Interview with Violist-Composer Garth Knox: Viola Spaces and Violin Spaces

October 11, 2018, 7:57 PM · The first time I heard him play, I realized that violist and composer Garth Knox was on a completely different plane than pretty much any other musician I've ever seen perform. He hears the sounds we ignore, then he climbs inside them and creates entire worlds. His compositions are brimming with curiosity, invention, humor.

Garth Knox
Violist and Composer Garth Knox. Photo by Mark Mushet.

Watching him perform live, one begins to see the vast possibilities waiting to be tapped from the strings of viola or violin, and how much more we can do with two hands, 10 fingers and a bow. Or heck, even without a bow:

Fortunately for us, Knox is ready to share his weird and wonderful world with violinists, and he's done so with characteristic creativity, writing an entire set of eight pieces called Violin Spaces, just released this week by Schott Music (click here for the link to the sheet music). Each piece is meant to help the violinist explore a separate "extended technique," building on what we know about harmonics, pizzicato, sul tasto, microtonality, etc. The violin book follows his successful book of eight viola studies called Viola Spaces, written 2004-2007, and from which the above video, of a piece entitled "Nine Fingers," is taken (it's Viola Space No. 4).

In fact, by now violists know Knox quite well, and in June he drew a large crowd at the American Viola Society Festival at The Colburn School, where he premiered a piece that the AVS had commissioned from him especially for the event. The piece, called Not Giants, But Windmills was written for Viola Ensemble and inspired by the fictional travails of Don Quixote, who delusionally jousts with windmills, taking them for giants. At one point in the piece, Knox requires several players to whip their bows in circles - like windmills - creating an audible whooshing sound. Others in the orchestra occasionally whipped their bows sideways or into the air, like swords.

After the premiere, I sat down with Knox at Colburn and spoke with him about how he became a violist; about his love for new music and early career in Pierre Boulez's Ensemble intercontemporain and then in the Arditti Quartet; and about what drew him to composition and his latest project, "Violin Spaces."

A native of Ireland, Knox grew up in Scotland and knew from birth that he was destined for the viola.

"Everyone in my family played an instrument -- two sisters played violin and my brother played cello," Knox said. "We needed a viola player, so the last-born, which is me -- I was born the viola player!"

"Of course back then people didn't start directly on the viola; they always started on violin," Knox said. "So when I was five they gave me a violin and I kind of fooled around on it for a while. But when I was 11, as soon as I could reach the end of a viola, I changed."

Knox was on a fairly traditional track, learning to read written music and some basics of improvisation, until he went to music college in London, at the Royal College of Music.

"There I met people who were doing contemporary music, and I got interested in doing this," Knox said. "I realized that it had a very creative side. You had to actually interpret the pieces and do things which weren't on the paper. This opened up new worlds for me. I realized that music is actually something that people make up. The composers are not dead museum pieces, but they were people who had ideas and they passed them on to other people. They used paper, but if they could have been there, they could have sung it or said it. This opened a window for me, and I began to see music differently. "

Though he was raised in a family of amateur musicians who sang and played for pleasure, Knox found violin study to be awfully serious and constrained. "We all learned to read the music, and we were told that this dot means this finger goes down. It doesn't occur to you that music is this sort of free thing that you do for just the sound of it in the beginning. It's a shame; it's a sad way to learn."

Knox found creative freedom in contemporary music, and when he left college he joined Pierre Boulez's group in Paris, the Ensemble intercontemporain.

"I moved to Paris and spent a seven-year period there, very intense with new music," Knox said. "It was great; I met all the big-time composers of the time."

And what was it like, to work with the legendary composer and conductor, Pierre Boulez?

"He was a fantastic musician, very nice person and great to work with," Knox said. "He had the gift of clarity. He understood what was happening each moment in the music: what should be heard and what was less important. He could say something, and you understood. And whatever he said, you felt like, 'That guy is right.' He seemed to be a strong, imposing person -- and he would be, if he needed to be. But as soon as he felt that someone else was contributing something, he would make space for that person as well. That was impressive."

