Peter Knight: ‘The Australian Art Orchestra has the opportunity to dream a bit larger’

This is not the first time that Peter Knight is inspired by a work of literature to compose and perform music. It was pretty recently, for instance, that he did a musical version of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities but this time it is different. This time, the artistic director of the Australian Art Orchestra, one of the nation’s great ensembles is inspired by one of the books that rank among the strongest contenders for the title of ‘the Great Australian Novel’ (if that a thing exists): Gerald Murnane’s The Plains.

Peter Knight | Photo: Traianos Pakioufakis

“He’s a really interesting author and The Plains is a really odd book,” Peter Knight says. “It’s hard for me to describe it. It’s a slightly hallucinatory novel set in an imaginary interior of Australia, which is separate from the other regions of the country.

“There is something musical about the way he writes about Australian landscape, it’s an interesting place to compose music from.

“I’ve often been inspired by texts when I make music and I like to read and to allow texts to put me into a particular kind of mental space from which I can imagine music.

“I like the sense that you get from some literature and some art where time seems to stretch and morph and change. I would like to be able to capture that in music.”

Gerald Murnane has gained acclaim as a writer whose work offers an insight on Australian identity, in pretty much the way that Peter Knight’s work (through Way Out West, mostly, but also through the Australian Art Orchestra and his other projects) tries to give meaning to the term Australian Jazz.

“I think it’s really really hard to say what Australian jazz is,” he says. “If there is such a thing as Australian jazz, it doesnt sound anything like American jazz.

“I grew up listening to mid-50s and 60s American jazz, I still really love it, I still listen to it and I don’t in any way want to reject the past or the great masters of that time, but when I think about the Australian sound, there’s got to be other things that give expression to this unique kind of place and the other cultures that are around.

“For me, the philosophy or spirit that has driven jazz for the last 100 years is one that absorbs what is around us culturally and also one that responds to individual biography, the story of the artist – because the artist is right at the center of jazz, it’s an art form where the artist is telling the story through music, he’s performing and improvising and testifying.

“So jazz is something that should reflect the culture around it. If you take that as a starting point for something of a logic of thinking about jazz, then Australian jazz won’t be sounding anything like bebop or hard bop – it will contain elements of that, but it won’t sound like it. I guess that in my work, that’s what Im trying to do, put something about the here and now.”

That is also what the Australian Art Orchestra is doing – making a musical statement about the nation’s collective ‘here and now’.

“One of the things that are important for me is trying to embody some sense of ambition beyond what you can normally do in the course of day to day music making – putting bands together and doing gigs in the city,” he says. “The art orchestra affords us the opportunity to dream a bit larger in terms of scale and what might be possible and that is an extraordinary privilege really. We have a bit of support to spend some time rehearsing and make some more ambitious music.”

This ambition is reflected to the program presented at the Stonnington Jazz Festival.

“The group we are taking to Stonnington Jazz includes Andrea Keller and James Macaulay and Aviva Endean and Lizzy Welsh – an amazing group of musicians,” he says. Andrea Keller also signs one of the compositions that will be performed, ‘Hurry Slowly II’. “That’s an amazing piece, she’s an amazing writer,” says Peter Knight, who was also written the third composition of the performance, ‘Sharp Folds’.

How do these three works create a narrative?

“Each of the pieces integrates electronics and more traditional ways of making music,” heexplains. “Each of the pieces brings different threads of practice together; each has a minimal element, it’s not too hard-blowing jazz music, it’s more minimal; each of the pieces is a long form composition which relates to classical music, with elements of improvisation.”

Two of the program’s three compositions were presented at the Wangaratta Jazz Festival, but ‘The Plains’ premiered in Europe, when the Australian Art Orchestra performed at the London Jazz Festival and Jazztopad in Wroclaw, Poland. “It was really amazing actually,” Peter Knight remembers. “It is a beautiful town. We did a residency there and we worked with Polish musicians, we also did a concert with Hamid Drake. It was one of those times that you have to pinch yourself and say: this is why we do it.”

The Australian Art Orchestra presents the Plains at the Stonnington Jazz Festival on Sunday 12 May