When Dublin-born, Paris-based musician Garth Knox comes to town you can never be sure whether he’ll be performing on an early music or new music concert program. That’s because he flits effortlessly between the two and it seems there are some interesting underlying reasons for this.
Knox came to prominence through Pierre Boulez’ Ensemble InterContemporain and later joined the formidable Arditti quartet whose stock in trade was playing some of the most esoteric and difficult new music of the 20th century. But in recent years he’s become a passionate proponent of the viola d’amore, a very old instrument with a rich history which he argues has all the characteristics required for creating the music of our time.
In Vancouver this past winter as part of Vancouver New Music’s 2016 concert series, I sat down with Garth and asked about the curious gulf between early and new music audiences.
MM: It’s something I’ve observed over years of concert going. There seems to be great affinity and overlap between new and early music audiences but not so much when it comes to the classical period.
GK: I think it is true that there is something in common between the new music and older music. New music composers are not so interested in Brahms and Schuman and the more romantic composers. Now they’re more interested in medieval music whereas before, baroque music was interesting. Now there seems to be more interest in the likes of Guillaume de Machaut.
It’s very common and it’s hard to put your finger on exactly what it is. It seems that to those people the romantic stuff was a bit superficial. An example might be found in classical dance, which is very pretty, but Swan Lake is not of the everyday whereas in a modern dance performance people dress normally they do like you and me but they do something much more interesting. So I think there’s a bit of that in contemporary music. It’s less of putting on an act, pretending to be somebody your not, but more trying to say something with the sounds that are ‘round about us. And the sounds that are ‘round about us include noise and all kinds of strange things. It was the same in medieval music. They used what they had and there wasn’t this pretention of being above yourself.
MM: What is it about the sonorities of this instrument that make it so intriguing to some composers?
GK: It’s interesting to do new music on old instruments. Sometimes people don’t realize they’re already doing it but even romantic composers were writing for instruments that were already “old”. They were really baroque instruments and they were trying to write this big romantic stuff for them so they had to change them a little bit. But, essentially, they remained the same instruments.
I think it’s very interesting to now go back to an even older instrument like the viola d’amore. It’s been a bit forgotten because it was made for one type of music and when the music changed they didn’t use it anymore. There’s so much you can do with it but it was like the baby that got washed out with the bathwater.
So the viola d’amore had lots of possibilities which went unexplored when it faded into the background. It never disappeared, it just…faded. What I’m interested in doing now is bringing it out of the cupboard and showing all of its possibilities which maybe hadn’t been realized at the time. The sonority is very pleasing, it’s timeless. And though it has a baroque, medieval feel about it, you can do so much with it. It’s a very fruitful thing to bring the past and present together and move into the future.
MM: There is a renewed interest in long form, “drone” type music. Indian classical, western avant garde, folk and even electronic minimalism often have drone elements at their root. The viola d’amore seems well suited to being a part of any and all of these forms because it’s got the sympathetic strings.
GK: Folk music has always used drones. I think that’s a fundamental element and then there’s the newer idea of resonance and spectralism which is using one note which contains them all. There you need a drone because you’re analyzing one big note and an instrument like the viola d’amore is perfect for that because it’s made for keeping one resonance and exploring what’s inside that resonance. So you’re opening up one note rather than adding lots of notes together. So instead of making a building it’s more like you’re taking one little brick and pulling it apart to see what’s inside of it.
MM: On both of your ECM discs (D’Amore and Salterello) there’s an interesting mix of composers and eras. The very contemporary music of Klaus Huber, Kaija Saariaho sits alongside that of Tobias Hume, Marin Marais, music from the 17th Century. Yet all the pieces all sit comfortably side by side. And there’s nothing from the “great” romantic era.
GK: Well there’s the certain unity created by the fact that it’s the same person playing it … and the same instrument. But also, for me, those musics correspond to each other. For example the Tobias Hume piece stays around one note. It’s not trying to go anywhere. It’s already somewhere very beautiful and is just exploring where it is. I think you’ll find the same in Kaija Saariaho’s music. She’s a very interesting spectral composer and she’s finding a soundworld which is so beautiful that she’s not going to lead you anywhere away from it. She’s just showing you more of what’s already there, which is a very different way of working.
And on Salterello there’s music by Hildegard von Bingen which is some of the oldest music (from the 11th century) that we can play on this instrument. And again it is very simple music. I suppose it’s a matter of bringing out what the world has round about us, listening to what’s there and of choosing one feature and making that important investing in something that’s already there and making it even more interesting.