Australian Art Orchestra

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Australian Art Orchestra
OriginMelbourne, Australia
GenresJazz, world, Experimental
Years active1994–present
LabelsABC Classics, AAO, Jazzhead
  • Peter Knight - artistic director
  • Erkki Veltheim
  • Vanessa Tomlinson
  • Simon Barker
  • Martin Ng
  • Andrea Keller
  • Samuel Pankhurst
  • Sandy Evans
  • Gian Slater
  • Joe Talia
  • Adrian Sherriff
  • Tony Hicks
  • Stephen Magnusson
  • Austin Buckett
  • Niko Schauble
  • Tristram Williams
  • Scott Tinkler
  • Carl Dewhurst
  • Eugene Ball
  • Jem Savage
  • Lizzy Welsh
  • Christopher Hale
  • Matthias Schack-Arnott
Past members

The Australian Art Orchestra (AAO) is one of Australia's leading contemporary ensembles. Founded by pianist Paul Grabowsky in 1994, it has been led by composer/trumpeter/sound artist Peter Knight since 2013. The Orchestra explores relationships between musical disciplines and cultures, imagining new musical concepts that reference how 21st century Australia responds to its cultural and musical history.[1]

The AAO regularly tours both in Australia and internationally.[2]


With Paul Grabowsky[edit]

The intention of the Australian Art Orchestra's work has always been to playfully explore the balance between avant-garde and traditional Jazz forms, allowing the incorporation of diverse influences to reference the importance this plays in the history of jazz.[3]

The AAO began as a contemporary jazz orchestra but early on developed distinctive cross-cultural collaborations. These included The Chennai Tapes (Into the Fire). In 1996 the Australian Art Orchestra first collaborated with one of South India's most significant musicians, mridangam virtuoso Kaaraikkudi R Mani in India.[4] In 1999 this collaboration created Into the Fire, a piece bridging Australian and Indian traditions.[5] This was released on CD in 2000 on ABC classics.[6] The association with Kaaraikkudi R Mani became a long-term project that toured all over the world, becoming a renown Australian world music collaboration.[7][8] This partnership also produced the Chennai Tapes And Two Oceans.[9] Arguably, the collaboration between Mani and AAO developed a completely original style of music, a clash between the Carnatic tradition and Western jazz.[10]

In 2004 Grabowsky began a collaboration with Ruby Hunter and Archie Roach, two musicians whose life stories inspired Ruby's Story.[11] Ruby was taken away from he family as a child, only learning of her aboriginal heritage when reading a picture-book at school about Captain Cook. She spent time living on the streets and met fellow musician Archie at a Salvation Army centre in Adelaide.[12] The compositions explore these themes and the redemption they found in each other when they met, concluding with them travelling back to Ruby's country beside the Murray to raise a family.[13] Tracks from the CD Ruby still often play on Australian radio and the album receives good reviews.[14] Ruby was the first release on the Australian Art Orchestra record label.[15]

Other cross-cultural collaborations include The Theft of Sita with musicians from Indonesia[16] premiering the piece at Melbourne Festival on 1 November 2000. Theft of Sita is a retelling of the epic Sanskrit legend The Ramayana and draws on Balinese shadow puppetry. This project toured all over the world and vastly increased the AAO's following.[17] Crossing Roper Bar was created with musicians from Arnhem Land from 2005.[18][19] This linking of jazz traditions with such a venerable ancient culture was considered revolutionary.[20] A recording was made in Alan Eaton Studio, St Kilda in 2009, during a Melbourne residency,[21] following many live performances of the piece. There was an official tour featuring Benjamin Wilfred and the Young Wagilak Group in 2010, when the CD was released on the AAO label. The goal of the project was to inspire a wider audience to look into the traditions of their ancestors, the original people of Australia in the hope of inspiring respectful engagement.[22]

In 1997 the AAO drew inspiration from J.S. Bach's St Matthew Passion. Originally, five Australian Art Orchestra composers, Doug de Vries, Paul Grabowsky, John Rodgers, Niko Schauble and Alister Spence, were tasked to interpret five movements from the Bach original. Their compositions reimagined Bach's work rather than adapted it.[23] Passion continues to progress and evolve for the AAO. Orchestra collaborators Ruby Hunter and Archie Roach were commissioned by the 2005 Festival de Mexico Centro Historico to compose and perform three love songs to add to the Passion composition.[24] Another movement was commissioned in 2014 by Soundstreams in Toronto who asked Nicole Lizée to expand the piece with her own interpretation for Passion's Canadian premiere with a work called Hymns to Pareidolia.[25]

The piece Testimony composed by Sandy Evans in 1995, was successfully transformed into a stage show by The Australian Art Orchestra in 2002. The composition is about the life of Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker and follows an epic poem by Pulitzer Prize winner Yusef Komunyakaa.[26] The Australian Art Orchestra record label was founded in 2008.

