CD, Digital
Adrian Knight Music
Total Time


01    Obsessions


R. Andrew Lee
David McIntire
executive producer
Michelle Allen McIntire
executive producer
Kent Swafford     
piano technician
Robert Beck
Eric Honour
Scott Unrein
William Robin
liner notes

Recorded July 2015, on the Richard Cass Memorial Steinway in White Hall at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

Special thanks to: Carrie Lee, Michelle Allen McIntire, Kent Swafford, William Robin, Scott Unrein, Eric Honour, Robert Beck, and Peter Witte.

Thanks also to those who contributed generously to the commissioning of this music: Tad Kline, Mark Movic, Musikens Hus Vänner, and The Society of Swedish Composers.


Eclecticism often suggests a grab bag: the frenetic postmodernism of John Zorn, the symphonic collages of Gustav Mahler. But the music of Adrian Knight instead exhibits two seemingly distinct, fully formed, and intriguing artistic personalities. There is the composer of still and beautiful piano works such as “Abide With Me,” which unfolds dreamily in the manner of Harold Budd, and long-form experiments with sine tones, like the transfixing “Världens Undergång.” And then there is, inexplicably, the cryptic songwriter and lead singer of garish nightlife bands, saturated with the supersonic glitter of 1980s New Wave. Though Knight’s “Obsessions”—a placid, repetitive, and ultimately haunting work for solo piano—initially resembles the former in sound, it is also saturated with the strange and violent spirit of the latter.

“Obsessions” is both absorbing and self-absorbed, its serenity betraying a darker impulse. “All my life I’ve struggled with bad habits, routines, patterns, obsessions,” Knight writes in a program note. “Whether a form of mild self-flagellation or a mindless desire for normalcy and structure, they rule my life…If the piece is about anything, it is about me, and it is about itself. It’s stuck in its own stupid routine. The fact that it ends is its only victory.” Even as Knight calls it a “stupid routine,” the music enchants more than it frustrates. In several extended sections, the composer develops on the phrases that open the piece, a sunken cathedral of rippling chords that alternate with silence. A couple minutes in, he unveils a “lamentation” motif: a drooping of two chords, punctured by rests, which he calls “the main obsession of the piece.” The music is developmental but never quite fully develops; it is a theme and variations, or perhaps a rondo, but cast as a kind of unhealthy fixation on a set of musical materials rather than an unfolding narrative.

When we met at a coffee shop in downtown Manhattan on a rainy day last December, Knight outlined his artistic biography. Born in Uppsala, Sweden, he began piano at age six but first absorbed music entirely by ear—including figuring out how to play Chopin waltzes by listening to his teacher—until his father bribed him with $50 to learn how to read notation. As soon as he could read music, he wanted to compose. He was the kind of teenager who gave a class presentation on the otherworldly music of Olivier Messiaen to a cohort of utterly perplexed eighth graders. He had no direct relationship to the new-music world and so he wrote letters to well-known composers, hoping to discover how one might join their ranks. At college in Stockholm, still influenced by Messiaen, he wrote in a densely gestural musical language, and soon concluded he was following the wrong path. “I realized that I had been not true to myself,” Knight told me. “I started from scratch and started writing in a more drone-inspired style, mostly diatonic but punctured here and there by dissonances and unresolved tensions. That’s when I felt like I was starting to get comfortable with an aesthetic.”

Knight has crystallized that approach over the past few years—while he attended Yale, launched the record label Pink Pamphlet, and continued to pursue his beguiling side career in lipstick-smeared pop projects such as “Pictures of Lindsey”—though “Obsessions” also points towards other horizons. He called it “a summary of a bunch of different directions that I’ve been trying out, what I like to think of as a harmonic labyrinth. There’s an equal-weightedness to each harmony, there’s a kind of push and pull that happens. I’m curious about chords that could go a number of different ways, and have a number of different types of functionality.”

Knight’s typical compositional approach is reminiscent of the self-critical Brahms, who burned many of his sketches and early compositions. He usually drafts a piece for several months, then throws it in the trash and starts all over again. “At that point it’s a little easier to work because I’ve made all these mistakes,” he said. But given the massive scope of “Obsessions,” there just wasn’t enough time to write a bad copy, scrap it, and begin anew. “I’m surprised that it came together at all,” Knight observed. “At some point it was impossible to backtrack, just start over…it wouldn’t be ready for another five years.”

“I let things be where they felt comfortable,” he said, describing the piece as “almost like a diary of routines.”

