Matthew Lee Knowles, composer

Who or what are the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?

This is a toughie. I’m like a sponge for ideas and feelings, I soak them up from anyone and they’re all important. I made an initial list of writers, painters, poets, artists, philosophers, composers, friends, scientists and movements and it quickly got out of hand so I’m just going to mention two composers that influenced me the most, not so much now, but back when I was still forming: John Cage and Morton Feldman. I had been using experimental writing techniques for about five years before I really knew about Cage and when I became familiar with his work, things fell into place; I felt like Cage gave me permission to really explore. I remember an interview I had around 2008 where the other person said “so I notice you have a Cage quotation for every answer, can we maybe find out what Matthew actually thinks?” (!).

It can be difficult to recognise that we owe so much to so many; we think we come up with all our own ideas, but it doesn’t work like that. Ralph Waldo Emerson said that he couldn’t remember every book he’d read or meal he’d eaten but they made him. We are always on the shoulders of giants, from whatever section of life or culture they’re from; all my inspirations and influences, big and small, have all made me who and what I am and it hasn’t always been positive, we need the negative reinforcement too (as Werner Herzog once said, “we need the very dark monsters”) I remember the first time I saw a score by Michael Finnissy (‘English Country Tunes’) and I was genuinely angry and I felt alive. Years later I had the pleasure of telling him this and he was, of course, thrilled and even dedicated a string quartet to me.

Seeing a couple of bars of Chopin’s Revolutionary Étude in a textbook at the beginning of secondary school was very powerful and playing this and works by Rachmaninov also made a lasting impact. There were many people who believed in me early on and took a chance, including a wonderful music teacher and enthusiastic piano teacher.

My early influences feel more important but I’m constantly being fed ideas now on a drip from all manner of wonderful people, mainly friends doing incredible stuff and too numerous to list; if I mentioned twenty-five people, I wouldn’t have scratched the surface. I keep well clued in by listening to lots of Soundcloud tracks, snippets on Instagram stories, Facebooks posts and Twitter, I take it all in. Many of these wonderful people can be found on this page on my website, these are mainly people I have worked with. Since 2006 I have been writing music for other people, dedicated to them, an act of gratitude for their friendship, love, music or ideas and those first pieces were dedicated to Laurence Crane. I read a lot about science, mainly cosmology so that has probably shaped some of my ideas but I don’t know how exactly, although it sometimes comes out in stupid ways, like when I wrote a piece where all the players were connected to the conductor by strings that were pulled to signal when it was time to play or stop – ‘twas my level of understanding of String Theory at the time…

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

Spending more than four years writing For Clive Barker, a twenty-six hour piece in a single movement for piano was a challenge, the scope of it was ridiculous, before I started writing it I had a dream of looking at a large wall in the distance, so far away that it didn’t seem too disturbing, but as I wrote more and got closer, the wall got exponentially larger until I couldn’t see the top. I climbed it, ripping my fingers to shreds and losing weight through sweat, but about half way up, I noticed little protrusions which I could hold onto, making it easier to scale. When I got to the top, I jumped down, enjoying the gushing breeze and landed on a large bouncy castle. At the back of my head I was aware that if this piece failed then I would have wasted four years of writing, that’s quite a thought to have but it also kept me going. The memory of writing that piece with chronic pain so severe I sometimes couldn’t hold a pencil will stay with me forever. It’s been just over a year since I finished it and I’m still not sure what to make of it. I’ve tried to draw attention to it to help get it recorded, by talking about it as the world’s longest piano piece but that just makes me feel a bit dirty on the inside, like it’s a gimmick, like that was the endgame all along. If that had really been my intention, I don’t think I’d have put even 10% of the effort into it.

In March 2022 I released the most professionally recorded CD of my music to date with pianist Kate Ledger after a year of working on it, it’s called FOR and is in two parts; Accretion and Debris, twelve tracks in total, musical portraits, dedicated to people who have inspired me with their brilliance (It can be bought by clicking here). It was a pleasure, of course, but often challenging when things are out of your control. For example, the day of the recording the UK was hit by a major storm that threw power out for weeks, what do you do? Cry into a bowl of Weetabix then make a new plan! If I am ever lucky enough to make another CD I now feel better prepared.

I’m currently working on a ballet suite to be performed in Germany in 2023. It’s a response to Mozart’s Requiem and uses the same instrumentation. I’m enjoying the writing stage but it’s an immense amount of work. I spent two months worrying myself stupid that I wasn’t good enough for the job, two weeks preparing the pitch material and as I write this, I’m a fortnight into the initial piano sketch. To really pull this forty-five minute work off will take many rewrites and push me to the limits of my ability. I’m excited by it now but at the start it just made me feel sick and kept me awake at night!

