Meet Kathryn Knowles, one of our 23-24 Composer Fellows whose work A Strange and Preposterous Affair premieres at our October 21 concert, Britten, Vaughan Williams & Elgar! In this blog, we learn about the composer, her new piece and the poem that goes with it. Then, we have a Q&A that dives even deeper into the creative mind of Kathryn Knowles!

About Kathryn Knowles

Kathryn Knowles is a composer, cellist, conductor and writer currently based in Toronto, Ontario. Her compositions have been played in workshops by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, the New Orford String Quartet, and the Penderecki String Quartet. Her most recent piece, Dreams of Hope, was commissioned by Joseph Petric and funded by the Canada Council for the Arts. She is currently collaborating with Morgan-Paige Melbourne to write a musical titled Between Fires, also funded by the CCA.  

Kathryn has performed and recorded with Juno-nominated singer-songwriter Lindsay Schoolcraft, and she recorded tracks for an upcoming album by the Juno-winning band, OKAN. Her poetry and short stories received honourable mention in the Writer’s Digest 89th Annual Writing Competition, and her debut fantasy trilogy, The Quiescence Trilogy, is available for purchase now. In addition to this, Kathryn is also a Centre Director with Sistema Toronto, the Music Director of Music4Life String Orchestra, and the Founder of Mad Endeavour. 

About A Strange and Preposterous Affair

A Strange and Preposterous Affair is a tribute to the great, and sometimes difficult, changes we experience in life. It is inspired by the composer’s recent experience grappling with personal change and feeling her identity evolve into something new. She sees this piece as a moment of reflection — a commentary on the experience where she could embrace and celebrate the confusion and chaos of the process, ultimately recognizing the conflicting absurdity and triumph of life’s little evolutions. 

A Strange and Preposterous Affair” 

It is a strange and preposterous thing, 
this change I’m living. 
At times it creeps and crawls, consuming 
me in increments; it re-invents 
and then, by leaps and bounds, it lurches, 
hurling, twirling, whirling me into the chaos of growth unbidden. 
I grasp at safe familiarity with routine fear, 
dazed by the shades of a future I can’t yet perceive. 
It is a strange and preposterous thing, 
to consciously supplant myself 
and bask in the confounding turmoil of not knowing — 
the chaos of unknowing. 
The uncanny duality of growth and loss 
distorts reality, threatening to end as it begins — 
or begin as it ends — 
and swirl, forever tangled, 
as I dare to reimagine my identity. 

~ Kathryn Knowles 

Q&A with Kathryn Knowles


HPO: How does being a writer impact this piece you have written, and your composing style in general?

KATHRYN KNOWLES: I’ve written a few pieces inspired by poems now, but this was the first piece where the music came first and I used that to inspire a poem. Recently, I performed with pianist Jialiang Zhu on a series of poetry recitations and piano improvisations. Through this collaboration I really learned how badly audiences want us to be vulnerable with them. I saw how our audiences resonated most with my more personal poems. I realize now that my responsibility as a composer is to be raw and real and emotional, so audiences can connect and experience something – feel something. 

HPO: What are some interesting musical elements of your composition that we can listen for in your new piece?

KATHRYN: In general, I would say keep an ear out for the two main themes and how they come and go, and layer together at times. But there is a specific moment in my piece (about 1 minute into it), where when I listen to the audio, I can’t help but dance a little and sing along. It’s a bombastic moment, when all the brass come together with staggered entries to play the first theme. It’s powerful and perhaps a tad epic, and I can’t wait to hear it live!


HPO: You are such a diverse artist! You are a professional writer and composer, and you run the Scarborough Sistema program. You’re also a cellist, and you conduct an amateur string group. How do you weave all these professional streams together?

KATHRYN: It requires some pretty extreme organizational skills and it can be difficult at times to weave it all together. I usually feel like I never have enough time to do everything I want to do. But any time I try to take a step back and “do less”, I accidentally start three or four new projects. But I don’t think I’d trade it for anything – there’s too much I enjoy doing. Fortunately, my friends and family are very understanding when I disappear into long stretches of work mode!

HPO: What’s your advice for artists who doubt whether they should embrace their many interests or focus on one area?

