By Diana Nollen/ SourceMedia Group
Visitors to Claude Monet’s gardens in Giverny, France, will soon be able to hear what Dan Knight saw as he strolled the hallowed grounds in 1999.
So will Eastern Iowans.
Knight, a local pianist with global renown, has turned his impressions of the alluring site into an hourlong, 11-movement suite, “A Day in the Gardens of Monet.” If all goes as planned, the new CD will be available in the Monet gardens’ gift shop by April or May.
Closer to home, Knight will perform the work in a multimedia concert at 3 p.m. Feb. 19, 2012, in the new Coralville Center for the Performing Arts.
Photos and images of Monet’s famous paintings will dance through the center’s digital projection system as Knight’s fingers fly over a grand keyboard.
“It’s one of the best Steinways I’ve ever played in my life. It’s a gorgeous, wonderful instrument,” says Knight, adding that the state-of-the-art hall has “near-perfect acoustics.”
Knight, 58, of North Liberty, knows his Steinways. He’s among the upper echelon of the world’s pianists who have attained the coveted Steinway Artist title. Admitted to the ranks in 1996, his idiom is jazz, but he says most of the 1,500 Steinway Artists are classical pianists.
He’s not alone, however. Since Duke Ellington, other pop and jazz artists have made the roster, including Billy Joel, Diana Krall and Harry Connick Jr. On the “Immortals” list are Ignace Jan Paderewski, George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Vladimir Horowitz and Arthur Rubinstein.
Music has “always been like breathing” for Knight, who grew up in Ottumwa. By age 3 he could sing any melody he heard. At 4, he started plunking out melodies on his sister’s chord organ on the sly. After his parents heard him play the “Dragnet” TV theme song on an aunt’s piano, they bought one. Shortly before he turned 5, he was taking lessons from Tillie Maither, who had studied with Paderewski.
Knight went on to study with leading jazz ambassador and educator Billy Taylor, whose music entranced him at age 5, when he saw Taylor on TV.
Knight’s career is full of highlights, from his nomination for a 2008 Pulitzer Prize for “The Walt Whitman Suite” to his status as the first person invited to play three consecutive years at the celebrated Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland. He performed there in 1997, 1998 and 1999, with that last trip leading directly to his Monet suite.
As with all of his 200-or-so compositions, the music for “Monet” lived in Knight’s head before his fingers ever touched the keys. He typically finds his inspiration in artwork and dance. And sometimes, in circumstances beyond his control, like a camera that catches fire and ruins some highly anticipated sightseeing photos.
"The Water Lily Pond", 1900, oil on canvas, 35-1/2 x 36-1/2 in., Given in memory of Governor Alvan T. Fuller by the Fuller Foundation. (PRNewsFoto)
When his third invitation to Montreux came, Knight and his wife, Julie, decided to build in a little vacation time, as well.
“I’ve always wanted to go to Monet’s gardens, to see the place where Claude Monet was inspired and lived — where all these magnificent paintings came from,” he says.
When that day came, he grabbed his camera and set off for an artistic adventure.
“It was a perfect day, a drop-dead gorgeous day,” he says. “Julie was looking at me askance; she was not excited about me taking pictures all day.
“The day just started incredibly well. We parked down the street from town by a beautiful draining area where water
from the gardens goes back to the Seine. Julie was just mesmerized by the long, flowing blades of grass and how they moved on the water. She stood there, transfixed by whole thing. We just looked at that and looked at that, and stood there about 20 minutes watching this water.
“Then we go into Monet’s house. I’m so proud of myself — I could ask for tickets in French from taking a class at Kirkwood,” he says. “I got my camera out, turned it on, the lithium battery leaked and the camera caught fire. Little flames and smoke were shooting out of the top. I sat down and kinda got teary-eyed, thinking my day was ruined.
“Julie, in her infinite wisdom, said, ‘Maybe you’re not supposed to take pictures today. Maybe there’
s something else you’re supposed to do. Maybe you’re supposed to make music.’
“She looked at me and said, ‘Take your glasses off.’ I’m really nearsighted,” he says, “and the second I did that, everything around me looked like a Monet painting — all impressionistic, all dazzling.
“Never before or since then have I seen the colors like in that garden — vibrant, alive, with the sun at that particular part, a bend in the Seine. All the things there were just perfect for painting,” Knight says.
“I went from the house and looked around and had chills. I heard music in my head everywhere I went. I said, ‘Let’s have the kind of experience Mr. Monet would have had in the gardens, but for ourselves, and take these visual images into our heart.’
“The second I started doing that, the music went nuts. I started making notes on everything I could get my hands on — notebooks, travel brochures, postcards, free things in gift shop. It was just dazzling,” he says.
“So I came back, then kind of put the thing together and started really listening. The way I compose, is I wait until they’re finished in my head. …
“It’s kind of tedious,” he says. “I play it in my head over and over. I knew it in the garden — I wrote down the motifs and pieces of melodies just the way I heard them.
“As a few months went by and I had more distance from whole thing, I went back and worked in earnest. I listened to it again in my head. The whole thing just kind of happened in a flood. The second I started hearing those melodies, I could start going back to that place, standing next to Julie on the Japanese bridge.”
They saw other tourists flocking to the same spot, just to have their pictures taken, not pausing long enough to see what the Knights were seeing.
“They missed out,” he says.
He’s performed bits and pieces of his suite over the years, waiting for it to solidify, then recorded it in 2009 at St. Bridget’s Church in Morse, near West Branch.
“The acoustics are just perfect out there,” he says.
The CD was released in 2010, and in another twist of fate, he sent one to a fan from Denmark who wanted a copy after hearing him perform at Riverside Theatre in Iowa City several years earlier.
“I got an incredible email back,” Knight says. “She was so moved by my recording that she and her husband decided to drive seven hours to Monet’s house, took the CD with them on their iPod and listened to it in the gardens while looking at all the places I wrote about.”
She wanted all the tourists to have that experience and suggested Knight sell the disc in the Monet gift shop.
“I’m going to negotiate that beginning the first of March, so by April or May, I should have that all set up,” he says.
“The whole thing’s come full circle.”