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15 Questions to Chris Knudson

img  Tobias

Hi! How are you? Where are you?
Hey, or I should say ‘Hallo’ to Tobias and Tokafi Magazine. I’m in Houston, Texas, where the summer heat is creeping back upon us. We’re hoping to avoid the big hurricanes this year!

What’s on your schedule right now?
I will be performing a song “Stand Up and Be Counted” I wrote for the Texas gubernatorial (governor’s) campaign for independent candidate Kinky Friedman at Willie Nelson’s 4th of July picnic in Fort Worth. Otherwise, I’m looking for financing to record my debut Chris Knudson record, performing occasionally in Texas, and plan to tour nationally and internationally if possible in summer 2007.

What or who was your biggest influence as an artist? Do you see yourself as part of a certain tradition or as part of a movement?
My theatre instructor in middle and high school growing up in Houston was a big influence and encouraged my “stage habit.” I also hung out a my neighbour Adrian Schoolar’s house where his older brother played electric guitar and piano and listened to rock music like Led Zeppelin and the Stones. Also my mother was an art dealer, so I would visit artist studios and go to gallery openings all the time. Later in New York, musicians, actors and artists in the lower Manhattan scene of the 1990s surrounded me. I am part of no movement that I can perceive, and work in the tradition of the iconoclast idealists, surfing the divide between secular and spiritual, songs, sounds and poetry.

What’s your view on the music scene at present? Is there a crisis?
The ‚scene’ if one can even call it that, seems to be a loose amalgam of individuals and groups around the planet communicating through internet groups like MySpace, and a handful of networks and channels broadcasting videos and concerts. There is still serious music being performed by symphony orchestras and in universities where academic and experimental music continues. And crisis, if one can argue it really exists, is an invitation to opportunity.

What does the term „new“ mean to you in connection with music?
I take the term very literally. Whether something is part of a musical idiom, tradition or movement doesn’t really matter to me. Even monks chanting the sacred “OM” or “AUM,” which is an ancient sonic representation of the divine, is new music, if they are performing it in the present moment.

How do you see the relationship between sound and composition?

Since I have mostly trained myself (‘autodidact’), I am very much a composer via sonic inspiration. I usually compose with an instrument, like a guitar or piano at hand. I am not versed in classical composition and orchestration and work mostly in the popular idiom. Occasionally, I feel a rhythm or hear a basic melody line in my head, remember it with a notepad or tape recorder, and later sit down to work it into a song.

How strictly do you separate improvising and composing?
Not at all. Many times a great song idea comes from just sitting with my guitar and improvising chords and lines.

What constitutes a good live performance in your opinion? What’s your approach to performing on stage?
It really depends on the music and the musicians. For a vocal performance, some say it’s hard to top Luciano Pavarotti’s rendition of
Donizetti's ‚La Fille Du Régiment’ at New York's Metropolitan Opera in February 1972, in which he drove the crowd into a frenzy with his nine effortless high Cs in the signature aria, and achieved a record 17 curtain calls. But I’ve had a warm response and drinks bought (true appreciation!) even by a few admirers at a coffeehouse gig. I always do my best to present the material, whether I’ve written it or not, with strength, conviction and dynamics. It also helps to avoid drinking shots beforehand!

A lot of people feel that some of the radical experiments of modern compositions can no longer be qualified as “music”. Would you draw a border – and if so, where?
Even though I don’t consider myself an ‘experimental’ musician, I did study a little of it in college, learning to create sounds on an old
E-Mu modular synth and listening to seminal composers like Subotnick, Xennakis, Cage and Reich. The 20th Century brought about atonal music and music concrete, which were deconstructions of the classical hegemony. Nature is the first musician, in my opinion, so I’m in accord with music that is not based on, or partially based on intervals of tones. Some music feeds the mind, and some music feeds the heart. The best feeds both.

Are “serious” and “popular” really two different types of music or just empty words without a meaning?
It’s really about context. When George Gershwin premiered “An American in Paris” or Stevie Ray Vaughn performed in Carnegie Hall, it was popular music in a serious setting. When John Williams and Yo Yo Ma collaborated on the “Memoirs of a Geisha” film soundtrack, was it popular music? Serious music seems to be music with an intellectual, academic or experimental basis. Popular music is music that sells broadly or is broadly distributed across a culture. Sometimes they cross over. I assume there would be a different delineation between popular and serious music in a communist country versus a capitalist one.

Do you feel an artist has a certain duty towards anyone but himself? Or to put it differently: Should art have a political/social
or any other aspect apart from a personal sensation?

The artist is only beholden to his own muse. I would think art with a social or political message can oftentimes reach a larger audience immediately, but over time may have less significance. Andy Warhol’s silk-screened images of Marilyn Monroe and other celebrities resonate with people in our time, but will they in hundreds of years or longer?

True or false: People need to be educated about music, before they can really appreciate it.
True and False. Emotional and visceral appreciation is innate and felt without training. There is a CD on for sale called “The Mozart effect: Music for Babies,” which samples, among others, his Toy Symphonies and Flute Quartets. Babies listen with only the education of the time in the mother’s womb, whatever we imagine that world sounds like! On the other hand, to understand the context of Mozart’s eccentric life, probably dying from syphilis at the age of 35, may give one a greater appreciation for his exceptional body of work.

Imagine a situation in which there’d be no such thing as copyright and everybody were free to use musical material as a basis for their own compositions – would that be an improvement to the current situation?

In our commercial society, I think the system works well enough for now. There’s an endless supply of public domain music (pre-copyright era, or expired copyrights) to be freely incorporated by music creators, if they’re inclined to reference past compositions.

You are given the position of artistic director of a festival. What would be on your program?
Man, are you crazy?! I would have Brian Eno MC the whole event (and invite countless others I’ve forgotten here) including Bjork,
Radiohead, Sonic Youth, Can, Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream and Einstuerzende Neubauten, Morton Subotnick, Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Tom Waits, Christian Marclay, Robert Fripp, The Master Musicians of Jajouka (with my friend Bachir Attar), Sheila Chandra, and the list
goes on!

Many artists dream of a “magnum opus”. Do you have a vision of what yours would sound like?

Not yet. I would like to create a “casino symphony” sometime with field recordings I took from Las Vegas casinos a while back. And maybe an interactive event with hundreds of thousands of people or more linked up together via satellite, chanting om.


Chris Knudson

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