With Peter Knight[edit]

Since Grabowsky's departure the Australian Art Orchestra has developed an even more contemporary style under Peter Knight's direction. Knight has instigated collaborations with international composers, including iconic American composer Alvin Lucier,[27] Canadian composer Nicole Lizée[28][29] and Japanese composer Keiichiro Shibuya.[30] The development of the Orchestra's collaborations with Australian indigenous musicians, and musicians from Asia has continued under Knight's direction receiving critical acclaim.[31]

The Australian Art Orchestra has also drawn significant praise for its ground breaking Creative Music Intensive program which brings musicians from around the world together in Tarraleah, in the Tasmanian Central Highlands, to share ideas about collaborating musically across cultures.[32] This program was initiated by Peter Knight in 2014 and its first iteration was in Cairns.[33]

In 2016 the Creative Music Intensive was nominated for the AMC Art Music Award for Excellence in Music Education. In the same year the AAO premiered Peter Knight's, Diomira, which was also nominated for an AMC Art Music Award for Instrumental Work of the Year.[34] The piece went on to win the 2016 Albert H. Maggs Composition Award.[35] In 2017 Diomira was extended to a full length concert work with video by artist, Scott Morrison, and premiered as part of the Melbourne Festival.[36]

Water Pushes Sand merged Jazz and Sichuan folk music styles and featured Zheng Sheng Li, a Sichuan ‘face changing’ dancer along with four other musicians from Cheng Du in Sichuan, and five AAO musicians.[37] Composer Erik Griswold and percussionist Vanessa Tomlinson (together known as Clocked Out) spent 15 years researching Sichuan's music and culture before this work was created.

The world premiere of Water Pushes Sand was at OzAsia Festival in 2015. A full house show at Arts Centre Melbourne as a part of Melbourne Festival 2015 followed.[38]

The CD, released in 2016 was nominated for ‘2016 Jazz Work of the Year’ at the APRA/AMC Art Music Awards and an ARIA Award for Jazz Work of the Year,[39] receiving positive reviews in the media.[40][41] In 2017 Water Pushes Sand toured Australia including Darwin Festival.[42]

Notable performances[edit]


  • Water Pushes Sand Darwin Festival[43]
  • Diomira by Peter Knight, Melbourne Festival[44]
  • OzAsia 'Meeting Points' including works by Keiichiro Shibuya (Japan), Mindy Meng Wang (China), Daniel Wilfred (Arnhem Land) and Bael Il Dong (Korea).[45]
  • Sydney Festival, Sex, Lynch, and Video Games. The screen works of Nicole Lizée (Canada), featuring Nicole Lizée[46]


  • Sydney Festival, Exit Ceremonies new works for pipe organ and mixed ensemble with Ensemble Offspring featuring new work by Austin Buckett commissioned by AAO[47]
  • Melbourne Town Hall Exit Ceremonies featuring new work by Alvin Lucier commissioned by AAO[48]
  • Metropolis New Music Festival opening concert featuring Nicole Lizée including new works from Lizée and Peter Knight commissioned by AAO[49]


  • MONA FOMA (Tasmania) Performances of Crossing Roper Bar[50]
  • Jazzahead Bremen (Germany). Market showcase of Crossing Roper Bar[51]
  • Chengdu China. Creative development and concerts for Water Pushes Sand[52]
  • OzAsia Festival. Water Pushes Sand world premiere[53]
  • Melbourne Festival performances and album recording Water Pushes Sand[54]
  • Wangaratta Jazz Festival with Dave Douglas and Monash Art Ensemble[55]


  • Toronto Soundstreams. Performance of Passion, and world premiere performance of new work by Nicole Lizée (Montreal) commissioned by Soundstreams[56]
  • Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts performances of Crossing Roper Bar[51]
  • Melbourne Recital Centre. World premiere of new work by Brett Thompson, Atlas, Herbal and Ritual commissioned by AAO[57]
  • Malthouse Theatre 20Up 20th Anniversary Concert featuring works from AAO 20-year history plus world premiere of new work by Austin Buckett, Virtuoso Pause, commissioned by AAO. Live broadcast ABC Classic FM[58]