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?

I’m so used to doing my own thing and not being commissioned that when it happens, it’s very mixed; jarring and exciting, “jarciting”! After getting a commission, I told my parents and they said “you must be thrilled!” and my response was “absolutely not!”. I suspect it’s because I know it’s a challenge and challenges are hard: do you have to tick boxes whilst remaining true to yourself? Should you just not think of pleasing people or ticking boxes? The beginning is always the hardest part; then as you soothe the monster, it becomes manageable and you can see clearly and remind yourself that you are good enough and you were commissioned for a reason.

I recently wrote a five-part song cycle based on Dennis Cooper’s pentalogy ‘The George Miles Cycle’, that was a commission that I devoured, working obsessively and had the whole thing finished in about a month, from constructing texts, through sketching, development, rewrites, copying up and proofreading, I was really in my element. When it comes to working with text I have to LOVE the source material, I couldn’t have spent four years on a piece if I didn’t love Clive Barker’s writing style in ‘The Hellbound Heart’ which later became one of my favourite films, ‘Hellraiser’. Dennis Cooper’s style, often comparable to the Marquis de Sade’s, really excites me so spending time with it was a pleasure.

Getting paid to do these things I often find quite weird and awkward though. I cannot separate myself as a composer from myself as a person. In Philip Kaufman’s film ‘Quills’ (2000) about one of my favourite writers, the Marquis de Sade (Geoffrey Rush), gradually has things taken away from him but his desire to write is so strong that he finds a way, in blood or shit, at one point just shouting the words down a line of prisoners so that Kate Winslet can write it out. I feel like I’d be the same, if all had was dust on the ground, I would rearrange those precious motes until I could hear them.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles or orchestras?

My ideal situation would be to live at my piano writing music and never see another human being again in my life (!). Although, when I am actually with musicians in the flesh I realise how important it is, how utterly vital the connections and exchanges are. It’s a trade off: you want to write music but if you don’t also invest the energy into making sure the interpretations meet you at least half way you risk being sold as something else and often it can be just an act of reassurance, letting someone know that they are doing the right thing. In September 2021 I started collaborating with the performer/lyricist La Chiva and this has been extremely fruitful, we have written thirteen songs together and bounce off and respond to each other’s energy, I know that my music has inspired them to write many more lyrics than they normally would have and that is just beautiful, they have inspired me to write some of my best songs. When I was younger I pushed for performances all the time then I went through a period of not pushing at all and I still feel in that zone, I don’t enter competitions and rarely enter calls for scores. In Give My Regards To Eighth Street Feldman mentioned a woman who spent her whole life writing music never intended to be performed, the sentence he wrote after that thwacked me like an asteroid giving the earth the kiss of death, it impacted me in ways I still don’t properly understand: “I envy her insanity, her impracticality”.

Of which works are you most proud?

I don’t really see my stuff in that way, I don’t allow myself to feel like that. I have often said “I am proud of X” but it’s not true, I don’t feel pride in pieces when they’re finished, which isn’t to say I don’t take pride in the work, the process of the work is different from the work. If I feel proud of any particular work then I’ve settled for something, and I want to, when I’m about to die, I want to know that I did not create that masterpiece, even if I Zeno Paradoxed it to something close, I won’t let myself settle anywhere, if what it takes to create my work is to die unfulfilled by it, then I’m okay with that. I think, however, that I am proud that I have written so much music, I’m an experimentalist at heart and I want to try stuff out all the time and I need lots and lots of data!

How would you characterise your compositional language?

