This aesthetic diversity is informed by early immersion in music, with an introduction to sound as medium via the piano. His early childhood was spent at his grandmother’s home in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where she taught private piano lessons full time. From ages two to six, his ears were filled by the sound of classic repertoire, from Bach to Brahms. Despite her schedule, she found time to start young Edward performing music early on, devising pieces for song flute in which he would have 1 or 2 notes, cueing him to come in. While recounting these experiences, Knight recognized that, “even from that early age, I was used to playing with people and having fun with [music]. With me, it was an enjoyable thing from the start.”
He eventually did study the piano, an activity he continued throughout high school. The instrument that eventually brought him immediate success, however, was the trumpet. Knight was every band director’s dream student, exhibiting an extraordinary natural ability from his first notes. “The music teachers would call their colleagues in and say, ‘you gotta hear this!’.”
As he continued on, Knight became further immersed in music, participating in various school ensembles, as many as 6 or 7 at once. In high school, these ranged from concert and “pep” bands, to jazz big bands and “fusion” ensembles (this being the 1970’s). Also during high school, his excellence on trumpet led to 4 years of private instruction in the Prepatory Division of the University of Michigan’s Ann Arbor campus.
Jazz improvisation was an integral element to Knight’s music training. With “fabulous” instruction in this area from his junior high onward, he had found a galvanizing outlet for his precocious abilities. This led to his first attempts at “composition” in high school, creating arrangements for his ensembles. “I was really into working out solos at home. So that led to taking it a step further and writing for all the other instruments.” Much of this work was not successful, but it planted the seeds for the future study of composition.
Knight also cites his involvement with the Michigan-based performance organization Musical Youth International as “one of the most important musical experiences” during these formative years. MYI brought large numbers of primarily Midwestern music students on elaborate tours overseas, featuring a wind ensemble, jazz band, and chorus. Knight was involved in all three, the first time as its youngest member at age thirteen.
MYI placed Knight in extremely high-level musical outfits, while also introducing him to the larger world in a relatively independent atmosphere. “I saw most of Europe by age 16,” Knight said. While touring with MYI, he visited Russia, Scandinavia, the British Isles, and many major cities in continental Europe. In between performances, students were kept busy absorbing the abundant culture around them, including the Bolshoi Ballet, concerts by major orchestras, and many museum stops.
After a rich musical upbringing, Knight enrolled at Eastern Michigan University. He had already spent 4 years at the University of Michigan, a fact that influenced the decision attend EMU instead, as did the schools proximity to his parent’s home. He found EMU a fortuitous choice, however, embarking on formal compositional study with Anthony Iannaccone, who Knight holds in the highest esteem. By this time, he had achieved a generous improvisational facility, but lessons with Innaccone solidified his choice to compose full time. Knight mentioned that colleagues have been surprised by what they perceive as a “late start” as a composer. On the contrary, he’s adamant that the process by which he came to it has been key to his success. Regarding this point, Knight said:
“For me it was a natural, progressive development. I knew I was a good improviser. it was easy to spontaneously come up with things. I started to realize that composing was what I was meant to do. I found I had something to say. I think anyone, if they have the right instruction and are self-motivated, can learn technique, and can gradually build it throughout their life.”
After EMU, Knight attended graduate school at University of Texas, Austin, receiving both his Master and Doctorate in Musical Arts. On a full scholarship, he took advantage of the numerous established composers that visited the school for master classes, which included several that he sites as influential such as David Del Tredici and John Corigliano.
Out of these, however, it was Corigliano who eventually played the largest role in Knight’s training. After completing his doctoral course work at UTA, he sent letters to several acclaimed composers, hoping to continue his studies in a more intensified setting. Corigliano replied, suggesting that if the young composer found himself in New York, he should bring scores for perusal. Knight, ever the proactive advocate for his music, immediately purchased a ticket.
Corigliano had mentioned in his letter that he did not take on private students, but upon arrival, Knight convinced him to do so. He spent a year in New York under the composer’s tutelage while living in a decent, but somewhat destitute housing facility in Midtown Manhattan. He recalled a now jocular anecdote involving his first major piece for orchestra, Of Perpetual Solace (1988), composed with Corigliano’s guidance. After some turmoil during its creation, involving head injury and a vandalized (possibly sabotaged) piano in his building, Knight completed the work (sans piano – a fact he regards as revelatory), which received its premiere by the Chicago Civic Orchestra shortly thereafter.
With this major success under his belt, and with the Rotary Scholarship that followed, he left for London to attend the Royal College of Music and continued studies with composer John Lambert. Of Lambert, Knight says, “He is the most insightful teacher and brilliant musician I’ve worked with. Funny thing is, he never told me anything! Just question after question, which helped me figure out what I was doing.”
Living in London proved to be an extremely fertile experience. Knight estimates that he attended nearly 200 performances of new music, orchestral music, opera, West End shows, and beyond. Having time to spread out culturally and compositionally was very fruitful, as he returned to New York having received the prestigious Sir Arthur Bliss Memorial award (the first American to do so). Two compositions were completed at Royal College, Total Eclipse (1989) for symphony orchestra (premiered in 1990 by the New York Philharmonic), and O Vos Omnes (1988) for SATB chorus
He spent the next five years living in New York City, during which time he held a teaching position at Hunter College, and eventually met and in turn married writer and journalist M.J. Alexander. In 1997, while living in Vermont, Life Is Fine (1997) for soprano and orchestra was premiered by the American Music Festival Orchestra in Duncan, Oklahoma. Deeply impressed by this work, Mark Parker, Dean of the School of Music at Oklahoma City University, approached Knight about joining his faculty as Composer-In-Residence. Knight acquiesced, and in 1998, he moved to Oklahoma City and began his tenure at OCU, where he remains today.
The first 5 years at OCU have proven to be quite prolific, adding nearly 30 new works to his catalogue. As composer in residence, Knight’s pieces are most often created specifically for in-house ensembles. Accepting this position, in Knight’s words, “has been the best thing for me. There are so many opportunities to write pieces, including two musicals. If I have any questions [while composing], I just try them out, and get an immediate response.”