Name: Peter Knight
Occupation: Composer, trumpeter, sound artist, artistic director at the Australian Art Orchestra
Current release: Peter Knight's Shadow Phase is out via Lawrence English's Room40 imprint.
Recommendations: Little Red Riding Hood – Ania Walwicz. Watch it on Youtube.
Check out the work of Wally Wilfred and Gwenneth Blitner on Ngukurr Arts Centre Instagram. This is the Aboriginal Community where David and Daniel Wilfred live. Incredible visual art as well as music.
[Read our Lawrence English interview]
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.
We also recommend our earlier Peter Knight interview about his creative process.
When did you start writing/producing/playing music and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I started in my twenties and I was very into the trumpet! It was Miles Davis who completely hooked me.
A Tribute to Jack Johnson was the record that really messed with my head (in a good way) but also earlier albums as well like Sketches of Spain, which changed my conception of what the trumpet could sound like. But I guess in terms of where I eventually ended up probably In a Silent Way was the most important.
I had many other musical heroes but discovering Jon Hassell was equally transfiguring for me in my early years and I think spun me off in the direction I am still heading in now.
When I listen to music, I see shapes, objects and colours. What happens in your body when you're listening and how does it influence your approach to creativity?
When I am listening to music (especially when I listen in headphones) I feel movement like I am travelling through space. I wonder if there’s a name for that, and I wonder if everyone experiences it?
I also have a sense of the passage of linear time changing or being kind of suspended. Especially with certain kinds of minimal music such as that of Morton Feldman, The Necks, Ellen Arkbro (thinking particularly of For Organ and Brass which I love!), and too many others to name.
[Read our Ellen Arkbro interview]
[Read our Tony Buck of the Necks interview]
How would you describe your development as an artist in terms of interests and challenges, searching for a personal voice, as well as breakthroughs?
It takes a long time to build confidence or it did for me at least. And there were some key moments and key influences that seemed to liberate my creativity.
I once read an interview with Kenny Wheeler in which he said how painstaking and time consuming his process was. Doesn’t seem like much but it kind of flicked a switch in me because I thought if it takes him a long time to write music then maybe it’s OK if it takes me a long time as well.
I think everyone needs to discover their own process and often this does take time and perseverance. In Conservatoria we are most often taught in a fairly formulaic way and though formulas might work well in the perfection of instrumental technique, they don’t work very well in terms of our development as artists.
As an artist our job is to cleave to the unknown (or less known). You have to keep trying things and to put yourself in the way of ideas and inspiration. But you also need to be prepared to be ‘unproductive’. A difficult thing in an age where ‘productivity’ is more highly valued than ideas and creativity.
Tell me a bit about your sense of identity and how it influences both your preferences as a listener and your creativity as an artist, please.
As a white Australian who grew up in a fairly racist small country town I have gradually recognised how much this shaped my identity. Now I feel it’s important for me to work towards reconciliation in my artistic life.
It has been hugely inspiring for me to collaborate with Indigenous Australian artists - (particularly David and Daniel Wilfred from Arnhem Land in Hand to Earth). The generosity that I’ve experienced has affected every aspect of my music and my life. And the experience of learning a little bit about Yolgnu manikay (songs from South East Arnhem land) has been incredibly inspiring.
In my solo work, such as on Shadow Phase, I’m not trying to make any kind of didactic statement about identity, I’m just trying to make music that resonates with me, but that resonance is, of course, affected by who I am, my social and cultural context, and my identity.
What, would you say, are the key ideas behind your approach to music and art?
I have been thinking about the notion of ‘hearkening’ when I make music.
There are two fundamental responses produced when we encounter something unfamiliar: we can lean in closer towards the unfamiliar thing, or recoil in shock. I like to make music that might perhaps be unfamiliar or a little strange / unexpected, but that makes you want to lean in towards it; to ‘hearken’, rather than to recoil.
And that’s not to say that I don’t enjoy music and sound that is visceral and perhaps shocking, but when I was making Shadow Phase I thought a lot about the fact that I wanted to make an album that people would want to put on and that might create a restful contemplative space. It felt, during Melbourne’s COVID lockdown that I needed that and I thought probably lots of other people did too.
How would you describe your views on topics like originality and innovation versus perfection and timelessness in music? Are you interested in a “music of the future” or “continuing a tradition”?
In a way I am more interested in making music that is personal than in either continuing a tradition or making something that is innovative. But I am definitely drawn to innovation and I’m more often interested in other people’s music when it is in some way innovative or challenging.
One of the interesting things about living and working in Australia is that we don’t have a huge weight of a single tradition to ‘look after’. Contemporary Australia is a melting pot of many cultures and many music traditions. I have been interested in, and engaged with, imagining what Australian music might sound like in 50 years when as these traditions cross pollinate.
A project that comes to mind is my album, Residual, made with Vietnamese multi instrumental artist, Dung Nguyen
And another more recent called ‘1988’.
There are of course many First Nations music cultures in Australia that have been continuously practised for up to 60,000 years. It’s completely mind blowing. I have been involved in some amazing collaborations with First Nations artists most particularly Hand to Earth with David and Daniel Wilfred from Arnhem Land. They are the keepers of one of the oldest continuously practised music traditions in the world. Daniel says the work we do together helps create contexts for that culture to evolve and thrive.
It’s a great privilege to have the opportunity to be part of this collaboration. It has profoundly affected me and my sense of who I am on this land. And this work I guess is helping a tradition to continue but I’m not actually directly a part of the tradition. It’s complex and fascinating.
Over the course of your development, what have been your most important instruments and tools - and what are the most promising strategies for working with them?
The trumpet has been with me most of my life. I try to practise most days and I still love it.
For me the best strategy with the trumpet has been to try to spend time consciously divesting myself of my assumptions about the instrument and to try to imagine it’s an object and that I have no idea what it’s for. I guess that’s loosely called phenomenology and it can lead to interesting discoveries.
When I was a kid I used to take my cornet apart and fool around with all the components, I loved the mechanics of the instrument and the way the valves look and the mechanisms of the slides along with the popping sounds they make when you pull them out. I have found that connecting with this sense of ‘play’ and curiosity in music is very powerful and also very enjoyable.
More recently I have been involved with electronics and studio tools as well as old technologies including reel-to-reel tape machines, turntables, vintage delays, pedals and lots of other bits and pieces. I also use Ableton almost every day and I love the practice of bringing all these elements together.
Again, trying to keep a sense of ‘play’ and curiosity is key to my engagement with technologies.
Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please.
My daily routine depends a lot on whether I am traveling or not. It all goes out the window when I’m on the move.
But at home, I like to wake up, have coffee and play trumpet for about an hour and a half. I have a routine that I’ve done for maybe 15 years that involves going through the James Stamp warm-ups, which any trumpeters reading will know well. It’s kind of like a meditation for me. After the warm up, if I have time, I will improvise for a bit. Then I usually do some email and business.
I try to exercise every day; go for a run or a ride. If I have a meeting I like to ride my bike and use that as a way of getting my exercise. Often the evenings are the creative time for me when I sit down in my studio and do some composing or play with some ideas.