Peter Knight:”Letting go.”


Peter Knight is a trumpeter, composer and the artistic director of the Australian Art Orchestra (until Jan 2023). We most recently saw him perform as part of the Orchestra at this year’s Womadelaide, which saw them present Hand to Mouth, a remarkable cross cultural exchange that was the highlight of this year’s festival. You can read our review here.

He has released 12 albums of his music on various labels across the world, and his most recent solo work Shadow Phase, a gorgeous suite of subdued ambience and improvisation, is out now via Room40. Still reeling from the incredible Hand to Mouth performance we took the opportunity to chat to Peter to find out how the ensemble came together and how letting go of your initial vision can sometimes be a good thing.

Cyclic Defrost: What continues to inspire you about the trumpet?

Peter Knight: I think it’s still actually the sound. But I also love the practice. It’s a very simple thing that takes a long time to refine. It consists of blowing into a tube that can be lengthened via the use of three keys. It could not be more different to much of the way the world operates now and I love that simplicity and physicality. It’s also very unforgiving and I need to practise most days or I lose my chops. I try to approach it like a set of asanas – I practise pretty much the same thing day in day out: James Stamp warmups. And if I do it right it really sets me up for a good day! It’s all about the breath, just like yoga.

Cyclic Defrost: I wanted to ask you about your work in Australian Art Orchestra, with so many amazing musicians how does it work from project to project? Clearly not everyone gets to play.

Peter Knight: The AAO is an unusual beast. It’s not quite like a ‘band’ or an ‘orchestra’ with a regular membership. I think of it as a community or a pool of players who turn up in different projects depending on what we are doing and who we are working with. I try to arrange it so that if you go to our concerts regularly you will always see some familiar faces, probably in different combinations, and you will often also see one or two new faces. We like to try to give people opportunities and to stay open to new ideas and new collaborators while also building loyalty and a sense of shared practice. It has worked pretty well I think on the whole.

And of course all this could change with the new incoming AD and the nature of the org could shift radically! Will be interesting to see what shape it takes.

Cyclic Defrost: I was surprised to see the link with the Art Ensemble of Chicago on your website. What parallels can you draw between them and how you approach the Australian Art Orchestra?

Peter Knight: When the AAO was formed nearly 30 years ago its founder, Paul Grabowsky, said he wanted to make a group that sat somewhere between the Art Ensemble of Chicago and Ensemble Intercontemporain. I still think that’s an interesting notion! And the ‘art’ reference in the name of the group (Australian Art Orchestra) is a direct reference to that antecedent and the notion that Art Ensemble of Chicago was coming out of jazz but was conceptually omnivorous. There have been proposals to change the name but I think that history and those references are important and I have always advocated for keeping the name.

The AACM link via Art Ensemble of Chicago is relevant too. For me it kind of contextualises what we do in terms of the history of jazz. Eminent musician, scholar, and member of the AACM, George Lewis, notes in his famous paper ‘Improvised Music After 1950: Afrological and Eurogical Perspectives’ that jazz and ‘Afrological’ approaches to improvisation are differentiated in that they involve ‘the harmonization of one’s musical personality with social environments’. Reading this essay had a big impact on me and influenced how I think about my relationship to the jazz tradition in terms of my own practice and also how I think about the AAO. For me it’s about making the music of the ‘here and now’ using improvisation as core practice, and the music does not have to be idiomatic to be part of this conception of ‘jazz’.

Cyclic Defrost: In particular I wanted to touch on Hand to Earth which I was lucky enough to see you perform a number of times at Womadelaide this year. How did you go about the creation of the album?

Peter Knight: The way that we work with David and Daniel Wilfred is very different from most musical situations I am familiar with. But to be honest it’s probably closer to a garage band than anything else I can think of. We just get together and work it out and there’s a constant process of negotiation and compromise.

All the music on the album started with improvisations or at least from spontaneous combinations of sounds and songs. Daniel performs from song cycles from the Yolgnu Manikay tradition. Manikay are songs that can be publicly performed. The cycles have been continuously practiced for perhaps up to 60,000 years but are also still being added to. Sometimes Daniel dreams a new song when we are mid project and introduces it when we rehearse or record.

In the case of the pieces on the album, we recorded a lot of music and worked through it together to coalesce it into a ‘journey’, both in terms of the sounds and the content of the songs. There was a bit of ‘post composition’ on some of them and some of them are pretty much as recorded. We have since learned these arrangements so the pieces can be repeated in live performance.

Cyclic Defrost: It really is such an extraordinary cross cultural exchange, from David and Daniel’s indigenous heritage to Sunny’sKorean background to elements of improvisation and well whatever it is that the Art Orchestra brings with it. I guess the question is with so many different worlds how do you find a shared language to even begin?