  • In April the AAO performed Passion at Elisabeth Murdoch Hall, Melbourne Recital Centre, Melbourne[59]
  • In March the AAO performed Ringing the Bell Backwards at Elisabeth Murdoch Hall, Melbourne Recital Centre to correspond with the release of a remastered recording of this piece[60]
  • In August the AAO performed Ruby’s Story at the Civic Centre, Wagga Wagga, NSW
  • Also in August the AAO and the Young Wagilak Group performed Crossing Roper Bar at Elisabeth Murdoch Hall, Melbourne Recital Centre
  • On September 22 the AAO and the Young Wagilak Group performed Crossing Roper Bar at the APRA Classical Music Awards as winners of the 2009 Outstanding Contribution to Australian Music in a Regional Area Award at the Playhouse Theatre, Sydney[61]
  • In October the AAO and The Sruthi Laya Ensemble featuring Karaaikkudi Mani performed Into The Fire on a tour of Australia, which played at two major concerts, in Melbourne at the Recital Centre followed by special VIP functions at both the Melbourne Recital Centre and the National Gallery of Victoria; and in Brisbane, Griffith University Recital Hall. This was followed by a five-day residency at Griffith University in Queensland, marking the release of The Chennai Sessions CD[62]
  • Also in October the AAO and special guests Marc Hannaford and Ken Eadie performed Scott Tinkler's Folk at Wangaratta Jazz Festival, Wangaratta Performing Arts Centre[63]


  • Artshouse, North Melbourne Town Hall, Performance of Passion[64]


  • Castlemaine State Festival, Performance of Passion[65]


  • Festival de Mexico Centro Historico, Mexico, Performance of Passion[66]


  • Sydney Festival, Sydney Opera House, Performance of Passion[67]


  • Melbourne Town Hall, Melbourne, Performance of Passion


  • Adelaide Festival of the Arts, Adelaide[68]


  • Methodist Ladies College Music Auditorium, Melbourne[69]


  • 2017 - ARIA Award, Water Pushes Sand nominated for Best Jazz Release[39]
  • 2017 - AMC/APRA two Art Music Award nominations for Instrumental Work of the Year[70]
  • 2016 – Albert H Maggs Composition Prize awarded to Peter Knight for Diomira[35]
  • 2016 – AMC/APRA Art Music Award nomination for Excellence in Music Education
  • 2016 - AMC/APRA Art Music Award nomination for Jazz Work of the Year[34]
  • 2014 - AMC/APRA Art Music Award for Excellence by an Organisation,[71]
  • 2013 - AMC/APRA Art Music Award Performance of the Year[72]
  • 2011 - Australian Jazz Bell Award for Jazz Ensemble of the Year[73]
  • 2010 - Sidney Myer Performing Arts Awards (Group Award),[74]
  • 2010 - the H C Coombs Creative Arts Fellowship[75]
  • 2009 - Classical Music award for ‘Outstanding Contribution to Australian Music in a Regional Area’[76]
  • 2005 - Helpmann Award ([77]
  • 2003 - Australian Jazz Bell Award for Jazz Ensemble of the Year[73]


Artist Album Label Year
Australian Art Orchestra, Paul Grabowsky Ringing The Bell Backwards ABC Classics 1996
Australian Art Orchestra, Paul Grabowsky Passion ABC Classics 1999
Australian Art Orchestra, Sruthi Laya Ensemble Into The Fire ABC Classics 2000
Australian Art Orchestra Sita ABC Classics 2000
Archie Roach, Ruby Hunter, Paul Grabowsky, Australian Art Orchestra Ruby AAO 2005
Australian Art Orchestra Ringing The Bell Backwards AAO 2008
Australian Art Orchestra & Guru Kaaraikkudi Mani The Chennai Sessions (Into The Fire) AAO 2009
Australian Art Orchestra Crossing Roper Bar AAO 2010
Australian Art Orchestra Crossing Roper Bar, vol. 2: The Ghost Dances AAO 2014
Australian Art Orchestra, Erik Griswold and master musicians from Sichuan Water Pushes Sand Jazzhead 2017

See also[edit]


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  2. ^ "Schedule". Australian Art Orchestra. Retrieved 19 January 2018.
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  5. ^ Sounds Australian: Australian Music Centre Journal. The Centre. 2000.
  6. ^ Mani, Karaikudi R; Grabowsky, Paul; Sherriff, Adrian; Rodgers, Moras, John; Schäuble, Niko. Ferryman; Orchestra, Australian Art; Ensemble, Sruthi Laya (2000). "Into the fire". Sydney, NSW : ABC. Retrieved 28 January 2018.
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External links[edit]