Solo Series - 25th Anniversary AAO

To mark the Australian Art Orchestra’s 25th anniversary, we're presenting the Solo Series: a monthly video release that puts the spotlight on one of the twelve selected members from our pool of incredible AAO collaborators. In June we feature trumpeter, composer, sound artist and Artistic Director of the Australian Art Orchestra, Peter Knight, performing a solo for trumpet processed through Revox reel-to-reel tape machine and laptop computer, along with liner notes by acclaimed music writer, Kate Hennessy.

Peter Knight

Solo Series #6 - Peter Knight (watch video here) - trumpet, revox reel-to-reel tape machine, laptop computer.

- - -

Peter Knight’s work has appeared regularly in my orbit. Yet even, say, a year ago, I may have declined the Australian Art Orchestra’s (AAO) invitation to write this piece on its Artistic Director. I’d admired Peter’s projects but I couldn’t see the thread. 

It clicked when I saw the AAO perform with Tasmanian metal artist Striborg (Russell Menzies) at Mona Foma festival this year. Menzies was presenting his new ‘blackwave’ direction  – all icy synth and demonic vocals – with Peter live processing his trumpet and doing laptop effects. While the show wasn’t wholly improvised, its sound was clearly hatching as we watched and it was a lot of fun. 

Menzies is a doggedly solo artist, I believe. Facepaint, capes and bedroom recordings. Despite a not negligible following abroad, he’s never left Australia. Could any other group of highly-trained musicians in Australia have worked such simpatico magic with him? Or is the AAO, led since 2013 by Peter, the group most able to mine what Peter calls “the meeting points”?

From Striborg to the ambient cushioning he constructed for Tamara Saulwick’s theatre piece, Endings, to the AAO as a jazz ensemble playing with Arnhem Land’s Young Wägilak Group at Hobart’s Museum of Old and New Art – each time Peter or the AAO pop up, it's interesting work that retains its instinctive quality. 

As I write this Peter is at the remote community festival of Barunga performing Hand To Earth with Sunny Kim and Daniel Wilfred because their connection with Wilfred, a talented Arnhem Land singer, deepened since the Hobart shows, cracking apart new musical seams. Of Peter’s work in Daughter’s Fever (alongside Vanessa Tomlinson and Andrew Brooks) with Melbourne folk iconoclast, Paddy Mann, I wrote in each player “rounded out the rare chemistry”.

So I found the thread. Peter says he’s driven by “perpetual curiosity”. I’d say that curiosity is rounded out by his ability to make rare chemistries real. “What links the AAO’s different sounds and styles is an interest in where things intersect and the friction when they collide. That’s relevant to my solo practice too. I think a lot about the trumpet and its traditions and how that connects with an experimental approach to sound and music-making.”

His most favoured antiquity is the “beautiful patina” furnished by the Revox B77 reel-to-reel tape machine. “I manipulate my trumpet using techniques not usually connected with trumpet playing such as digital processing or analogue processing through tape, pedals and amplifiers.”

In Peter’s solo practice, a kind of man-machine meld between the instrument - “I’ve been a trumpet player all my life, I practice every day” – and the electro-acoustic realms of analogue technology occurs. “Electronic possibilities have crept into my consciousness so there’s a kind of symbiosis where they feed off one another. Even playing solo, acoustically, I have this urge to make these electronic sounds with my trumpet.”

Peter’s solo piece here is quietly gripping; hypnotic yet troubled by an insistent unease. I hear something both Andean in its gusts of breath through brass (without the video, I may’ve assumed it was breath through bamboo?) and Amazonian in its insect-like thrum. I hear heat. Because the ticking thrum teeters, as well, on resolving into an image of a suburban lawn as a sprinkler spins; a place that only exists in a dream or a half-recalled memory. 

When he improvises, Peter sets up sound worlds, sets them in motion and sees what happens. “The limitations I set to play within are kind of like a score. I can predict what it’s going to sound like but not what’s going to happen. It’s the same with the AAO. We design spaces things can happen in; spaces to open up potential.”

Kate Hennessy

Solo Series #6
Performance: Peter Knight
Photo: Sarah Walker
Video producer: Leo Dale
Sound engineer: Jem Savage, Leo Dale
Sound mix: Jem Savage

AAO’s 25th Anniversary

This year the Australian Art Orchestra celebrates its 25th anniversary. I remember when the group was formed and the impact it had on me as an aspiring jazz musician - the first show I heard at The Continental in Prahran in Melbourne, with 20 of the most talented musicians on the scene. Bristling energy, barely tamed. It was exciting, and it reconfigured the idea I had for what a jazz musician could aspire to. There followed collaborations with musicians from Indonesia, Arnhem Land, and India, and performances of music written by the most challenging contemporary western composers. It was a long way from what I had experienced as a music student, and opened in my mind a world of possibility that was expansive and exciting and that was directly connected to the here and now.

The Australian Art Orchestra changed things for me, and I think it changed things for a lot of musicians and listeners. The vision of its founding artistic director, Paul Grabowsky, recognised that we live in a place of abundance and as ‘jazz’ musicians and artists that we need to respond to what’s around us rather than look primarily to America and Europe for inspiration. A quarter of a century on, I believe that vision is perhaps more relevant than ever.

In 2013 I was appointed the Orchestra’s second artistic director and have since tried to carry on this vision in my own way. The group certainly sounds very different now, and there are new faces, but I believe there is a thread we have woven through each of our projects that traces back to those first performances of Ringing the Bell Backwards in Melbourne in 1994.

This history is important. Understanding where we have come from as a group is crucial to building a vibrant future. As we celebrate 25 years we want to look forward while at the same time reaffirming our commitment to a set of core values that are centred on deep music practice and community building, and that also give space for the kind of individual creativity that made the first performance of the Orchestra I heard at The Continental in 1994 so exciting.

This individuality and anarchic spirit is somewhat at odds with a more traditional idea of an Orchestra, which is generally associated with blend and seamless integration. But this is a contradiction that the Australian Art Orchestra has always embraced, and it’s one of the things that sets this strange and wonderful organism apart from other musical groups. It’s also the defining aspect that I have focussed on to celebrate this 25th anniversary.

Each of the musicians we work with is an improviser, but more than that each has a highly refined, idiosyncratic, and personal language on their instrument. When we come together as a group, these voices are the starting point for our sound. The composers we commission listen to recordings made by our musicians to inform their compositional processes, and when we rehearse we spend time improvising together and workshopping ideas towards the creation of a collective language.

To celebrate the 25th anniversary of this ‘orchestra of individuals’ we have chosen 12 musicians from our large pool of players to record solo improvisations that will form a portrait of the Australian Art Orchestra in 2019. Each of these recordings will also be captured on in high resolution video by innovative Melbourne company, Digital Pill. These videos will be released monthly with an accompanying photographic portrait by Sarah Walker, and a written response to the music.

Peter Knight, Artistic Director