hoping to see a big revitalisation of this area in our schools.”