KATHRYN: The best advice I’ve ever received was this: define what success means to you. For me, a big part of my own success is simply working on creative projects that inspire and energize me. I don’t need to be the “best composer” or the “best cellist” or “the best writer”. I just want creativity and I want it on my terms. My advice is to dig down deep and ask yourself what success looks like, and then take steps towards that. There’s no right or wrong picture of success!

HPO: Where do you dream of taking your career?

KATHRYN: I sometimes think I have too many dreams; too many goals! In an ideal world, I’d like to be making a living primarily through a sustainable schedule of creative projects. Perhaps I have a musical being staged in Toronto, a few more books on bookstore shelves, some chamber and orchestra commissions. I’d love to be playing cello more regularly – some more recording sessions with bands and popular artists, and a professional chamber group commissioning other composers and performing regularly would be perfect. 


HPO: We try to tailor our Composer Fellowship program to each composer’s interests. Since you have a lot of experience in conducting, you will be the cover-conductor for the May concert with Gemma New! What do you look forward to about this experience in rehearsals with Gemma?

KATHRYN: I’m looking forward to everything about it, but I’m especially excited to observe the rehearsal process from start to finish from Gemma’s perspective. I’m hoping to gain insight into effective score preparation, and rehearsal planning, as well as the practical aspects of conducting. Especially since the May concert will be an amazing opportunity to learn about conducting voice and orchestra together with Beethoven 9, Balfour’s Mamachimowin, and Vivier’s Lonely Child. I have no doubt I will learn a lot! It will also be the first time I’ve ever had mentorship from a female conductor, let alone someone as accomplished and professional as Gemma. I’m unbelievably grateful and excited about this opportunity.

HPO: Are there any projects coming up for you outside of the HPO that you are excited about? 

KATHRYN: I’m currently finishing a piece for two cellos and electronics, commissioned by Slowrise music for Vc2 Cello duo, to be premiered November 18th. The piece, A Lure of Freedom, is based on the theme of siren song. I’m also very excited about collaborating with Morgan-Paige Melbourne on a dystopian musical, titled Between Fires. And I’m in the planning phase for a new fantasy trilogy!


HPO: Who are some orchestral composers that most inspired you and your taste and style in this genre?

KATHRYN: When I was first getting into music seriously, I listened to a lot of Mozart. Over the years my tastes moved forward in time to land in the 20th century, but I suspect that Mozart’s music laid the foundation for some of my musical interests. I had a CD of Mozart’s “greatest hits” and I listened to it all through high school. I think his 40th Symphony and his Clarinet Concerto were two of my favourites. 

Next, being a cellist, I grew to really appreciate Shostakovich’s writing. His Cello Concerto No. 1 definitely inspired me. Learning to play it, and then studying it later as I wrote my first piece for cello and orchestra. It’s a really satisfying piece to play on cello, and cathartic, a good way to express emotions. I tend to think this way when I compose now, trying to provide an outlet for the musicians’ emotions.

These days I find myself investigating contemporary composers as much as possible. Not just because I enjoy contemporary music, but also because I want to support living artists, and contemporary artistic creation. Sometimes I just go to the Canadian League of Composers website and click on a new composer name and listen to their music!

HPO: How about a non-orchestral artist that inspires you?

KATHRYN: Well, anyone who knows me knows I’m more than a little obsessed with Paul Simon’s music. It began with Simon and Garfunkel and then grew to include all of Paul Simon’s work. I think it’s the combination of beautiful poetry with memorable melodies, complex rhythms, and frankly just his range and openness to experimentation and collaboration. In particular his most recent albums. I remember listening to Stranger to Stranger when it came out and feeling like he was writing the music I had in my head. I especially loved his use of polyrhythm and microtonal textures. Combined with clever, poignant and sometimes comedic lyrics.


HPO: How should our audience follow you online – both for news and music if possible?

KATHRYN: You can follow my instagram @kathrynknowles_ and on SoundCloud here: Check out my website I have a newsletter available for subscription on my other website, which has a blog. It’s primarily focused on my writing and reading, I do give music updates there, too. And you can follow me on #booktok at @kathrynknowles_ (I’m having a lot of fun on Tiktok but it’s very niche targeted towards readers and writers of fantasy and sci-fi fiction)!

Hear the world premiere of Kathryn’s new work

Don’t miss the world premiere of A Strange and Preposterous Affair by Kathryn Knowles on October 21!

Britten, Vaughan Williams & Elgar
Saturday, October 21 at 7:30pm
FirstOntario Concert Hall