A Short Talk By Matthew Lee Knowles

In this ten minute talk I discuss the importance of a particular aspect of my work, which can be linked clearly to science, philosophy, biology, art, poetry, life and music.   I talk of complexity and of the audible, visual and philosophical in music.  Dotted within are quotations, facts, opinions and suggestions.  It is intended to be thought provoking and is written from the point of view, primarily as myself the composer and then of myself the poet.  I hope you enjoy listening and, naturally, I’d love to discuss any aspects of this with anyone who would like to!




You know my name, so I won’t waste time saying that now, but you may be thinking that I wasted time in explaining that I didn’t want to waste time – maybe, but I had my reasons, I wanted you to get used to my voice for starters and secondly, I wanted to get you in the right disposition to listen to this ten minute, or six-hundred second, talk.  There are one-thousand one-hundred and sixty words in this talk, well at least there were, the number has now risen to one-thousand one-hundred and ninety-three because of this sentence.  Perhaps you just tried to guess what kind of atmosphere I want your neurons to be firing towards achieving just now, perhaps you’re worried you are not in the ‘right mood’ – perhaps you are purposely trying to change your mood now, to go against me – perhaps you are trying to do that only now I’ve suggested it, or, most likely, you’re thinking I should probably get on with this. 

          I work with sound and language, simply put – or more specifically put, I am a composer and poet – it does, of course matter how artists refers to themselves – I am tempted to adopt Beethoven’s stance and call myself a ‘tone poet’.  My music informs my poetry and vice versa, I use similar techniques to write both, and text and rhythm are often present, respectively, in my music and poetry. I don’t want to talk about my work precisely, just about one particular feature that ties together everything I do, from my paintings to the events I organise.  It is an elusive and perhaps uncertain but powerful and profound feature, which I don’t want to pin down, only explore.  I also realise, that as with any set of thoughts regarding Art (with a capital letter) there will be disagreements and contradictions.  This feature can be summed up in a single word – it is, ‘line’.  

          My opinion is that when an artist, poet, composer or dancer is trying to perfect their art, they are striving to understand, manipulate and convey their own version of line. The idea of a line, be it in geometrical, social or conceptual terms permeates our lives.  I can think of numerous sayings using the word: walk the line, cross the line, down the line, a fine line, along those lines, bring into line, draw a line in the sand, crossed lines, line of duty, read between the lines, sign on the dotted line.  

          I asked myself what the word implies and my first thought was of a choice between finite and infinite extent – a line can have a beginning and an end, it can go on for a duration and direction more queerer than we can suppose, or it can join back to itself, in which case it becomes a prison (admittedly, the world’s least secure prison).  Line doesn’t necessarily have or need a direction, of course – this is an addition of our mind.  When in unison, a line suggests simplicity, one dimensional ‘breadthless length’, to borrow Euclid’s terminology, but perhaps one could consider a line as a multitude of points or events, perfectly and seamlessly joined.  Can simplicity in this context lead to complexity?  I think so.  Simplicity upon simplicity plus simplicity (naturally with some exceptions) invariably leads to complexity, even if it is only a product of our memory.  It has being said that a consonance repeated over and over becomes a dissonance.  A more direct and less conceptual way of achieving complexity through line is to multiply, cross over, collide, stretch, break, superimpose, mirror, mix, bend, break and mystify.  Lines can experience little change or can increase to an unknown mass or creep towards no line at all – either way, there seems to be an inherent predictability and I believe this predictability is to be coaxed and nurtured away from the mundane and into the slightly less mundane.  I mentioned that line doesn’t necessarily have or need direction, but we are so used to time’s arrow, moving forwards, obeying (or created with) the laws of thermodynamics, set in motion by the Big Bang, increasing entropy: cause and effect, catalysts and results, excursions, destinations and products – it is familiar.  From morning to evening, cradle to tomb, home to work – we rarely think non-directionally.  We are advantageously hard wired for comprehending familiarity and recognising pattern, even when the offering is paltry.  Morton Feldman once commented that he found working with patterns interesting because no one organisational procedure can be more advantageous than another, so as not to take precedence.

          Line, in relation to music, I think exists threefold – the line we hear, the line we see and the line we feel.  We see musical notation, traditionally on a set of five parallel lines and in more avant-garde graphical notation as a multitude of freer, dancing strokes. We see human led performance, activating mirror neurons in the frontal lobes, or CD players and computers analysing indentation and vibration.  We see ourselves ageing and a situation disappearing.  We feel blocks and sections, associations made and updated, or perhaps more accurately, we remember them.  We feel the space and silence, increasing awareness of our own bodies, growing with the composition.  We feel ourselves transported and moved with preferably minimal effort – a good piece of music is one which demands nothing but offers everything.  We hear the direction of the sound, its momentum, development, trickery and suspension, with or without resolution.  We hear choices made and problems solved.  We hear scale and phrase, swelling and shrinking.

          It is necessary, as an artist to be able to work spontaneously, directly and immediately, but to have pre-emptive ability, foresight and forethought I would consider to be a more desirable skill – seeing an item and linking it somewhere, to something, the flash, the concept, the attack, the note, the motif, the phrase, the section, the movement, the whole, the epic, the lifespan – requires a touch of brilliance.   Oft quoted but seldom considered is Newton’s famous self truth, in a letter to Robert Hooke – “If I have seen further, it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants”.  A version of the phrase can be traced back to the 12th century, and we should not be shocked an iota to discover it being observed at an even earlier age.  We yearn to learn and grow to know – much is owed to the lineage of people before us in any area of Art or life.

          Christian Wolff once observed that everything becomes melody eventually, which should be taken as implying a distinct lack of choice – it is an inevitable fact.  Similarly, everything can be reduced to physical, surreal, conceptual or suggestive line – as blood tunnels through veins and arteries of the body which is ageing through time on a ball of rock hurtling through space – every aspect of life and art eventually collapses to linear prominence.

          The final words you will hear me speak will be those of Paul Klee: “A drawing is simply a line going for a walk.”


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