Name: Peter Knight
Occupation: Composer, trumpeter, sound artist, artistic director at the Australian Art Orchestra
Current release: Peter Knight's Hand to Earth, a collaboration with Daniel and David Wilfred, Sunny Kim, and Aviva Endean is out via the Australian Art Orchestra's bandcamp profile.
If you enjoyed this interview with Peter Knight and would like to stay up to date on his work, visit his personal artist website or the homepage of the Australian Art Orchestra.
Where does the impulse to create something come from for you? What role do often-quoted sources of inspiration like dreams, other forms of art, personal relationships, politics etc play?
Often the impulse to create comes from something that I hear or something that I read. So if I hear some really fantastic music then I want to go and play music. If I read an amazing book or poem I want to go and write something. I also know from experience that creating for me is nourishing. So even if I don’t feel inspired I know that if I go and work on my music that it will be worthwhile and that I will learn things. I also know that even if I don’t feel creative if I put myself ‘in the way of ideas’ then things can happen. So, for me, often creativity is not so much an impulse as a choice.
In the case of Crossed and Recrossed, the pieces on that album came about because I wanted to try to tap into the feeling I get from two particular pieces of writing about imagined places: The Plains by Gerald Murnane, and Diomira, by Italo Calvino. I didn’t want to represent these stories in music but rather find a way to communicate the sensation that these texts give me through music.
And over the years I have often turned to poetry and prose for musical inspiration - I have been a very big reader at different times in my life. I turn to books to summon a sensation or a space inside myself which might give me a ‘grip’ for my music. Some of my favourite writers - especially for inspiration for musical inspiration (apart from those mentioned) are e e cummings (I made a Cummings inspired album called Fish Boast of Fishing), Christian Bök (Eunoia is such an incredible work), Ania Walwicz (who was the inspiration for a piece on a forthcoming solo album on the Room40 label), and I also have a copy of Reality Hunger by David Shields sitting on my desk most of the time. It’s great to flip through as it’s a manifesto made up of quotes from an amazing array of uncited sources.
For you to get started, do there need to be concrete ideas – or what some have called a ‘visualisation’ of the finished work? What does the balance between planning and chance look like for you?
That’s an interesting question. Both planning and chance play a part and I think I could sum up my process by saying I am interested in where those two modalities meet up. It also really depends a lot on the kind of work I am making as I work in different ways across a range of projects.
When I start a composition I often think about the ensemble or the musical materials that I have at my disposal, and then write down ‘wish lists’. I try to imagine the sounds that I could make with the resources I have - the combinations of instruments, the players, extended techniques, orchestrations, and so on that I could use and make a list to work through.
But another big part of my process of involves improvising. I use different means, depending on the work I’m making, but I settle on a starting point then record quite a few improvisations in a row. I think of it as ‘fishing’. I then set those recordings aside for a few days and come back to listen with fresh ears to see if I have ‘caught’ anything! If there’s an idea in there that speaks to the concept I am developing then I’ll work with it in other ways to unravel it further.
It’s different again when I’m working with other people in a collaborative situation. Then it’s about listening and responding. The album I made recently with David and Daniel Wilfred called Hand to Earth was created in a very spontaneous and organic way. Daniel and David are Indigenous song men from Northern Australia whose tradition stretches back tens of thousands of years, and yet their song cycles are still being added to.
The way the process usually works with us is that together we come up with a sound world to accompany a song Daniel is working with and we improvise together. We then do a lot of recording followed by a lot of editing and post production. Then because the piece exists as a recording and that recording becomes a score in a sense that we can come back to and refer to for live performances.
Is there a preparation phase for your process? Do you require your tools to be laid out in a particular way, for example, do you need to do ‘research’ or create ‘early versions’?
I try to consciously not put barriers in the way of just getting started. Starting is always the most difficult thing, so I will work anywhere. When I travel - or when I used to travel - I would take my laptop, sound card and headphones everywhere, and if I had a couple of hours in an airport or wherever I would just work on my music. I also sing into the mobile phone a lot when I’m in a phase of composing. So if an idea comes to me when I’m riding my bike I stop and sing it into the phone. Momentum is everything so the more you’re working on an idea and thinking about it, the more interesting the results.
Do you have certain rituals to get you into the right mindset for creating? What role do certain foods or stimulants like coffee, lighting, scents, exercise or reading poetry play?
My approach is to treat creating like a practical task that needs to be done. No fuss, just start. I once read that the job of a composer is just to make choices, and that really helped me to get over the creative paralysis that used to plague my process. Now I just start and I try to ‘do my job’ and make choices, and suspend judgement for as long as possible.
I find if you do that and do it often then amazing things can happen and you do all of a sudden find yourself in a wonderful creative flow … sometimes when you least expect it!
What do you start with? How difficult is that first line of text, the first note?
As many people have noted, this is the hardest part of composing any work. The question for me is: What is this piece of music‘s reason for being? What’s the essence of the idea here?’ Then, ‘what’s the best way to communicate that idea once I’ve worked what it is that I want to do.’ That’s really hard and sometimes there are no clear answers so you just have to start anyway, start making choices and moving forward and hope that the idea materialises out of the mist of not knowing.
Hence things like wishlists. Because putting together a wishlist gives me a job to do and stops me from staring at blank staves on the screen. And that’s why improvising and recording can be useful too. For me that’s actually a way of thinking, and a way of knowing. My friend Erik Griswold (who is a great composer and who composed the work, Water Pushes Sand, recorded by Australian Art Orchestra) said to me once that he kind of puts ideas in motion and lets them process in his subconscious then occasionally checks in with them to see how they’re progressing. When they’ve started to move along a bit then he sits down to begin composing. I like that notion that ideas have their own logic, that in some sense perhaps they are deterministic.
Once you’ve started, how does the work gradually emerge?
I come up with all kinds of ways of moving forward and they are different from piece to piece. But often I do a lot of recording - putting different elements together to actually hear what they sound like. I like working with the materiality of music and sound.
I don’t think I’m very good at just imagining what a compositions might be. I feel like I need actual sounds to respond to. I also like to go out and record the musicians I’m writing for if they’re willing and it’s possible. I’ll write out little experiments and little ideas then do a series of recordings with different musicians. Then I’ll record myself. And from that I get a little bank of samples together and I start manipulating them in Ableton and moving them around and combining them in different ways. This is also a good way of judging proportions and overall compositional balance.
Once I have something that sounds OK then I’ll start to write dots on the page.