I’ve heard a few times now that my work is not always recognisable as my work. I’m painfully aware that the reason for this could be negative rather than positive, that my voice is just a confused mess and I’m throwing endless formless loaves of shit at a wall. Why does a composer have to have a voice anyway? What’s wrong with having voices? I consider things like stupidly/ridiculously simple as compliments but as much as I want to achieve that I don’t think I ever do. I often set myself up with the idea that my piece should do everything or nothing, like Francis Bacon wanting to paint the perfect mouth, then Melyvn Bragg points out all his mouths are black and he says it’s because he’s never been successful. Nowadays I just write very freely, like a stream of consciousness and try not to worry about how it all goes together, it’s actually quite hard, the trained composer in me is trying to do so many clever things but I’m actively fighting against it and I often feel like I’m lost, it’s probably an ego thing. I hope one day to sit down and deliberately write a bad piece, like Feldman thought about in a radio conversation with Cage. Kate Ledger told me that one of the things she liked in my music was my use of repetition, so perhaps if anything can identify me it’s that? To be honest, it doesn’t feel important enough a question for me to consider too deeply, if I had an answer, I’m not sure what I’d do with it, it would probably do something with me. All my pieces are just one long composition, I got that idea from Richard Ayres in around 2006, the idea resonated with me very strongly. Perhaps there are no pieces, perhaps there is only the work. I’m not sure how much it would bother me if the final stage of composition was just shredding the score, compositional imagination is infinite, until you’re dead at which point, it isn’t. I created a happening in 2008, The Nothing and The Nothingness where the poet Rowyda Amin sat for several hours writing and then shredding her work, to make that point explicit.

How do you work?

I’m basically Winston Churchill, in that I have between fifty and a hundred ideas a day, three or four of them good. I‘m very much in a “write at the piano” stage now, it’s been like that for about three years, before that I used to write everything straight from mind to paper because I had all my processes, sometimes laughably simple, sometimes like the confused math lady meme. I feel like I can now trust twenty years of compositional problem solving and relax into all the musical knowledge I have, already knowing what works for me and what doesn’t. It can be a very energetic process, letting chance favour the prepared mind, I often have very definite starting points which I can staunchly adhere to or like Stephen King when he’s writing, just see what the characters/notes want to say and let them lead the way. I’m pleased if a little perplexed that new pieces hardly ever start the same way, each piece is a new conundrum and I go in armed with as many tools as possible. If I stopped along the way to write down what I was doing or how I was doing it, the momentum could possibly be lost. I prefer to leave things alive and mysterious.

I use text a lot, some of my very first pieces when I barely understood anything at all about music, couldn’t even write notes properly, were turning letters (from magazines/newspapers) into notes onto music paper which I usually drew up myself. For Clive Barker used a variety of basic letter/pitch substitution systems which sometimes had other layers of rules to follow. This was part of my introduction in the score itself: “When I read text I see perpetual patterns; a vast sea of letters talking to each other in all manner of languages, which are so numerous and so exciting to me. When reading most people do not see these and there is no reason they should, they generally don’t add anything to the subject matter. Every single letter of Barker’s book has its own specific note, chord or motif that evolves throughout the thirty-thousand bars (indeed, so did I, I was not the same composer when I wrote both pages one and one-thousand) varying based on the surrounding text in a multidimensional explosion of systems and connections, attempting to put into music the linguistic features that form the contents of the ocean, with its surface projection we skim across when reading. This piece was an utterly painstaking attempt to put these ideas into music.” I could easily use one paragraph for the rest of my life and write a thousand completely different pieces from it, the reason I won’t do that is to simply keep myself interested! When writing For Clive Barker, I usually changed tools when I felt bored of what I was doing, I didn’t question that, I just followed my nose. Michael Finnissy writes notationally intricate music and once said “I don’t sit down in the morning and think ‘how can I write the most complex thing that’s ever been written’ … can you imagine anything more stupid?” Likewise, I didn’t set out to write the world’s longest piano piece, it just happened, a childhood fantasy about turning a novel into music by hand (working by hand was vital, the endurance aspect of it enabled the ideas to evolve). Another fantasy was turning the dictionary into a song cycle, so hopefully one day I will be able to afford to hire a team of assistants so I can make some of my more ridiculous compositional dreams come true!

There’s no grand vision with me, no poetic bullsh*t, I just get it done – not that there’s anything wrong with grand poetic visions, many of my favourite composers think like that and can go on at length talking about what the work means, it’s just not for me, I recently made a graphic score that said I am a very stupid composer and I wear that moniker with some pride, the stupidity in question is my strength, I honestly think that I’m an idiot, which sounds harsh but it’s deeper than that, there’s something beautiful in it. The look of the score is very important to me, I really believe that any piece of music should be able to exist on the wall of an art gallery, so if there’s a symmetry that isn’t working for me and simply cutting a bar would resolve that, then I would destroy that bar.