Peter Knight: I’m not even sure we do find a ‘shared language’. I think some of the interest is in the way things collide rather than blend. But what we do share is an openness and curiosity. We all like to experiment and to try things out and over the years we have all become really close friends We like spending time together. Musically, the relationship between Sunny and Daniel is key to the way the band works. They have spent a lot of time talking about culture and exchanging stories and Daniel has taught Sunny a lot of songs. They have a special connection.

Cyclic Defrost: Is much thought given to cultural safety – to ensuring that all of these cultural elements were treated with the respect and space they deserve?

Peter Knight: We are constantly thinking about cultural safety but perhaps don’t use that term so often. Friendship is the core value in the group and we are all careful to listen to one another, to look after one another, and to show respect. I think this is practising cultural safety.

Over the years we have talked a lot about the idea that if we really look after our friendships first and foremost then the music will be ok and if we make mistakes (cultural or otherwise) we will be able to find a way to work through things.

Cyclic Defrost: Had you performed Hand to Earth live before?

Peter Knight: We first started performing with this configuration in 2020 just before COVID for AsiaTOPA. But there had been other AAO projects with David and Daniel and other Yolngu musicians from Ngukurr going back for about 15 years. I do feel like Hand to Earth is some sort of culmination of those previous projects and relationships.

Cyclic Defrost: What were your thoughts on the reaction at Womadelaide?

Peter Knight: WOMAD was a wonderful experience. The festival is set up to create connections. It was mostly Australian artists and there was this beautiful feeling of coming together after two long years of COVID separation. It also felt like the audience was craving connection and the response we received was very affirming. It felt like we were doing valuable work particularly in that moment when Russia had just invaded Ukraine and the world situation was becoming very bleak. WOMAD felt like a little bubble of sanity that everyone was relishing and savouring and people responded very positively to Hand to Earth.

Cyclic Defrost: Shadow Phase is a really beautiful droney dreamy introspective work. It really feels like a solo album, maybe created late night alone in a room. I guess it’s your Covid isolation work. I’m interested in whether you had any reference points in mind when you began working on it, and if this changed during its creation.

Peter Knight: Often when I’m making music I kind of check in with certain pieces of music that give me a particular sensation that is relevant to the work I’m doing. I also do this with passages from books or poems. Some of the artists I was checking in with during the making of Shadow Phase included, Marina Rosenfeld – particularly Plastic Materials, Oren Ambarchi – particularly Grapes from the Estate, a few pieces of early Jon Hassell, Christian Wallumrod – Untitled Arpeggios and Pulses, and Julia Reidy – I just love Brace, Brace. These are all examples of music that inspired me particularly across COVID when I was craving that sense of ’strange beauty’ that each of these works impart – at least to me.

Cyclic Defrost: A Wordless song for Ania, firstly the abrupt spoken word part listing all the ways a samurai could die was pretty unexpected, but I understand that this piece is dedicated Ania Walwicz, can you talk a little about her impact on you and why you dedicated this piece to her?

Peter Knight: I actually made this piece a few days after Ania passed away and an early edit was played at her memorial hence the dedication. Ania taught me creative writing at RMIT many years ago and after I finished that course we stayed friends. She was a wonderful poet of international significance and changed my approach to creativity which shifted my relationship with music. Her creative approach involved automatic writing, which I understand as connecting the process of thinking with the task of writing itself. So putting the words down without reflecting or judging so that you allow the subconscious to bubble up. In her classes she insisted that we just write whether we felt like it or not. She didn’t ask us to write ‘automatically’ but at least that we just begin without fuss and not worry as much about the result. It was a real revelation to me as I think I had some kind of reverence around the idea of ‘creativity’ – that it was somehow a ‘special space’ that has to be prepared. It was a huge relief to get rid of that notion.

During lock down Ania and I would meet for walks in the cross over zone between our 5 km and have long conversations about art and music. Those conversations are a big part of my memory of that time and I think they impacted the music I was working on. Her passing in spring 2020 was a shock and it still seems very strange that she is gone.

Cyclic Defrost: Across Shadow Phase you seem to be almost more interested in resonances than the actual attack or original sound. Am I on the right track here? If so what’s the appeal for you?

Peter Knight: Yes I do like to create that sense of sounds being ‘rubbed back’ and slightly eroded; that the sounds are echoes or traces of an event that occurred somewhere else at some other time – and they are! Tape, in particular, imparts that slightly nostalgic sensation. It could be my age as I started listening to music before digital technologies were in widespread use, so tape saturation is deeply encoded in my body. However, clearly it’s not just my generation that is attracted to these sounds.

It does seem like an appropriate mode to express something about COVID times. It was such a strange period and I think all we are left with from that time are resonances. It’s hard to compare those experiences with anything else and they are not repeatable.