Indeed, the manic nature of the music was partially a result of its arduous compositional process. “It’s this thing that keeps coming back but it’s not really wanted,” he added. “It’s not needed; it’s an unnecessary element. You are not able to get rid of it. I guess the change happened because I got sick of it and I wanted to change it, but it still needed to be in there.” Material is dwelled upon, discarded, and returns; the music lilts, waltzes, rumbles, flows. “Obsessions” breathes the spirit of Knight’s compositional touchstones, including Feldman, Messiaen, and Tavener, in what he called “a gallery of influences.”

We wonder at what the embers of Brahms’s sketches might have revealed; perhaps his first attempts were more self-expressive, more directly emotional, than the cool rigor of his published compositions. (After all, he also burned his letters to Clara Schumann.) “Obsessions” is at once abstract and deeply felt. The compulsive repetitions of the music sound, at times, less peaceful than indignant, irritated, regretful. As Knight remarked, “It’s probably my most personal piece, because, like life, its trajectory wasn’t predetermined. All I knew was that it would have to end.”

—William Robin


‹‹ Musicworks (Nick Storring) ››

The last decade has seen an increase in long, single-movement repertoire for the piano, much of which has been the vehicle for inventive and introspective compositional voices. Adrian Knight’s quietly eccentric “Obsessions” is a potent addition to this microcanon. Within its first few moments, it clearly establishes the confines of an enigmatic but irrefutable listening space, sitting squarely on the border between meditative, quasi-ecclesiastical serenity, and single-minded obstinacy. Numerous piano works throughout history have reflected an affinity toward bells. Yet the opacity of Knight’s harmonies and stringency of the work’s limited gestural vocabulary do more than merely suggest clangorous tolling. Instead, it’s as though they directly embody these sonorities in a sort of acoustic variant of additive synthesis. There’s little in the way of overt variation over the work’s forty-eight-minute course, yet the patterning of its dense and constant chords is not readily apparent either. Shifts of registral focus on the piano are the most readily identifiable changes, but Lee never imbues them with any superfluous import. Accordingly, unlike other minimal, extended-duration works for the piano, “Obsessions”’ persistence doesn’t invite the listener to savour single musical utterances. Its deliberate flow generates a strange ceaseless suspension-momentum that elides individuated moments. Seemingly just as the listener manages to acclimatize to its gentle relentlessness, it halts suddenly. Over the past few years pianist R. Andrew Lee has displayed commendable commitment to works of an intensive, focussed nature. The present performance showcases exactly that: a core of careful, objective listening, tempered by just enough of warmth to reveal the work’s latent sweetness and intimacy.

‹‹ Touching Extremes (Massimo Ricci) ››

I have always believed that sitting in front of a piano to deliberately investigate chordal combinations, repetitions and resonances might constitute one of the most effective therapies for people in search of some measure of order. In his notes to Obsessions, Adrian Knight writes “All my life I’ve struggled with bad habits, routines, patterns, obsessions. Whether a form of mild self-flagellation or a mindless desire for normalcy and structure, they rule my life”. Reading this doesn’t come as a surprise. I just knew – since the beginning of my initial encounter with the piece – that this was a classic case of “same wavelength” defining listening experiences which, in turn, provide crucial answers. Or confirmations. Therefore, this reviewer’s best compliment for the album is that this music resembles, very closely, the things that he himself would attempt to play when facing the dangers of extreme introversion. Mental composure attained through the superimpositions of varying pitch gradations, silence used exclusively as the container of those wonderfully reverberating chord tails.

Pianist R. Andrew Lee specializes in intimate renditions of scores penned by artists who have placed the instrument at the centre of their visions. His interpretation of the small variations, reiterative fragments, sudden ruptures and profound clusters conceived by Knight is impeccable; we can literally visualize the connection between hands gifted with the certitude of foreknowledge and a mind that, gradually soothed by the frequencies, little by little becomes one with the sonic tide. There are several passages – around the 22th and 38th minute, for example, and the very finale – where the sense of unspeakable truth is almost unbearable; a place where gracefulness is achingly sorrowful, lingering memories from the past arranging themselves in accordance with new interior laws. The emotional aura irradiated by this work is comparable to earlier milestones such as, say, Gavin Bryars’ Hommages; these are the heights we’re talking about. To both composer and performer I’d leave this direct message: no matter if you ultimately managed to achieve an individual aim; the truly important result of your efforts is having furnished essential lighting to roads that were at risk of remaining in darkness, thus out of sight for someone who may need them.