"After my years in Paris, I left there to play in the Arditti Quartet, which was a string quartet specialized in new music," Knox said. "Of course, there was no conductor, so we were just four people making the music, and always knowing the person who has written the music and usually having them there. Then it becomes a living thing."

"That was a very intense experience, a great experience, but no time to do anything else for seven years. It was completely equal time, quartet, quartet, concert, concert, and rushing around," Knox said. "It was wonderful, but after seven years I thought, it's time for a change, and that's when I started doing more things like folk music, that's when I started playing viola d'amore, and that's when I started writing my own pieces. I'd done a little before that, in Paris."

In fact, it was while he was Boulez' group that he wrote his piece, "Premier Pas," which means "First Step" -- Knox's first step in composing.

At the time, he was playing in an ensemble piece that required the viola to be tuned in an unconventional way, a "scordatura" tuning.

"Practicing the part at home, it sounded fantastic, all these beautiful things on the instrument," Knox said. "Then I came to play in the group, and we couldn't hear it! There was so much going on in the piece that we weren't hearing this viola part. It was fine, the piece was a good piece. But I felt that this idea of tuning it had so much more to say which wasn't being used. So I thought, 'Well okay, I'll write a piece.' So my first piece was for a de-tuned viola - scordatura viola."

"My second piece was for two violas, played by one player," Knox said. "No bow, and sitting on the floor, with one on each side."

"Gradually the viola on the player's left comes up, and you can do quite a lot with this one because you're used to playing left-hand pizzicato passages. And I've tuned it so you can make nice chords," Knox said, describing his piece 2 violas one player. "The viola on the player's right stays on the ground until the very end, when I suddenly pick it up like I'm going to play something, but then I realize that I can't actually play anything!"

"When I first started composing, most of the pieces were for myself, solo pieces that I played," Knox said. "Then little by little I started including other people."

In general, the viola is not an instrument that is always at the center of attention.

Knox said he doesn't really mind this, but he felt that listeners were missing out on the rich possibilities of the instrument.

"I didn't mind not being heard, but I felt I had things to say that people weren't hearing," Knox said. "It wasn't that people were covering me, but I thought I could do a piece with an idea that hasn't been heard. I chose to play mostly solo pieces at the beginning because it allows people to listen well and to hear every small detail."

"The sound of the viola gets eaten very easily by louder instruments -- even a violin," Knox said. "Wind instruments are much louder, and the piano - I don't like playing with piano because I think a viola and a piano are not an equal match. A harpsichord, yes, or an old piano, but a modern Steinway grand, there is no competition, volume-wise. It's completely overpowering, so I'm not especially interested in playing that loud. I'd rather play with an equal partner, or on my own. It's nice to hear the small details, not worry about forcing to come through all the time."

And what goes best with the sound of a viola?

"A gentle little organ is nice, harp is a nice instrument, guitar is perfect - a quiet instrument with beautiful sonorities," Knox said. "The flute can be nice, it's a contrast and it has a nice round sound, you can cut through if you need to. Clarinet also can be nice."

Beyond the pieces for viola, Viola Spaces and Violin Spaces, Knox has written concert pieces, film music and other pieces, including a quartet for the Kronos Quartet's '50 for the Future' project called Satellites (2015) (It's a treat just to hear Knox talk about this piece, here is the video.)

"It's not a huge amount of pieces - for a composer it's very little, for a player it's quite a lot!" Knox laughed. "I'm more of a player; people know me as a player and I started as a player. So I started composing on the side. Now I compose more, but I'm still really a player, a player-composer."

The "Violin Spaces" are Knox's focus at the moment, and those stemmed from the studies he wrote for viola.