Cyclic Defrost: The piece ‘Shadow Phase’ feels a little different than the rest of the album with some strange washed out percussion and a greater density of sound than the rest of the album, even some strange field recordings/ electronic elements. It’s a little discombobulating after the languid nature of the preceding pieces. Can you tell me what’s going on there?

Peter Knight: Shadow Phase is meant as a kind of Coda: somewhat disconnected from the rest of the material but with the trumpet remaining as the though line. I’m not sure I can say what is going on there in terms of my creative intention beyond that it ‘felt right’. I’m not sure why. Perhaps after all that languidness it felt like something with more tension needed to be expressed. I like that it feels a little ‘discombobulating’ because that’s probably appropriate to the subject at hand.

The piece was made using the Revox and trumpet together and by taping small paddles to the tape reels. I then placed cymbals and other objects on the Revox that were struck by the paddles creating fast rhythms that I played the trumpet over. I made a video of the improvisation that ended up becoming the piece here.

I took the recording of that improvisation and worked on it for a while then Tony Buck’s percussion parts were added later.

Cyclic Defrost: Do you find that after completing an album that you come out of it with new knowledge about yourself, your processes or the experience shifts things that you previously felt were important?

Peter Knight: This album (Shadow Phase) is particularly significant for me and has shifted things creatively. The process of making it really forced me to hone in a on few threads I had been dabbling with for a while and resolve them within my creative practice. I haven’t mentioned Lawrence English’s role here but he had a big hand in guiding the direction of Shadow Phase and I felt like I learned a lot from him. I particularly love the way it sounds on vinyl and I think he heard that as an end point much more clearly than I did. It was interesting getting the first draft mixes back from him because they weren’t quite what I expected and I had to let go of a few things that I was attached to. I think as a result it’s more concise and clear and that’s a good thing.

Cyclic Defrost: What do you mean by that?

Peter Knight: The thing with making an album like this is that you can get into a loop in your own head. It’s not collaborative in the way many of my projects are. Without knowing it you get attached to the way things are – the way something is edited or mixed – and you just get used to it. It’s easy to kind of stop really hearing the music. So I try to ’trick’ myself into hearing things with fresh ears by listening in ear buds when I’m walking or riding, or listening when I’m cooking dinner or whatever. I try to hear the music I’m working on with the same ears I have with other people’s music. Nonetheless, I still get very attached to certain things and sometimes those things actually have to go!

It’s a great experience to have someone like Lawrence listen to the material really closely and respond honestly. I found it made me actually hear things in a different way. He pushed me to let go of the performance and in a way to be more ruthless with the material. I mentioned that most of the pieces started from improvisations and I think that’s one thing I do get attached to: the form or energy of the improvisation. Maybe it’s a kind of ‘purist’ ethic that persists with regards improvisation and letting that go of that with this record led me to a more satisfying resolution to the work. There’s still plenty of the energy of those initial improvisations but the pieces we have ended up with distill those forms in a more focussed way.

Cyclic Defrost: What’s next for you? Will we be waiting another 10 years for a solo album?

Peter Knight: I’m looking forward to focusing more deeply on fewer projects. One of the challenges with a job like AD is that you are constantly juggling 15 things!

The Hand to Earth ensemble elected to become a self managed stand-alone entity a while back now and I intend to put more energy into this group. We are currently seeking an agent/manager for North America and have someone working with us in Europe. So those relationships and that group will continue – hopefully on the same trajectory. We have also got plans for releasing a new album in the the next year and some lovely material in the can.

I’m also currently working on another solo record (so it definitely won’t be ten years!) and I have a project called TLDR with my son Quinn (who’s 18 and an amazing drummer), Helen Svoboda (bass/voice), and Theo Carbo (guitar). We did some recording earlier this year and it sounds OK I think so hopefully a record will be released for that group fairly soon.

And apart from that I’m excited about forming new relationships and exploring possibilities I haven’t thought of yet. And it’s really nice not to have to write everything up as a four-year plan.

You can find the Australian Art Orchestra’s Hand to Earth here.
Shadow Phase is out now via Room40. You can find it here.

Nov 27: GEELONG for NEAL at Platform Arts with Aviva Endean
Nov 28: MELBOURNE Florence St with Aviva Endean
Nov 12: OSLO, Improverk, with Aviva Endean
Nov 16: BERLIN, Sowieso with Tony Buck, Axel Dorner and Michael Zerang
Nov 19: BRUSSELS, SMOG, with Aviva Endean
Nov 20: BOLOGNA, Angelica, with Aviva Endean
Nov 25: HUDDERSFIELD UK, Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, with Aviva Endean & Helen Svoboda
Nov 26: HUDDERSFIELD UK, Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, with Australian Art Orchestra feat Mandhira De Saram and Cath Roberts
Nov 30 – Dec 3 GLASGOW, GIOFest, with Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra


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Bob is the features editor of Cyclic Defrost. He is also evil. You should not trust the opinions of evil people.