For this, we all should be grateful.

‹‹ Nutida Musik (Per Magnusson) ››

Skivan består av ett enda långt stycke för solopiano. 47 minuter och 39 sekunder av repetitiva klanger med små förändringar. I olika gestaltningar presenteras ett antal små gester med efterföljande paus. Gesterna är som snabba ackord och är oftast tre till antalet men varierar ibland från två till fyra. Ibland hör och tolkar jag det som snabba efterföljande ackord, ibland som ett par överlagrade melodiska fragment med parallella stämmor. Insatserna andas med varierande återhämtning. Det är olika taktarter som gör pauserna mellan ansatserna oregelbundna, ojämna och inte alltid förutsägbara. Jag vaggas ofta in i ett mönster som bryts eller ruckas på lagom till att jag börjar vänja mig och förstå strukturen. Det är genomgående väldigt mycket högerpedal och det blir alltså aldrig riktigt någon tystnad i stycket. I lugna partier med längre återhämtning får detta mig att egentligen mer lyssna på soundet av pianots efterklang. I de glesa partierna är det som att jag efter varje klang sakta sugs in i flygeln; efter själva anslagets attack så tonas pianots inneboende orgel in. När attacken som definierar själva pianos karaktär försvinner hörs instrumentets specifika kropp och resonans. Ibland framhävs enskilda toner i klangerna, kanske omedvetet av musikern eller så spelar mina öron mig ett spratt och förleder mitt fokus. Kanske letar jag tydligare melodier och upplösningar. Ibland fastnar min uppmärksamhet i ett enskilt, specifikt register, ibland på samspelet mellan olika linjer. Varje gång jag lyssnar på stycket så lyssnar jag helt annorlunda och kan på så sätt inte riktigt tröttna eller bli uttråkad. Visserligen blir jag emellanåt nervös av att det inte verkar hända så mycket på makronivå. Detta kräver i sin tur att mitt fokus istället läggs på mikroskopisk nivå. Jag tvingas in i ett närvarande, ett lyssnande efter de små detaljerna, efter de små förändringarna i harmonik och klangfärg. Jag får ofta känslan av att jag befinner mig i ett slags ständigt permuterat förlopp, där klangernas ordning ständigt ändrar placering, prövas i ny följd, blandas om, som om alla möjligheter skall utforskas. Varje klang kan få så många olika upplösningar. Jag tappar ofta orienteringen en smula och försvinner bort, sköljs med, distraheras från min analys. Tappar räkningen. Tänker på anagram och på funktionsanalys, och om det ens är intressant i detta stycket. Jag föreställer mig istället mörka blåa klanger, möjligen undermedvetet färgat av att det är omslagets faktiska färg. Jag får en tydlig bild av någon gammal animerad kortfilm med natthimmel, moln och sakta, virvlande, mörkt vatten som flyter fram. Harmoniken är sammanhängande och enhetlig. Messiaen och Feldman leker kurragömma bland pianosträngarna. Det är skimrande, vemodigt och vackert. Men det är något skevt med tempot i vissa delar; som att det är aningen snabbt. Första genomlyssningen blev jag stressad och en smula irriterad, fick en stark impuls att skruva ned hastigheten för att få längre mellanrum mellan klangerna...att det skulle hinna andas. Men Obsessions är musik som tål eller kanske till och med kräver fler genomlyssningar. Redan andra gången så har jag en helt annan ingång och stämning. Jag tänker på andra aspekter av musiken och har inte längre fokus på flödet. Flödet känns istället mer organiskt nu och jag är bekväm och avslappnad.

Knight berättar att titeln alluderar till en egen kamp med dåliga vanor, rutiner, mönster och besattheter. Att stycket, om det handlar om något, handlar om honom och kanske om stycket självt. Kampen kommer sig av att fastna i gamla vanor och processer med något återkommande som kanske inte alltid ar välkommet; ett onödigt element som inte går att frigöra sig från. Han tröttnade på sitt material som ändå behövde förvaras och bli kvar trots viljan till förändring. Stycket blev til slut som en dagbok. “I left things to be where they felt comfortable”. Han avslutar texten på skivans insida med att berätta att Obsessions troligen är ett av hans mest personliga stycken, då dess utstakade bana, precis som livet, inte var förutbestämd. “All I knew was that it would have to end.”

