In Conversation: Peter Knight, Australian Art Orchestra

In Conversation: Peter Knight, Australian Art Orchestra

The leader of the Australian Art Orchestra talks about being an artist and getting started in improvisation. 

Peter Knight
Melbourne, Australian

In Conversation: Peter Knight, Australian Art Orchestra

The leader of the Australian Art Orchestra talks about being an artist and getting started in improvisation. 

Nicole Lizée is known for bringing pop and music video cultures into the concert halls often reserved for Western “Art Music”, and audiences of many genres are drawn to her work. What is it about her art that keeps her from being pinned into one genre, and makes it so engaging for all audiences?

Nicky always seems to be working into the spaces where genres and disciplines meet, and so am I, which is probably why this is a fruitful partnership. Her work is influenced by so many things but the result always sounds like a personal mode of expression – a synthesis of influences rather than a ‘mash-up’. I think that’s one of the things that really distinguishes her as an artist. 

Nicole Lizée by Murray Lightburn

Nicole Lizée by Murray Lightburn

This concert is a response to the screen culture of the 80s and 90s – what captivates you about the videos of this period? How do they translate today? 

Well, I grew up in the 80s and 90s, it doesn’t feel like that long ago to me. Some of these videos (particularly the pop ones from Karappo Okesutura) feel like old long lost friends, and others really make me cringe! But apart from those kind of historical associations, I think what’s interesting about Nicole’s treatment of these materials is that she asks us to notice things we probably wouldn’t otherwise see (or hear). There’s something quite tender and intimate in her responses and she mediates our experience of them. It’s very different from just watching an old episode of Twin Peaks for example.

Why do you think audiences are drawn to concerts that play on nostalgia for periods like the 80s and 90s? Do you see genuine engagement, tongue-in-cheek appreciation of “kitsch”, or something else entirely?

I think another of Nicole’s extraordinary abilities is that she is able to be kind of light but also very serious. And I don’t really think she is being tongue-in-cheek or just ironic much at all. There is nostalgia there I guess but more than that I think she really finds the beauty, interest and structure in these songs, videos and movies. I think she is driven by a genuine interest in them, she finds things in them that really fascinate her and then she communicates that through her music.  

Sex, Lynch and Video Games sees you collaborate with exciting Canadian pianist Eve Egoyan. How do you choose who you collaborate with, and what comes first – the program, or the artist?

In the case of Eve, we wanted to program David Lynch Etudes and Eve was the commissioner. Someone suggested we include her in the program and it was a case of wonderful happenstance.

Egoyan is called “an artist whose medium is the piano”. This description seems like an appropriate way to describe the entire Australian Art Orchestra, as artists whose mediums are their instruments. What are your priorities in regards to bringing new art to audiences? 

Well, that’s a really nice observation because it does align with what I’m trying to achieve with the AAO, so it’s great that it comes across like that. And we have pulled together an absolutely amazing group of musicians who are flexible and creative, and who are also able to play whatever is put in front of them, it really is a great privilege to play with these people. As far as bringing new art to audiences: I like to try to make work that draws people into an experience of something new. First and foremost, we want to make great work, work that has a ‘reason for being’, but beyond that I want to develop new audiences for the kind of work we are wanting to make. As I mentioned earlier, I’m interested in meeting points: between cultures, genres, disciplines, technologies, improvisation and composition, and so on. This seems to have resonance in terms of contemporary Australia and feels important in the sense of where we are socio-politically. So it’s important to me that we are communicating with people; that we are drawing people into the fold.  

You’ve been the Artistic Director since 2013, and the ensemble continues to break down exciting genre barriers. When you’ve got so much scope, how do you decide what you program? 

I guess I’m really looking for things that align with the ideas I’ve already mentioned. And it’s good, I think, when we can make things happen as an organisation that you couldn’t do without the structural support we have at our disposal. Commissioning Nicole Lizée is a good example of a project that is ambitious and that expresses something distinctive about the here and now.

Practically speaking, I tend to have a few balls in the air at once and everything is dependent on schedules, availability, interest from presenters, and funding. When these things align around a potential project or idea then things can happen. 

We’ve spoken to several young composers recently about how they use improvisation in their composition practice. Why is it important that young classical musicians learn to improvise and collaborate? 

Improvisation is a great vehicle for collaboration and most of the musicians in the AAO come from improvising backgrounds. This is one of our strengths and one of the things that sets us apart from other ensembles. Improvisation is key to the success of the incredible cross-cultural collaborations the AAO has become well known for such as Crossing Roper Bar, with traditional songmen from Arnhem Land, Into the Fire with Carnatic master, Karaikkudi R Mani, and Water Pushes Sand, with musicians from Sichuan. Paul Grabowsky (the AAO’s founding AD) realised way before most that collaboration with musicians from neighboring Asian cultures and indigenous Australia is key to our collective development. He also realised that improvisation was key to the formation of meaningful collaborative cross-cultural partnerships. This was a hugely important vision, I think, and one I really try to keep in focus in how I think about the AAO. It’s also one that I try to spread and encourage: I reckon all musicians should improvise and that we should also try to break down the barriers between classical and ‘other’ musicians: we’re all musicians! These old silos of genre and style, and the fact that we are separated into them for the purposes of education is kind of ridiculous and anachronistic. I try to do my little bit with our Creative Music Intensive residency program (held in Tasmania each September) where we invite musicians from all styles and from different cultures and we certainly encourage musicians from classical backgrounds who are open to new ideas.

For our readers who haven’t been involved in creating music in this way before (through improvisation, collaboration, etc.), can you offer any tips on how to get started?

Start with a cup of tea! 

Seriously, conversation and connection are vital. Beyond that, it’s a case of finding your own process. Mine is a combination of improvisation, recording, reflecting, composing, workshopping, re-recording, refining, editing, throwing out…

And it’s important to trick yourself out of your habits. Try to find a way of picking your instrument up like it’s something you’re unfamiliar with, if you can do that it will also change the way you listen. Listening is important!