Classical Music

Peter Knight reflects on friendship, “the guiding principle that underpins the work of the AAO”


For the past decade, Peter Knight has helmed the Australian Art Orchestra as its artistic director — a role he feels mirrors his experience of “being an Australian improvising musician in the 21st Century”. A composer, instrumentalist, and sound artist, Peter has met with talent from across country and world who share in the language of music.

His upcoming Melbourne Recital Centre event Fresh Water — Salt Water marks the end of an era as Peter steps down from his post, but not without culminating in a cross-cultural performance that continues the AAO’s tradition of bringing local and international voices to the fore.

Peter, who recently received an Art Music Award for his collaborative work, sits down for a chat about this new music presented by the Melbourne Recital Centre with AAO and Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival. The program features four new works, which will be premiered by talent including Yolngu traditional songmen from Arnhem Land David and Daniel Wilfred, British composer/performers Mandhira de Saram and Cath Roberts, and Peter himself among other acoustic and electronic musicians.

Australian Art Orchestra performs at Melbourne Recital Centre (credit Jackson Grant).

Peter, it’s really exciting to chat with you about this upcoming event — especially because it’s going to be one of your last with the Australian Art Orchestra! What does this mean to you?

There are lots of mixed feelings but I try not to be too sentimental in general, to be honest. I am currently focused on the music itself, and also very excited about what the future holds.

The day after the Melbourne Recital Centre, concert I’m heading to Europe with Aviva Endean to play a series of concerts in five different countries. We are playing material from our respective recent Room40 solo releases. We then rendezvous with the members of the Australian Art Orchestra Freshwater Saltwater project to perform the work at Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival. This will actually be my last performance as artistic director, and I’m really excited that we will be playing at this iconic festival.

With regards timing of my departure, I am not sure that there is never a perfect time to make a transition like this, but it is definitely much better to move on when the organisation is in a strong position. They should ensure that the next artistic director’s tenure is also a success.

Currently, we have funding from all three levels of government and strong support from the philanthropic sector, and a suite of programs that led us winning the 2022 Art Music Luminary Award. This forms a strong base for whatever new ideas the next AD brings to the organisation.

So what do you feel the AAO has achieved for Australian music in these past years?

I have been artistic director for 10 years. I took over from Paul Grabowsky, and inherited a vision that I feel is still very relevant to Australian music and culture today.

Essentially, Paul emphasised that Australia is a place of abundance, and that as improvising musicians we can take our inspirations from what is around us, rather than primarily from American and European precedents.

When I got the job as artistic director, I felt this aligned with my feeling about being an Australian improvising musician in the 21st Century, and it was very exciting to work with the structures that had been set up with the Australian Art Orchestra, and interpret this idea through my own creative lens.

I believe AAO has had a transformative impact on music and culture in Australia over the almost three decades of its existence. There is an immense body of work including many recordings, and it has an unparalleled record for building community in Australian improvised music through programs like the Creative Music Intensive, which was inaugurated in my second year.

I hope that this will have ripple effects that will continue to spread through our culture for years to come.

One of AAO’s strongest values seems to be its cross-culture collaboration. This is reflected in those years of past concert and educational programs, and is deeply embedded in the upcoming Melbourne Recital Centre event. Why do you feel music is a powerful tool to bring cultures together?

Music is certainly a great medium for bringing cultural traditions and influences together. But, more specifically, improvised music practice is a fantastic way to initiate meaningful intercultural conversations.

Improvisation is a big part of most musical traditions, and enables us to begin to collaborate without privileging one approach over another, or worrying about the cultural hegemony attached to forms of notation and the like.

In the AAO, we have developed a way of approaching collaboration through improvisation that is quite particular and that has been refined over many years. This is one of the AAO’s exciting legacies, I believe, and is potently expressed in the way that we work during our Creative Music Intensive residencies.

Earlier this year, we ran a Creative Music Intensive satellite in Huddersfield with some of the musicians we are working with for Freshwater Saltwater. This enabled David and Daniel Wilfred to meet the musicians, develop relationships, and form some understandings around the approach we are taking to developing this music.

Tell us about what went into the curation of this Fresh Water — Salt Water program.

The program was created in collaboration with Graham McKenzie from Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival who co-commissioned the work. I spoke at length with David and Daniel Wilfred about what they wanted for the work, and then together we made some decisions about the UK-based collaborators after reviewing recordings and other materials with Graham.

Once we established who those collaborators would be — Mandhira De Saram, violin; and Cath Roberts, saxophones — we came together to think about which instruments and performers would create the most interesting settings for the songs David and Daniel will perform as part of the work.

What are some of the themes you’re exploring or introducing to audiences through this music?

The way that we work with David and Daniel Wilfred is very different from most musical situations I am familiar with. The music is not notated, but it is not completely improvised either.

Daniel performs from song cycles from the Yolngu 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.

Essentially, our creative process revolves around developing settings and broad structures for the songs he brings in. We have to be responsive, as his placement varies depending on what he feels is appropriate to the moment that we are in.

The cycle Daniel is performing at the MRC is called Fresh Water Salt Water. Daniel says: ‘We start at Lutunby near Walker River where the Salt Water is then we move across to find the billabong.’

How would you say your history of cross-culture collaborations through AAO has helped shape your identity as a musician?

In particular, working with David and Daniel has been transformative for me and for others who had the chance to work with the musicians from Arnhem Land who have been associated with AAO for many years. There is a tremendous generosity in their culture. As the Manikay are added to, we are included in the songs and we become a part of the story. This feels like an incredible privilege, and I believe it points to a way forward for us all living on this land, now trying to resolve the injustices of the past.

As people experience this MRC event, and as you bid farewell to AAO, what do you hope will be the message they take with them?

The guiding principle that underpins the work of the AAO is friendship.

All of the collaborations we create are based on long relationships of reciprocity. I have now been working with David and Daniel Wilfred for 10 years, and similarly have a long relationships of trust and understanding with the other musicians in the ensemble.

I always hope that our music expresses a spirit of friendship and generosity while also being challenging and contemporary.

Experience Australian Art Orchestra: Fresh Water – Salt Water at 7.30pm November 8 in Elisabeth Murdoch Hall.

Peter Knight captured by Sarah Walker. We teamed up with MRC to bring you this interview about the Australian Art Orchestra! Stay tuned for more stories from your Australian arts industry.

Images supplied.

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