"In Viola Spaces I set down my ideas on these new kinds of sounds, but in contexts that are extremely approachable: normal music but with strange sounds. There are eight studies, each one based on a separate technique, all exercises in things like ponticello, or sul tasto, these kinds of things. They're fun little concert pieces, each about three minutes long. Schott has published them, and a lot of the viola players know them, they know me because of these Viola Spaces."

For the Violin Spaces, Knox did not simply transcribe the Viola Spaces for violin. He wrote an entirely new set for violin.

"They are completely different, yes. They have some of the same ideas, but they are completely different pieces. There are eight of them as well," Knox said. "Almost all have the same techniques, though one technique is different. But they are based on the same idea. And I'm hoping afterwards to do Cello Spaces."

"I like the word 'space' because it invites players to explore for themselves," Knox said. "The piece is there, and they can play the piece, but my hope is that there are ideas in the piece which will make them want to experiment and maybe even write their own pieces."

The "Violin Spaces" and "Viola Spaces" are not for beginners (though Knox is thinking of creating a version for beginners). "They're for people who can really play, who are on top of their instruments -- a professional, or advanced students." The "Viola Spaces" also have versions for viola duo, something he intends to do with the "Violin Spaces" as well.

For "Violin Spaces" Knox worked with a Dutch violinist named Diamanda Dramm, who now is releasing a series of videos of each of the eight pieces. Below is her performance of Violin Space No. 1, called "Skating."

"Diamanda came to me and asked, 'Could you transribe the Viola Spaces for violin?" Knox said. At first he felt a little territorial about it, "I thought, 'Well for once we have something nice to play on the viola!'" He laughed. Nonetheless, he tried. He started transcribing "9 fingers," but as he was doing it he thought, "This isn't going to sound so good on the violin. I like the ideas, but I think I could write another piece for violin, with these ideas."

Diamanda Dramm and Garth Knox
Violinist Diamanda Dramm and Composer Garth Knox. Photo by Pablo Basagoiti, FundaciĆ³n Museo Evaristo Valle.

Then it dawned on him, "I thought, 'Yes, I should do a whole set of them for violin!'" Since Dramm had asked, he showed her the sketches of the Violin Spaces and they started collaborating.

"I'm not a violinist, and so I needed to check things," Knox said. "I sent them to her and she sort of test-drove the pieces and said, 'This is really hard,' or 'This is not going to work,' or 'Yes, but the notation needs work.' She's been great help, it's been wonderful."

Writing for someone else was different from writing the "Viola Spaces" for himself to play. "When I know I'm writing for someone else, it makes me much more objective. This person has to understand what I mean, and I have to be really clear on the paper because it's not me playing it. So it made me think much more about how I was writing it down and what I could actually get across to another person."

* * *

Click here for the music for Violin Spaces, which can be bought either as a download or in book form.

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October 12, 2018 at 06:17 PM · Well written article Laurie.

No doubt Garth is dead serious about what he's doing and has invested quite a lot of effort into these unique ways of playing these instruments.

I have always been fascinated with harmonics on any instrument, yet it might take me awhile to wrap my thinking around this as a concrete way to integrate this into any way the instrument is normally played. In fact, this is going to sound harsh, but it doesn't sound like music to me. It seems more like experimentation of new concepts. Kudos to Garth for that.

I could envision small amounts of this in a much more concrete composition

sort of like adding a little salt to something else in order to give the whole thing a different taste. Maybe I just need to train the way I'm hearing it. Maybe I'm ignorant to the total benefits.I don't mean to dismiss anyone else's ideas. At this point it isn't working for me, but maybe that's me.

October 12, 2018 at 06:36 PM · Timothy, these are good thoughts. I do think that the idea is to expand the palette, and that Garth is experimenting to the extreme in order to open the possibilities. Certainly an entire piece based on "expanded techniques" is a stretch! But as he mentions, he called them "Spaces" with the idea that they might inspire others in their compositions and improvisations.

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