For Alan Turing (2011) was written by taking only the letters ABCDEFG from six texts and building verticalities from them, I think phrases were dictated by sentence length or something like that. Because I write so much, I often forget quite quickly how I wrote a piece, there’s that story about Cage leaping up in the air when Feldman responded to “how did you write it?” with “I don’t know”, well, Cage would have broken his legs around me. I wrote a piece called For Frey, for one of my students who I had given a large book of music to that had been invaluable to me through my entire life, I decided to buy a new copy for myself and give them the one I had owned for twenty years. So the piece consists of an 11/8 rocking action in the right hand of a major 7th F(r)E(y) and each bar is the opening chord or note from each of the 104 pieces in that book, so the length was determined by that factor. How many notes in that phrase? Well how many letters are there in that word? Written language is infinitely rich in structure and possibility. For A.E. On Their 30th Birthday started by looking at several Hildegard von Bingen scores and just superimposing two lines and if one went longer than the other then the shorter one just echoed the longer one at the octave, I wanted to create a space for philosophical thought. Everything’s Just a Result of the Sun Eating the Earth came about after noticing the repeated use of clock times in Dennis Cooper’s novel ‘Period’, so I used them loosely as pitch sets to construct 421 chords – I can get quite obsessive, if an idea comes to me, I usually have no choice and many of the techniques I use are so basic it’s almost embarrassing to talk about them.

I use random generators to give me all sorts of starting points. In the past I’ve used Sudoku puzzles, crosswords/word searches, newspapers, phone numbers, names, basically anything alphanumeric – none of this makes the end result interesting though. When composers gloat with things like “I can make a shopping list into a piece of music” … “great, I can turn any food you can think of into shit”.

I remember in 2006, aged twenty, drafting “The Technique Of My Musical Language” inspired by Messiaen whose book of the same name I devoured, copying out large chunks into my notebook during my second year at Guildhall. I hadn’t looked at it since then and just dug it out for this interview and I quoted George Brecht at the very top: “The Irrelevant process”. This often hilariously pretentious fourteen page document (my opening three sentences to prove my point: “We will be closer to answering all of the questions in our heads about art and music when we stop asking them. Understanding will be the death of music. One is not supposed to understand.” I was obsessed with process and believed that the music lived nowhere else, claiming that it was all very well and good to turn a receipt into music but that the process was all that mattered. This was back when I often said I didn’t care about sound, I didn’t care less what the result was, I lived in the process. I dedicated a couple of pages to hexachordal rotational transpositional arrays (a technique I used again in 2021 to write For Jonathan Ferrucci) I basically made a lot of tables back then. I was intrigued by long and laborious processes; as a child I filled pages with numbers that I would just keep adding together and when composing I did the same with equations. I was inspired by certain mathematical techniques of Birtwistle and additive techniques of Messiaen, also rhythms constructed from random numbers; measuring in semiquavers, the number four is a crotchet, three is a dotted quaver etc. I used the Fibonacci sequence a lot and also the eighty-eight keys of the piano with random numbers to assign pitch. Before I had computer programmes for this I just wrote all of these things on scraps of paper and pulled them out of a bowl, the things that take fractions of a second now took hours back then, but the time gained is spent in other areas. I tried to argue in that document that non-intention was more powerful than emotive intention, I don’t I agree with that quite as strongly now, but we evolve and go through different developmental zones – I hope to still be alive and writing when I’m a hundred, either obsessively writing out the same note a thousand times a piece or writing music so batshit balls to the wall crazy that people don’t know what to do with me.

In 2006 I prefaced a six-hour piece for clarinet, piano and silent orchestra called 140 Spectacles with an essay where I said about the piece “it is also quite shit as well – it’s unquestionably important to remember that almost everything falls into this category”. I’m essentially a nihilist at heart. I worried that adding a silent orchestra might have made the music easier to digest, it was common for me to add something to a piece at the end to make it harder to digest, I often felt like I was sabotaging my own work.