‹‹ Inactuelles ››

Né en 1987 à Uppsala en Suède, Adrian Knight est un compositeur et multi-instrumentistes, membre du groupe pop Blue Jazz TV, du duo ambiant Private Elevators et d'un collectif de jazz expérimental, Synthetic Love Dream Ensemble. Après des études musicales à Stockholm, il vient à la Yale School of Music où il suit l'enseignement... de David Lang (et de quelques autres) ! Pas étonnant, en somme, de le retrouver dans ces colonnes : il devaitfinir par arriver jusqu'à mes oreilles, quitte à modifier mon assez récent classement des disques de 2016, comme quoi se presser ne mène à rien, sinon à manquer l'essentiel ! Je ne connais pour l'instant rien d'autre dans son assez abondante production.

Obsessions est une œuvre d'un peu plus de quarante sept minutes pour piano solo. Adrian Knight en dit ceci : « Toute ma vie je me suis battu contre de mauvaises habitudes, des routines, des motifs (modèles), des obsessions. (...) Que ce soit une forme de douce auto-flagellation ou un désir idiot de normalité ou de structure, ils règnent sur ma vie...Si la pièce est sur quoi que ce soit, c'est sur moi, et c'est sur elle-même, elle colle à sa propre stupide routine. Le fait qu'elle se termine est sa seule victoire. » Ailleurs il ajoute : « Je laisse les choses être où elles se sentent à l'aise. » Pour lui, la pièce est « presque comme un journal intime de routines. »

Pour l'auditeur, la musique est tranquille, introspective, d'une sérénité un peu sombre. Elle se développe volontiers à partir de brefs accords plaqués, se répondant à un octave d'intervalle, se perdant en méandres répétitifs troués de silences tapissés d'harmoniques. Deux accords, entendus la première fois à 2'19, constitueront le motif obsessionnel autour duquel s'enroule toute cette longue promenade intérieure. Thème et variation, en un sens, mais non pour construire des développements complets, plutôt pour ouvrir des chemins, des parallèles, des clairières dans le labyrinthe qui s'agrandit peu à peu, dont on pressent qu'il serait possible de ne plus jamais en sortir, tant les sortilèges se multiplient, tant l'appel de l'obsession nous charme et nous retient, nous captive. Nous ne cessons plus de l'attendre, de l'entendre déguisé dans des accords qui sont comme ses frères ou ses sœurs dans le jardin harmonique. Aussi oublions-nous les propos du compositeur, l'espèce de compulsion un peu désabusée qui serait à la base de la composition. Nous errons dans le jardin, nous jouons à cache-cache avec les obsessions, et nous sommes ravis. Ce jardin est magique, enchanté par le retour du même qui n'est plus tout à fait le même, un peu comme si nous étions dans un film d'Alain Resnais, L'Année dernière à Marienbad, ou Je t'aime Je t'aime. Les deux amants se cherchent dans le dédale du temps, se retrouvent et se perdent. N'entend-on pas à un moment les battements réguliers d'une grave horloge ? Il est urgent de ne pas en sortir, de replonger encore dans les allées bordées de miroirs. Le temps ne passe plus, il se ramifie, se densifie, débouche soudain sur des failles sombres, bifurque. Comment ne pas penser fugitivement à la nouvelle Le Jardin aux sentiers qui bifurquent (in Fictions) de Jorge Luis Borges ? Par moments, on heurte des bosquets de notes raides, des grappes semblent se moquer avant de disparaître, on s'était égaré, mais voici que les accords obsédants reviennent déguisés, se pressent autour de nous en boucles brillantes, tout se suspend, des arpèges espiègles se fondent dans le silence. Le jardin nous semble soudain inconnu, autre. Ce n'était qu'un leurre amené par une succession de métamorphoses. Nous sentons qu'Elle est là, quelque part derrière ces remparts. Elle ? La grâce ancienne et éternelle, la Nostalgie au cœur profond des apparences, celle qui donne sens et forme à l'informe, vers qui la composition semble se diriger dans les neuf dernières minutes, si poignantes, pour une fois une ligne tenue, qui avance, pas à pas, avec retenue, une certaine solennité, le terrain monte-t-il ou descend-il, on ne sait plus. Plus de feintes, de détours, une vraie humilité, un dépouillement dans la marée d'harmoniques qui monte dirait-on, avant de s'arrêter au seuil du Silence.

Sublime ! Je refais mon classement de 2016 pour placer ce disque à la place qu'il mérite, la première !!!

Comme d'habitude, magistrale interprétation de R. Andrew Lee.

Copyright © by Adrian Knight 2023.