Michael Knopf left his hometown of Newton some years ago but returns this week to the delight of music lovers in and around his hometown. He’ll first perform at the Carriage Factory Art Gallery on Thursday, March 16. On Sunday, March 19, the Newton Mid-Kansas Symphony Orchestra will celebrate the Kansas premiere of Knopf’s piece “The Reef.”
Knopf, noted for his incorporation of a wide range of music idioms in his own music, sounds as natural in the worlds of rock and jazz as he does in classical or with the indigenous music of Persia or sounds from other corners of the world caught up with the 7-string guitarist recently as he made his way back to Newton from his current home in Australia.
Jedd Beaudoin: When did you first come across the seven-string guitar and what possibilities did it open up for you once you started playing it?
Michael Knopf: I had an 8-string Ramirez some 17 years ago and had sold it. When it came time for a new guitar, I had luthier Allan Bull make a 7-string as I needed only one extra bass string for the sound I was after. The advantage is, of course, as a pedal note to improvise over and it allowed me to also play lower notes for bass lines when playing jazz. It really adds a level of sonority to the instrument, which I relish. I never looked back. I played the Villa Lobos guitar concerto with a regional symphony in 2005 as one of the first performances with the guitar, and it was so apt for that work as well.
Most musicians draw upon a variety of styles and genres for their repertoire, yet the confluence of styles and sounds heard in your work retains a specific character.
In my music, I consciously drew specific musical traits from other styles and genres so, by nature, my cross-style approach is a little more considered than most. I started as rock and blues musician in Newton around 1965, playing youth centers and some high school gigs with the band I had with my brother Mark and bassist friends.
We played music by Cream, Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, Steppenwolf, B.B. King, Yes, Uriah Heep and many others. A lot of the Blues influence in many of those bands and progressive rock appealed more to me than just feel good rock ‘n’ roll. In high school, I discovered jazz thanks to Gary Fletcher who conducted the big band at high school. He loaned me an LP of Wes Montgomery on guitar. Changed my direction.
Newton High Stage Band played in the first three Wichita Jazz Festivals, and that is where I found my passion for the art form. I went to university to get serious in playing and composing first at Bethel then WSU studying guitar with Jerry Hahn. I also had taught myself classical and flamenco forms and technique after hearing Sila Godoy play at Bethel. Later, in Australia, I became interested in Persian music and was composing using a variety of contemporary art strategies. So now, when I play I intuitively use techniques and sounds that I picked up from years of study and application.
You’re a noted science enthusiast. I find that interesting because, although it’s falling away (I hope), there remains a divide between art and science. How do you see the disciplines of, say, astronomy, etc. working in concert with music and other arts?
There are many artists who consciously use science as a source for concept or inspiration. I have been more attracted to cosmology and astronomy and have found musical directions for a few compositions from science. I did not go down the path of serial music where much is mathematically calculated. My music is mostly organic in that it evolves from creative impulses rather than sets of logic and principles. I must say that science is the area where we can know things with clear steps and implications, and this instills its own awe at the world and ourselves. It is a contradiction in myself where music for me is often about the inexplicable and the unexplained. Though my mental approach is often explanatory when studying or composing music, the outcome seems to have something more than can be pinned down.
You are originally from Kansas but moved to Australia some time ago. But it’s been said that there’s something about the people of Kansas, a certain temperament and belief system that never quite shakes. What did you take from here to Australia?
This is the hardest question! I think, however, that I developed an aesthetic from enjoying living close to the country in a small town. I recall climbing a neighbor's tree just up the street so I could watch the sunsets Kansas is famous for. Walks down to Sand Creek through Harvey County Park contributed to this. The infrastructure for music education was good: I saw many famous jazz musicians in Newton and Wichita through federal funded touring programs. This was valuable to my developmental years.
To come home and perform solo and then with the Mid-Symphony must stir up some emotions. How, do you think, performing for this audience might differ from some of the others you’ve played before?
I’ve been out of touch for decades with only a casual trip or post through Facebook. This is something I’ll discover at the events. When I left, I was only known mostly as a rock guitarist, and now I’ve been in jazz and composing contemporary art music for many years, so it’ll be interesting playing for and re-meeting so many people from almost 40 years ago! Friendships were easy in those days, especially in music. The Newton Mid-Kansas Symphony Orchestra is playing a piece that was premiered in Queensland 27 years ago to the day, and this is significant to me as it seems to tie two worlds together somehow: living in an agricultural area for 23 years, then in a sea embraced and rainforest covered area thousands of kilometers (okay, miles) away. How can one be the same person? I have fond memories of both. But my parents and family and my first musical exposures were 10th street, and that’s where I first learned who I might be.
Jedd Beaudoin is the host of Strange Currency. Follow him on Twitter @JeddBeaudoin.
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