Profile: Nik Knight, percussionist

Who or what have been the most important influences on your interest in music?

I don’t come from a musical family, but at the age of four I was discovered surrounded by tea trays and National Dried Milk tins, hitting them with spoons, and have not looked back since then. And with a father who was a vicar in Monmouth, it was not long before I got involved with singing in church.

I was much encouraged by my music teacher at Monmouth School, Michael Eveleigh. Michael brought top international artists to give recitals at Monmouth School in the 1960’s, and enabled and encouraged my singing and percussion playing in school and local community ensembles. This led on to a treble part in the Demon’s Chorus in The Dream of Gerontius at Rolls Hall in Monmouth at the age of 11, where I wondered at the power and impact of the percussion.

During my progress through Monmouth School and Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, I became involved in performing an increasing range of music, appearing with soul groups, jazz bands and symphony orchestras. I toured with the Cambridge Footlights and recorded modern church music with “Reflection.”

Once I arrived in Portsmouth in 1968, I had several opportunities to experience the legendary percussion demonstrations by James “Jimmy” Blades, a long-time associate of Benjamin Britten, with whom he conceived many of the composer’s unusual percussion effects.

A major influence on me has been Jonathan Willcocks, an inspiring conductor and composer, who always shows a full understanding of the music and command of the musicians.

Another notable influencer has been “Animal”, the frenzied drummer from The Muppets, who encouraged me to indulge in rock drumming in the style of Ginger Baker, founder of the rock band Cream. And I’ve had quite a penchant for muppet shows for my children and grandchildren over the years.

What have been the greatest challenges of your musical career?

I am very widely spread over many orchestras, mainly playing timpani. Over the past 50 years I have regularly played for the Southern Pro Musica, Havant Chamber Orchestra, Havant Symphony Orchestra, Solent Symphony Orchestra, Petersfield Orchestra, Southampton Concert Orchestra and Chichester Symphony Orchestra, plus other ensembles when time permits. My log book of concerts and works runs to 58 pages!

It’s a nice challenge to have to learn all the new works I am asked to play, and to refresh my memory of the ones I’ve already played.

I play a wide range of instruments, which include a washboard, coconuts, ratchets, maracas, claves, tam-tams, tom-toms, roto-toms, bongos, congas, cowbells, and temple blocks, besides the more familiar ones!

It sounds quite mundane, but storing my ever-increasing collection of instruments and lugging them around from one concert venue to the next can be a major challenge. I have to keep myself fit and take care not to put my back out.

What for you are the particular pleasures and challenges of collaborating with other musicians?

Since I often play the role of a fixer of percussion sections, one major challenge is getting enough players and instruments together for large-scale concerts. I often have to assemble a team of players with the appropriate skills and instruments who will work well together.

Concert days begin with assembling and checking the instruments we will need and loading them into the van. Percussionists are usually among the first players to arrive at a venue and last to leave, with plenty of time being needed to set up. Usually all goes well, although there have been instances of instruments breaking and of turning up for Verdi’s Requiem without the bass drum!

What are your most memorable concert experiences?

It’s a long list, and I am going to revert to bullets, I am afraid!

Oliver in the Kings Theatre at Southsea with both my daughters playing percussion in the band with me.
• Performing at the premières of many of Jonathan Willcocks’ compositions, including A Great and Glorious Victory, a choral work about the Battle of Trafalgar and the little-known terrible storm that followed it.
• Performing oratorios with famous singers, including Mendelssohn’s Elijah with Willard White and Brahms’ Requiem with Dame Kiri Te Kanawa.
• Playing The Messiah with some of the most renowned trumpeters, including John Brabraham, Crispian Steel-Perkins and John Wallace, and on another occasion in the Eastleigh Football stadium.
• Working in amazing buildings, including Chichester, Winchester, Guildford, Portsmouth, Worcester and St Paul’s Cathedrals.
• Doing an outside broadcast from Trafalgar Square.
• Performing The Armed Man at Kempton Park racecourse.
• Performing African Sanctus several times in the presence of the composer, David Fanshawe, especially memorable as he wanted to make modifications to the score.
Performing Strauss’ Alpine Symphony in Romsey Abbey.
• Performing Britten’s Noyes Fludde in Portsmouth Cathedral with Robert Hardy playing God in the Singing Gallery.
• Performing in the parks of Paris, including at Disneyland, with the Portsmouth Grammar School concert band.
• Playing with the Maritime Brass Ensemble for the Pied Piper of Hamelin re-enactment in Germany.
• Playing Berlioz’s Grande Messe des Morts with both my daughters on massed timpani in London in 1995 for the 60th-anniversary concert of the National Federation of Music Societies. Also, a performance in Guildford Cathedral with 13 timpani and 6 timpanists – even that is less than Berlioz specified! We didn’t manage to provide the 10 pairs of cymbals either!
• Playing for a performance of the opera Carmen with a firework display going off just outside the building.
• A BBC recording of Songs of Praise at Portsmouth Cathedral, when a moving camera hit a light fitting right over my head. Luckily it didn’t fall down.

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