Chris Knowles

Chris Knowles Chris Knowles, who has worked extensively in the areas of film-making and film music, was born in Melbourne in 1955 and educated at Geelong College and Gordon Institute of Technology. He graduated with a Diploma of Art and Design from Preston Institute of Technology in 1976 and now lives in Melbourne and teaches film at the Melbourne College of Advanced Education.

His musical education was unsystematic, although at school he was exposed at one time or another to almost all of the traditional Western instruments and studied piano for some years. At that time he found music a chore and was a "thoroughly miserable student".

Having no musical aspirations, he enrolled in art school with the idea of becoming a designer, and emerged as an artist in no specific media, but in possession of an independence of thought.

He has never defined himself as a composer or musician, and sees these labels as constricting categories, preferring to remain independant of them. He takes a deliberately irreverent stance and is disrespectful of all high art ideals or notions of creativity. He has even less interest in common sense, rules and conventions and is more relieved than angry when people think him eccentric, as it gives them a way to typify him, and so they are able to relax in his company - which makes life more pleasant all around. However, one may claim there is a serious side to Knowles and, behind the disarming stance, often a serious intent to his work.

Music, he believes, cannot in any case be taken literally, or be said to `mean' anything - in the usual sense. Of all the art forms music is the most abstract, and it this quality that attracts him to it. A dog's bark, an engine, striking a drum, or a single piano note - indeed, any sound - is `literal' in that it points to or describes its source in the actual world. Are these sounds music in themselves? Perhaps traditional composition is an ordered collection of such `literal' sounds, although the psycho-acoustic effect they have on the listener bears little relationship to the sound sources involved in their production. The effect is to `transport' the audience out of the realm of literal meanings. Necessarily, in this realm, anything goes.

From a creative standpoint, he considers music as an ordered extension or subset of `pure sound'. The distinctions between the arbitrary meanderings of our sonic environments, and the more structured articulations of what we traditionally consider to be music, become blurred when viewed from the point of view of one who is interested solely in the physical and psycho-acoustic behaviour of sound itself.

To further his aims, Knowles sometimes cultivates a deliberate `incompetence' or subversion of technique, allowing mistakes to suggest new alternatives and incorporating the fortuitous accident. He summarises his working method as "stumbling onto things, without particular direction".

Through working on the soundtrack of his first videotape at art school, he discovered the great versatility of tape recorders. Echoes, delays, overdubs and speed changes could transform sounds beyond recognition. He developed other techniques of sound production by "tinkering with tape recorders" and re- organising sounds from the everyday environment into pseudo-musical structures.

Later, while living in Melbourne, he and student friends made tapes at home using any object at hand as a sound source - televisions, radios, toy instruments, pots and pans, furniture, voices, motor bikes, tape recorders, even a neighbor's dog and cat. He describes the result as "dozens of hours of spontaneously performed chaos". At the same time, in 1975, he enrolled in a unit at Preston (now Phillip) Institute of Technology which attempted to deal with sound and music within the fine art context, and where he was introduced by a lecturer - the noted jazz musician and composer David Tolley - to the EMS synthesiser.

At this time the art school at PIT was widely considered the most radical and progressive in Australia, and Tolley was then moving away from acoustic and electric bass towards electronic instruments.

The EMS influenced Knowles profoundly. Using it he could more thoroughly investigate the connection between musical sounds and structures and more general sonic environments, textures and effects. Rather than a serious musical instrument, he thought of it as a box of electronic tricks from which one could coax bizarre sound effects. Contained within a small attache case, it looked like something out of a James Bond movie and bristled with knobs. An extremely cerebral instrument, the EMS seemed completely non-tactile. Designed by Peter Zinoviev, Tristram Cary, and David Cockrell in London in the mid-late 60s, at a time it was thought electronics would completely revolutionise the nature and production of music, the initial models had a joystick controlling several parameters and no keyboard, as keyboards were considered restrictive and irrelevant. The instrument was designed to embody a spirit of optimistic and rampant experimentalism.

Ironically, his experience with it prompted a return to the piano, in an attempt to reconcile his early dislike of that instrument with a new enthusiasm for making music. He feels he succeeded for - after studying with (and probably infuriating) three private teachers in turn and spending 12 months of re-learning and improvising - he achieved a keyboard technique he now describes, perhaps in an excess of false modesty, as "appalling".

He began making tapes again with friends and together with James Clayden and David Wadelton formed the group Ad Hoc in 1978. Their music was electronic, highly textural and completely improvised. It evolved out of simply making sounds together. Untutored in their guitars and synthesisers and without anything ever being planned or rehearsed they produced what Knowles remembers as "a sensitive din". It was a pure musical dialogue and a wonderful experience. Strangely, though they often generated deafening levels of sound, it taught Knowles how to listen very carefully. The group members were all conscious of engaging in a musical dialogue that sometimes bordered on a religious experience. This impressed him as being quite amazing, considering the group's technical limitations.

