Peter Knight – fish sing of poetry

Fish Boast of Fishing, Peter Knight’s award-winning suite of music based on the poetry of e.e. cummings, will be performed this Friday 9 June at the  2012 Melbourne International Jazz Festival. The CD has been receiving international interest and rave reviews. Miriam Zolin caught up with Peter before the MIJF gig and asked him about poetry and music – among other things…

Miriam Zolin: How did you come to e.e. cummings’ poetry ?  I’ve heard you say that Allan Browne introduced you to his work?

Peter Knight: Yes, Al Browne really brought cummings to my awareness in a performance we did as part of my undergraduate degree. It was a kind of avant garde piece that involved a piece of kinetic sculpture made by an artist friend of ours, Cameron Robbins (who is also a great clarinetist). Al got up from the drum kit and began reading from a book of poetry which he then set fire to. He kept reading until it had to be extinguished… I was struck by the poetry as well as the flames and afterwards asked him what he was reading. In typical Al fashion, a few days later he turned up with a copy of cummings’ Collected Works. In it is inscribed, To Pierre, those who go for it are doomed to ecstasy. I’ve always treasured that book.

J-P: What about the poetry inspired you to write music in response to it?  And would you call it a ‘response’? Or is there another term or concept you’d prefer?

PK:  Response is good… this music is a response to the poetry as distinct from a ‘representation’ of the poetry. It relates on an abstruse level to structure, aesthetic, and inspiration. Each title on the album, with the exception of the Short pieces, is taken from an e. e. cummings poem that begins…

love’s function is to fabricate unknownness
(known being wishless;but love,all of wishing)
though life’s lived wrongsideout,sameness chokes oneness truth is confused with fact,fish boast of fishing

In my music I often select titles drawn from poetry as musical provocation and I chose the line, ‘Fish Boast of Fishing,’ as the name of this project long before I began work on the music. I like to try to find something that relates somehow to that which I want to achieve in the music; however, it is very hard to describe exactly what that relationship is or how it works. I can say that I am drawn to Cummings, because the best of his work seems to exemplify TS Eliot’s notion that poetry communicates before it is understood. For Eliot, poetry is a matter of words that appear to make up language communicating something, which we actually experience at a completely different level. This ‘completely different level’ fascinates me where words, like musical notes, placed together can create unexpected resonances – where explicit meaning is abstracted but where profound communication takes place nonetheless.

MZ:  Do you think there’s a resonance generally between jazz and poetry?

Fish Boast Of Fishing

PK: Yes, again it’s this abstraction beyond the explicit meanings of words that I think creates this resonance. A particular series of words can create a response in the reader that is hard to explain – that is of language and beyond language at once. In the same way a series of notes can create a response, evoke a feeling, even a physical sensation. Why does this happen? It’s amazing to me…

MZ: How much of a poem’s meanings grab you, compared to its rhythms?

PK:  I think maybe they’re inseparable, though it does depend on the poem. Take another of my favourite poems, this one by Dylan Thomas… (here’s the first stanza)

The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees
Is my destroyer.
And I am dumb to tell the crooked rose
My youth is bent by the same wintry fever.

In this the rhythm is just incredible and utterly crucial to the poem’s effect. The words are organised so that the rhythm is very specific and perhaps less open to interpretation than many other poems. In contrast I think there’s many ways you could approach reading the cummings poem that I quoted above.

MZ:  I’m always intrigued by these links because I’m a writer and I love words, and I am also intrigued by limitations of text and the jumping off points where a piece of music can ‘speak’ of life’s intangibles more clearly than text. Is that something you think about at all or is it all about the music?

PK: To be honest I think about this a lot. For much of my younger years I thought I would be a writer and I completed a writing course at RMIT around 12 years ago. At the time I thought I would back off the music and give it a real go but the more I wrote the more I was inspired to play music – it was almost like the writing opened up my musical imagination, it was quite strange. And I have kept writing, I just finished my doctorate and took a creative approach (as distinct from a dry academic approach) to the exegesis. In fact, Fish Boast of Fishing was composed as part of my doctorate and I discuss the relationship between words and music in some detail. If anyone wants to read it, it’s available from Queensland Conservatorium Griffith University or they’re welcome to email me for a copy.

J-P: Did this experience differ to other text-aligned projects such as Invisible Cities?

PK:  It was quite similar actually. In both cases I used the sensation created by the text as a starting point and as a way to focus the composition process.

J-P: What’s in the works for Peter Knight at the moment, in terms of musical projects?

PK:  I am finished up a solo album at the moment which I have been working on for about three years. It will be coming out on Listen Hear Collective later this year and features the trumpet processed via laptop, pedals and amplifier. I am doing some solo touring associated with that too which I’m looking forward to… hopefully I won’t drive myself mad with too much navel gazing!

I’ve also been working hard on a new project called Bright Splinters which is with an amazing Korean singer/composer, Sunny Kim and bassist, Chris Hale. Sunny comes from a jazz background having studied at New England Conservatorium and lived in NY for many years, but her practice also crosses into contemporary music with live electronic processing etc… so we have a pretty good connection there. I’m excited about this group, we just toured in Korea and had a great time and hopefully she will come out here soon. There’s an album in the works that should be out early next year.

J-P: What are you listening to now?

PK:  I’m enjoying Stian Westerhus’ album Pitch Black Star Spangled (and a review by John Kelman on AAJ here). I’m loving this minimal electronica album by a group called SND, the album is Atavism and it’s incredible.

The other day my iPod was on shuffle and I heard something from Phil Slater‘s Strobe Coma Virgo for the first time in a long and was so struck by it. Phil has such a strong voice as player and composer/conceptualist. It’s amazing to me that he’s not more well known internationally… it’s actually really f%&$ed up, but don’t get me started on that! What I love about Phil is that he creates a sound that doesn’t neatly ‘belong’ anywhere. It’s a very personal mode of expression, he really knows how to mess things up but is also unafraid of disarmingly simple melodic statements – this is pretty rare and special.


Fish Boast of Fishing features the talents of Adam Simmons (contrabass clarinet), Erik Griswold (prepared piano), Vanessa Tomlinson (percussion), Frank Di Sario (double bass) and Joe Talia (drum kit).


Book tickets to Friday 9 June performance of Fish Boast of Fishing at the Melbourne International Jazz Festival

Peter Knight’s website >

Read the BBC review of Fish Boast of Fishing >

Fish Boast of Fishing announced as winner of ‘Most Original Jazz Album’ at the 2012 Bell Jazz Awards

Peter Knight’s composition ‘Unknowness 1’  from Fish Boast of Fishing named as finalist for ‘Jazz Work of the Year’ in APRA Art Music Awards

Fish Boast of Fishing mentioned in New York City Jazz Record ‘Best of 2011’

“A dreamworld of sounds materialising and dematerialising.” * * * * Review of ‘Fish Boast of Fishing’ in Sydney Morning Herald

Look, listen and buy |  Fish Boast of  Fishing on the Listen / Hear Collective website