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Christopher Knowles


In 1973, when he was just thirteen years old, Knowles recorded an audio tape that wound up in the hands of Robert Wilson. On the tape, Knowles recites a poem about his sister, chanting a series of variations of the three phrases “Emily likes the TV,” “because she watches the TV,” and “because she likes it,” over and over again in different constellations, until the sentences dissolve into pure sound and all meaning is wiped away, only to be put back together again like Russian dolls being reassembled.


...Emily likes the TV, because, Emily likes the TV, because, Emily likes the TV, Emily likes the TV, Emily likes the TV, Emily likes the TV, Emily likes the TV, Emily likes the TV, Emily likes the TV, Emily likes the TV, Emily likes the T, Emily likes the T, Emily likes the T, Emily likes the T, Emily likes it, Emily likes it, Emily likes, Emily, Emily, Emily, Em, Em, Em, m, m, m, m, m, m, m, m, m, m, m...


Wilson was instantly intrigued. He transcribed Knowles’s words and found that the seemingly random variations were not random at all. What at first had sounded arbitrary was in fact extremely structured and precise and constituted a pattern, establishing a world of its own. Wilson invited Knowles to see his play The Life and Times of Josef Stalin—a wordless, twelve-hour long piece with more than 120 performers—and he traveled to visit Knowles at his school in Schenectady, New York. Wilson didn’t like the way the teachers were treating Knowles, correcting his actions and his speech, dogmatically imposing their reality onto his, and he convinced Knowles’s parents to pull him out of school. Soon Knowles was living with Wilson, the beginning of a long and unusual collaboration.


In the ‘60s and early ‘70s, Wilson’s works had been silent—no text, no libretto, no words. He had been creating plays with the deaf-mute Raymond Andrews, but now Knowles’s formal and plastic approach to language started to enter Wilson’s pieces. One day, Knowles was speaking in an elaborate Victorian English, apparently reciting a text he had read and memorized. This soliloquy became the central piece of Wilson’s 1974 play A Letter for Queen Victoria.


Two years later, Knowles’s texts were used as the libretto for Einstein on the Beach, the era-defining opera directed by Wilson and composed by Philip Glass. The opera propelled Knowles into the center of the avant-garde art world, the New York social scene fascinated with his idiosyncratic ordering of language and time, his wit, his sincerity. In his diaries, Andy Warhol wrote “The Knowles boy, the star of the play, sounds so normal when you talk to him, you wouldn’t know he’s autistic. He answers whatever question you ask, but I guess the problem is he never says anything if you don’t ask him.”

It was an unlikely friendship, the avant-garde theater director in his thirties and the teenage poet on the autism spectrum. Opinions were divided. New York magazine’s theater critic John Simon accused Wilson of taking advantage of ‘a brain damaged child,’ but the peculiar collaborators had struck a nerve of the times. The French novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet was deeply fascinated with Knowles’s structural approach to language, and John Ashbery called Knowle’s poetry “pure conceptualism, which others have merely approximated.”


It was as if Knowles were the embodiment of the postmodern ideas Wilson, Glass, Ashbery and Robbe-Grillet were wrestling with: how to free language from meaning, how to embrace contradictions, how to dissolve plot and structure to give way to something freer and more fractured. What was so difficult to achieve for Wilson and Glass and their baffled audiences—getting rid of narrative, not always looking for meaning—was second nature to Knowles.


“One has to be in awe with how he could work with time and space,” says Wilson. “I think he visualizes language. Once you notice it, it is visually very precise and there are patterns that organize time and space.”


WIlson relates how on a nine-hour flight from Amsterdam to New York, Knowles had secretly placed some of his forty-eight alarm clocks in overhead bins, under the seats and in restrooms. He had set them to go off at different intervals, creating a sonic a structure, a kind of symphony for the nine-hour flight. Wilson had fallen asleep, but was woken up when the alarms began going off.

“One alarm would go off in the back of the plane, and five minutes later another would go off in the front, it was a whole construction of time and sound. They were actually turning the plane around to Amsterdam because they didn’t know what was going on, so I had to explain them the situation. They didn’t appreciate it.”


For most people time has a flow. It runs like a river—from the past, through the present, towards the future. There are deadlines to deliver on, appointments to remember, and so we divide the plane of time into years and days and hours, and attempt to adhere to these schemes through an arsenal of alarm clocks, calendars, diaries and watches.


For some physicists, however, time is not a flow but a dimension much like a landscape. Just like Manhattan still exists while you and your consciousness are in Brooklyn, October 1976 still exists while your consciousness is in January 2017. According to this idea of the block universe, all moments exist simultaneously on the plane of time: your birth, your first kiss, last Saturday’s party and Sunday’s hangover too. All of it exists at once, and the sense that the present is somehow more real and alive than the past is just a trick of the consciousness, our limited minds trying to make sense of it all.


Christopher Knowles seems able to visualize the block universe more clearly than most people. In his calendars he skips between decade-old memories and seemingly random birthdays, in and out of the present day. He seems amused with our feeble attempts at measuring time, the alarm clocks, the calendars, the watches. By toying with the crushing conformity of these time-keeping devices, Knowles is creating his own patterns, a private kingdom. Or maybe a kingdom for two.


“Chris and I think alike,” says Wilson. “That’s why we work so well together. We think in the same time-space construct.”

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