Ad Hoc played from 1978 to early 1980, and recorded more than 100 hours of tape. They performed at a variety of venues: galleries, restaurants, La Mama Theatre in Carlton and the Clifton Hill Community Music Centre.

Knowles also began "dabbling" with unconventional approaches to piano music, writing repetitive pieces consisting of simple rhythmic blocks repeated without variation or evolution until the player was forced to cease because of some extra-musical factor. Mercifully perhaps, these pieces were never notated, recorded or performed in public.

Knowles discovered the prepared piano - as originally invented by Henry Cowell and developed by John Cage - and became fascinated with it as a percussion instrument. He gave a small number of improvised performances at the Universal Workshop in Fitzroy and recorded others on a compilation titled Tape which was released by Decisions cassettes on the Rash label in 1982.

Work of this period includes performances of music for player piano at La Mama Theatre in 1979. Rolls were made by incorporating the distortion produced by a photocopier in order to build up repetitive musical patterns. Random black spots appeared on photocopied sheets, and these patterns became a new note sequence. These `scores' were then re-copied, and so on. The final, densely- patterned sheets were attached end to end and used as a template to produce an actual piano roll, with new holes created by using a fine-tipped electric soldering iron. Knowles characterises the resulting music as "repetitive, additive and random. At once comic and beautiful".

His fascination for tape recorders continued throughout this period, finding expression in a small number of pieces in which almost any available sound was fed into the most elaborate multi-channel tape loop/delay system he could devise. When the system finally approached the limits of complexity, he simply set it in motion, feeding in new sounds, manipulating the output with mixers while, at the same time, carrying out running repairs on the loops.

In 1979 he began experimenting with movie film, combining images with sounds and music.

His first standard-8 films - Work In Progress (1979) and Cine Melodie (1979) - incorporated soundtracks produced in ways similar to the methods described above, usually featuring the EMS. In his later super-8 films - In The Dark (1982) and Without Movement (1983) - he began to explore strict rhythmic relationships between sound and image. Because of the open endedness of the kind of sound he was producing and the non-linear structure of the films, he discovered the possibility of creating a new medium which used both film and music to produce an experience outside of the common uses of either.

Often music in film is secondary to the images, while in music clips the images are usually a trivial and gratuitous means of packaging a song; whereas Knowles sought a more integrated effect.

He now sees the relationship as similar to what is desirable within musical improvisation. Ideally, a dialogue takes place between one player and another, or within a group of players. If the situation is congenial, each player will be selfless enough to further the common purpose. There is no place, he believes, in this context for over-sized or blind egos or the domination of one musical element over another. Each player, he thinks, should listen carefully to the others, or no dialogue can take place. If all goes well, an extra element which he calls "conjuring" will enter from outside and guide the dialogue. When this happens, the whole process "lifts" and the music - and the relationship out of which it comes into being - becomes far greater and more valuable than the sum total of what each player has contributed; precisely because a spiritual element has entered the process. (Spiritual in the sense of beyond both literal meaning and conscious understanding - a unique resonance of the moment - and, for Knowles, an essential aspect of any artistic activity and the sole measure of its success.)

He believes the principal holds true for film, where images and sounds are put into a relationship of dialogue and mutual commentary.

Another way he approaches the artistic process is to consider how information is artificially manipulated through the combination of sounds and images. Film-making is concerned with orchestrating the input into the two major human senses, through which we absorb about 90 per cent of what we know about the world and where we are at any given moment. Theoretically, then, the psycho- acoustic-visual effect of films upon an audience should be considerable.

Excited by these ideas Knowles set about incorporating films and projected images into his solo performances. Research, experimentation, and performance in these and related areas continue as main preoccupations.

The production of soundtracks for films by various Australian artists (such as James Clayden, Laurie McInnes, Ivor Cantrill, Dirk De Bruyn) and for telemovies (such as the ABC production of The Hour Before My Brother Dies ) has been an offshoot of this research. Knowles finds soundtracks fascinating for the potential they have to blur distinctions between music and `natural', ambient and atmospheric sound. Manipulating natural sounds in a musical way delights him. The most extreme example of this approach is probably the soundtrack for James Clayden's film Corpse . It was recorded entirely on location through sets of PVC tubes - which acted as resonators - to obtain pitched atmospheres at harmonic intervals. The whole soundtrack was subsequently treated and edited as a large piece of music.

