An Interview With Cellist and Composer Rob Knaggs
Rob Knaggs is an Australian cellist and composer who lives in Churchill, Manitoba. He creates music that combines his cello playing with electronic looping effects to produce haunting music. He has played his music for beluga whales in a unique interaction that went viral on social media. I talked to him about the genesis of his musical passion, his creative process and how he recharges himself creatively.
Interview With Rob Knaggs
Karl Magi: What was the genesis of your passion for music?
Rob Knaggs: Music was a pretty big part of my childhood. My mom and dad would always be playing a plethora of records. They’d play everything from English punk to Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young. I was about nine years old when my primary school presented me with a bunch of instruments to try and see if there was anything I liked. I picked up the violin, but I found it too screechy and harsh on my ears. When they gave me a cello, it was like, “Hey! This is kind of cool. I’ll give this a go!” I ended up playing in the primary school orchestra for four years. When I went into high school, I had to make a decision between sport or music. It goes without saying that I’m pretty glad I chose music.
KM: What was the path you followed to arrive at your current musical career?
RK: When I finished high school, I didn’t have anything else that I wanted to do except pursue a path in music. I went to Queensland University of Technology and did a batchelor’s degree in music there. I studied performance and composition for that degree. I would have to commute past the Queensland Museum and at the Queensland Museum we have this large hall and up at the top of it are these two replica humpback whales. I thought it would be cool to play around with delays and reverbs in this hall, so I took my cello and I started playing. I wondered if I could actually replicate a whale sound. It was awesome to have these kids running past and hearing these whale sounds. It was really cool to see people getting in touch with that sort of natural aspect of sound.
When it came to the question of what it would be like to play for real whales. I was never going to be the first person to play for whales. There was this guy called David Rothenberg who was playing for whales in Hawai’i back in the early 2000s. One thing led to another and I was backpacking across Scandinavia, Europe and eventually North America. It was that trip that led me to where I am today in Churchill, Manitoba.
I’ve spent a couple of seasons here in Churchill where I get to see polar bears and other wildlife. I was completely blown away by the beluga whales we get in the Churchill River in the summer, so I thought it was my chance to play for whales. I saved up enough money to buy an electric cello and an amplifier that I could take out onto a Zodiac boat.
I go out on the boat and, as I start tuning up, these belugas just start rushing in to listen to this music and it was insane. I ended up buying a hydrophone too, so I could put it in the water and listen to what these belugas were actually vocalizing and try to replicate what they were doing.
KM: Talk about your approach to making music.
RK: When I was a teenager, I played guitar and bass in really crappy rock bands in high school. After that, I ended up with a bunch of equipment and effects pedals. I didn’t have a band any more, but I decided to see what I could do by myself. I had a cello with a pickup and I started plugging it into this effects station. The station also had a looping function that I could interchange between. I was able to create these large soundscapes just by myself which was great.
I left for this backpacking adventure just as I was getting into that stuff, so I wasn’t able to play cello for a few years which was tough. Fast forward to 2015, I had a cello again and I was starting to write music that I could play for whales. What ended up happening was that I was able to record this new EP which was my tribute to Churchill MB when I was back in Australia. I recorded my own version of the four seasons for Churchill.
KM: Tell me more about your creative process.
RK: Usually it just comes from me practicing, so I’ll be practicing other material and I’ll just leave a loop going and build on that and it can turn into an entirely different song. I’m currently working on a new EP at the moment and I’ve transformed a couple of songs. It’s a slow process but we’ll see how it goes.
KM: Who are some of the people who have influenced you musically?
RK: I’m influenced by Sigur Rós, Arcade Fire and other big instrumental bands who are doing something really crazy and massive sonically. More and more I’m looking into people who are doing looping stuff with string instruments especially in Canada. You’ve got Hannah Epperson and Owen Pallett who are doing some amazing violin and vocal looping stuff. I’ve wondered about incorporating vocals into my own music, I’ve got a track I’m playing with at the moment that’d be rad with some throat singing. I’m really into hardcore and metal, there’s something incredibly raw and intense about the vocal styles that’d be cool to contrast against my celloscapes.
KM: Tell me about your plans for the immediate future in terms of your career.
RK:I’m going to have to return to Australia at the end of the year which brings its own challenges as I’m applying for permanent residency to stay here in Canada. Having to return to Australia’s really not that bad, I’ll get to tour my music there at a couple of different festivals and see some old friends. I’ll hopefully be returning to Canada in the winter after that. I’ll need to stay in one place long enough to get a band together at some point.
KM: How do you recharge your creative batteries?
RK: I love being out in nature. I love going out kayaking and just taking in fresh air. I also really enjoying cooking. If I start doing something else, I often unintentionally start thinking about music.