Intrigued by the idea of notating speech (I would later discover this in Janáček) I wrote a piece called Nothing Implied, also in 2006, for string quartet where the players had newspaper headlines which they instrumentally chanted, with Feldman type graphic scores for High-Middle-Low registers. I have been told by a number of people that this piece really meant something to them, Mica Levi said it had a powerful effect on her when she first heard it. I reused this technique in For Peter Wilson (2020) for piano, cello and clarinet, instead of newspaper headlines, this time I used real suicide notes, hidden from all but the players. I am slowly starting to respond to my own history of destructive mental health but it’s hard. Last year I wrote Contorted Ropes for string quartet and speaker/shouter/screamer, with a text about realising that your thoughts don’t define you, something I wish I’d have known when I was thirteen. It’s much harder for me to write about something personal like that, because there’s even more pressure for it to be meaningful, otherwise you’ve written a bad piece and you’ve desecrated your own timeline.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Receiving a message from someone saying they like something I did feels like success to me. I have a good job which allows me to write the music I want and I’m healthy and living in a fairly accepting society surrounded by good friends, that feels like success to me. Success is weird: you might get a little taste, you might not get anything, you might think you got a little taste, there’s so much fakery, it’s hard to know what’s real and what is meaningful, when you’re being celebrated and when you’re being very convincingly used. Don’t quote me on this but I think it was Will Gregory who once said the fame he wanted was for everyone to know his name but for nobody to recognise his face. I’ve always liked that idea. I don’t actually have a definition of success because it’s not something I actively think about, I just get shit done, whilst feeling like a fraud, which keeps me on my toes. Michael Finnissy once said that he felt like he was from the wrong side of the tracks, I feel the same way and Alkan just started playing on a randomised playlist and I know that Alkan became increasingly reclusive from about the age I am now. I don’t even know what I am, so it’s hard to know how to succeed when you don’t know that about yourself.

What advice would you give to young/aspiring composers?

You have choices and you will probably struggle with them. Will you walk a line or the line, will you be yourself, will you try to write music that you think people want to hear, will you be true to yourself? You have to know yourself for that last question and that can be terrifying. No lines are easy to walk, it’s okay to be constantly second guessing, it just means you’re evolving. As Yoko Ono sang in Revelations “Bless you for your search of direction”. Talk to older composers, they have so much to offer and it’s mad that there’s so little exchange of dialogue between generations, they won’t necessarily have met with your exact issues but I bet they have close parallels. Proofread your scores, for the love of God, proofread your scores; there’s barely a day goes by that I don’t cringe when someone posts a score on social media where all the errors jump out and assault me. Think very carefully about what the score looks like, constantly altering the margins, font size, layouts, down to the lengths of the note stems, weighing up the necessity of information, thinking like a poet when you write instructions. Don’t trust notation software to give you the right answer. I taught score presentation at a CoMA summer school several years ago; I think it’s really important. You’ll get advice along the way, you’ll take some of it on board, you’ll ignore the rest, nobody will be able to tell you to do anything else. Who are you writing for? What are you writing for? Why are you writing? Absolutely vital questions that I have never given a single fuck for, so you don’t have to either. Don’t be upset when you fail, I have tried to do many things that in the end turned out unsuccessful, but I don’t regret the attempt.

What next – where would you like to be in 10 years?

I would like to be performed more and given larger opportunities where I can really explore certain things and get regular commissions, in the past year I have received three paid commissions, before that I can’t actually remember when the last one was, I seem to remember it was to celebrate the upcoming event of the very first email being sent. I’d quite like to write another theatre score and get into film music and also to just collaborate with lots of weird, queer, experimental, unpigeonhole-able visionaries and those with barely a single vision. As long as I’m writing music, I know I will be happy.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Being a composer is a pretty sweet gig: I get to write whatever I want whenever I want with financial security from being a piano teacher, so I feel pretty happy with where my life is, not sure what perfect happiness would be, but I suspect it would lead to finding a composer shaped splatter at the bottom of The Shard.

What is your most treasured possession?

My piano, my signed copy of Cixin Liu’s Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy, my DVD of Pasolini’s Salo, whatever current bottle of Lagavulin 16 year is in my flat, a set of utterly unique graphic scores made for me by Andy Ingamells, my copy of Messiaen’s Vingt Regards which I bought around 2001 when I was sixteen for £55, my Scrabble set, my alabaster busts of Chopin and Beethoven and whatever manuscript paper I have left.

What do you enjoy doing most?

Writing music, playing Scrabble, watching horror films, writing music, having ridiculous conversations that don’t mean anything or go anywhere, preferably with a pun a second, making people laugh, writing music, teaching piano, reading about cosmology and physics, playing piano for singers, eating white chocolate, bathing in the success of friends, writing music and poetry, making graphic scores and painting.

What is your present state of mind?

Well I’m writing this in March and the unfolding events in Ukraine are literally burning my eyes and that’s not easy to get away from. I’m working on many different pieces at the same time. I’ve written twenty-six pieces so far this year, last year I wrote about 180. My state of mind generally hovers around a similar level of emptiness and I’m okay with that.

Matthew Lee Knowles is a prolific composer, poet, pianist, performer and teacher based in London, who had the honour and pleasure of teaching alongside Michael Finnissy at a CoMA Summer Course a few years ago.

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Photo credit: Dominick Tyler