In 1980 he began incorporating slides, film and video into his solo performances. Still Motion was first performed at La Mama Theatre in that year: constantly dissolving slides, re-photographed from standard-8 movie footage of the urban landscape, accompanied a gentle soundscape performed on synthesizers and incorporating tape loop delays. A companion piece, Pictorial Knowledge , used slides re-photographed from black and white stills taken from a children's encyclopedia of the 1950s, depicting mostly machines, factories and technological wonders of the day. The music was of the dense, throbbing, industrial variety. In The Dark followed in 1981. Again performed at La Mama, it combined super-8 film projected in slow motion with music and live performance. This piece later developed into the super-8 film, Doctor Dark (1984).

Over the years, Knowles' films have been shown at venues throughout Australia, America, Europe and Japan.

In mid-1980 he formed the group Signals with David Waddleton and David Brown, which played slightly less textural and more conventional rhythmic music than Ad Hoc - although it performed more often. It comprised synthesisers and guitars, with the occasional innovation such as drum beats appropriated from records and edited into tape loops. Later Phillip Thompson, playing real drums, joined the group. The music was largely improvised, although Signals sometimes experimented with repeatable structures. The group contributed to compilations and released a cassette titled Gimme Some Lovin' on the Rash (Decisions) label. It performed at Melbourne campuses, music venues, theatres and galleries and the CHCMC. Signals disbanded in 1983.

Knowles is also interested in combining music with theatre. His first step in this direction was taken in 1978, when he collaborated with David Waddleton and David Brown on a piece called Making Sounds at La Mama. Closing Down (1979) and The Pianist (1983), both collaborations with James Clayden, followed. In The Pianist Knowles also acted. In 1985 he received a small grant from the Theatre Board of the Australia Council to produce Burlesque - A Travesty , a cabaret-style entertainment first performed at La Mama in the same year.

In 1984 he purchased a new synthesiser, a Yamaha DX7, then a computer to program it, without realising there was a scarcity of worthwhile musical software available; and was therefore forced to write his own. By 1985, with help from Aaron Judah, who wrote all the assembly language code, he produced a prototype music sequencer which he has used in many subsequent performances. Most sequencers are very inflexible. More interesting ones (like his prototype) need to be highly interactive with the performer in real-time. Otherwise, the performance must come to a halt while the computer processes further information.

Knowles recalls being "embroiled in a technological nightmare called MIDI" (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) and, early in 1987, putting a hammer through a computer. He would like software designers to appreciate the importance of interactive processes in music. But he holds little hope of a breakthrough while market pressures determine the design of hardware and software oriented towards the production of pop tunes and jingles.

Knowles says he often wonders why he has become so involved with technology - as he could make interesting music by simply banging two sticks together!

In 1986 he played in hotels and nightclubs with a short-lived band called Alloy , which disbanded later in the same year.

Knowles' recent projects include Welcome , first performed in Melbourne's Glasshouse Cinema in 1986. It incorporated film re-photographed from television news and has a rhythmic, melodic synthesiser accompaniment. Welcome is a section of a larger work in progress.

Another section of this work, Non-Thing - incorporating an improvised synthesizer and electronic percussion piece, plus superimposed images from five super-8 and 16mm film projectors - was performed at the Australasian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne, in 1987.

Another recent project which Knowles began in 1987 is a 16mm film titled Oblique Heap . Funded by the Australian Film Commission and shot in Sydney, Indonesia and coastal Victoria, it is partly an exploration of musical and cinematic rhythms.


"Death of a Hero", "Broken Hearted", Tape (Decisions) , Rash R004. 1982.

Gimme Some Lovin' , (Signals), Rash R008. 1983.


Film of circles, Squares, Triangles, Lines & Dots , (16 mm), Director Ivor Cantrill. Distribution: A & C Cantrill. 1981.

Corpse , (16 mm), Director James Clayden. Distribution: Ronin Films. 1982.

Rainbow Diary , (16 mm), Director Ivor Cantrill. Distribution: A & C Cantrill. 1984.

Boerdery/Farm , (16 mm), Director Dirk De Bruyn. Distribution: Australian Film Institute. 1984.

Desparate Dancing , (Super 8), Director James Clayden. Distribution: James Clayden. 1985.

With Time to Kill , (Trailer), (Video), Director James Clayden, Distribution: James Clayden. 1985.

The Hour Before My Brother Dies , (16 mm), Director James Clayden, A.B.C. TV. 1986.

Pallisade , (35 mm), Director Laurie McInnes. Distribution: Black Ray Films. 1987.

With Time to Kill , (Video), Director James Clayden. Distribution: Kim Lewis Marketing. 1987.

What is Self Advocacy , (Video), Director Michael Buckley, Producer/Distribution: National Self Advocacy Kit Project. 1987.

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