Garth Knox: One Viola And 1,000 Years Of Musical History

May 14, 2012
Originally published on May 14, 2012 6:49 pm

Garth Knox was born to play the viola. As a youngster, he already had two sisters who played violin and a brother who played cello. "So for the family string quartet," Knox says, "it was very clear from the start which instrument I would play."

On his new album, Saltarello, Knox traverses almost 1,000 years of music history, playing not only the viola but also the medieval fiddle and the viola d'amore, a forgotten member of the viola family with an extra set of strings vibrating underneath the fingerboard. Knox says the instrument appeared and then disappeared in musical history.

"A lot of babies were thrown out with the bath water," he says in an interview with All Things Considered host Robert Siegel. "And I thought the viola d'amore was a particularly big baby that had been thrown away by mistake. I and others are trying to bring it back and show just how beautiful it can be."

The instrument appears in the album's opening track — "Black Brittany," an arrangement of a traditional Irish song — and in a stripped-down version of a Vivaldi concerto. Instead of the standard orchestral accompaniment, Knox arranged the work for just two instruments: the viola d'amore and a cello.

"I noticed over the years that baroque players like to lighten things up and make it clearer by reducing the number of people playing," Knox says. "And I thought it would be nice just to see how far I could go, and in this Vivaldi piece I think we've reached the limit. I think it gains something. I think it's exciting to hear it played like this."

The oldest music on Saltarello is by the 12th century abbess and composer Hildegard von Bingen; Knox plays it on the medieval fiddle, an instrument that he says looks like what you see depicted in Renaissance paintings.

"You usually see angels playing them," Knox says. "They usually have five strings, and their bridge is flat and you can play all the strings all the time, which is the idea. It's a very beautiful instrument, and it has a very earthy sound."

Immediately following the ancient sounds, Knox jumps more than 900 years to a new piece, Vent Nocturne (Dark Mirrors), written for him by Kaija Saariaho. It's all part of Knox's musical journey.

"I thought it would be very interesting to put things together which normally you don't hear together," Knox says, "and see just what the differences are."

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


I'm Robert Siegel, and this is Garth Knox on his new album "Saltarello," playing the viola d'amore.


SIEGEL: The viola d'amore is a forebear of the modern viola, which is Knox's main instrument. It has two sets of seven strings.


SIEGEL: The Dublin-born, Scottish-raised musician plays three-stringed instruments on "Saltarello." He says he's been working the viola d'amore into his music ever since he stumbled upon the instrument in Italy.

GARTH KNOX: The viola d'amore appeared and then disappeared in musical history. And I think it's one of those instruments, which, you know, is - a lot of babies got thrown out with the bath water. And I thought the viola d'amore was a particularly big baby that had been thrown away by mistake. And so I'm not only the one, but I and other people are trying to bring it back now and show just how beautiful it can be.

SIEGEL: Do you think perhaps it was tossed out with the hurdy-gurdy, with the kind of...

KNOX: That kind of thing, you know, is actually forgotten. In a way, it got left behind when music started changing key a lot. But then in folk music, that's not a handicap. You don't change key that often in folk music.


SIEGEL: Now, you played the viola from an early age, which is to say somebody switched you from violin to viola. Is that...


SIEGEL: Was that a measure of your future as a violinist, or why did they make you play the viola?

KNOX: Well, I was kind of born into it. When I was born, I already had two sisters who played the violin, and I had a brother who played the cello. So for the family string quartet, it was very clear from the start which instrument I was going to play.


KNOX: And I only took up the violin and - because I couldn't reach the end of the viola. And as soon I could at the age of 11, I then immediately switched to viola and enjoyed it much more. I never called my fate into question.

SIEGEL: Well, let's turn now to, I guess, the oldest music that you include on this album, which is a sort of a mash-up of something by Hildegard von Bingen...

KNOX: Yeah.

SIEGEL: ...and also Guillaume de Machaut, and you're no longer playing the viola d'amore.

KNOX: I'm playing medieval fiddle here, which is a bit like the hurdy-gurdy but played with the bow, and it's probably as far back as we can go for bowed string instruments.

SIEGEL: What's the medieval fiddle look like? What is it?

KNOX: It looks like what you see in Renaissance paintings. You know, you often see angels playing them. They have usually five strings. Their bridge is flat. You can play all the strings all the time, which is the idea. I think it's a very beautiful instrument, and it has a very earthy sound, which is what I like. So this, as I say, we play a piece by Hildegard von Bingen from the 12th century. It's probably about as far back as we can go. It was first a vocal piece, but, of course, it would have been accompanied by a drone on probably a fiddle or something like this. And so I do this sort of little meditation around this Hildegard von Bingen piece.


SIEGEL: These instruments that you play, these long-lost instruments, were they made by the likes of Stradivarius and so on? Or were these more common folk instruments?

KNOX: Well, the fiddle was certainly a more common folk instrument. It was a more basic instrument and easier to make. And probably, there were very good makers at the time. But unfortunately, there were none which survived from the 12th, 13th, 14th centuries. So we really - yes, we're working on paintings and recreating them and finding things that sound good, basically. But I like to have the sense of where we come from. That's part of my nature. And playing the viola, I really want to know where it came from, which is why I went back first to the viola d'amore and then to the fiddle, which is where all the stringed instruments we play nowadays come from.

SIEGEL: You include on this album a couple of pieces by, I guess, the Finnish composer...

KNOX: That's right, Kaija Saariaho, who I admire very much as a composer. And I thought it would be very interesting to put things together which normally you don't hear together, which is what appealed to me in making the CD was this Bingen piece from the 12th century and put it beside one that was written three years ago and just see what the differences are and where we were at in, well, you know, almost 1,000 years later. And they're both wonderfully rich and stimulating. You couldn't really choose between them.


KNOX: Kaija comes from Finland, from the Arctic waste, and I think you can hear this a bit in the music, beautiful solo across the swirling wind behind, made with viola sounds and light electronics.

SIEGEL: Well, what do you think, for someone who has included a piece from the 14th century on this album and folk music which - I don't know how old it is...

KNOX: Yeah.

SIEGEL: ...does this music have legs? Does electronic 21st-century music have legs and going to be around for 800 years?

KNOX: I think pieces like this will last, yes. And I think in 1,000 years, people will have heard it. In fact, this, you know, the past goes away less and less these days. You know, we have recordings of all these old music from the past, which they didn't have in the past. I think the present will stay around a lot longer than it used to.

SIEGEL: You do something on this - in this album that's very interesting. You include a Vivaldi concerto for viola d'amore. However, as opposed to playing it on a viola d'amore with orchestra, it's arranged for viola d'amore and cello. So there's just two instruments playing a Vivaldi concerto.


KNOX: I've been working a bit in the Baroque field . I noticed over the years, and the Baroque players like very much to lighten things up and make it clearer by reducing the number of people playing. And back in the '50s and '60s, people used to play Baroque music with big orchestras and big choirs. And little by little, it's getting smaller and smaller. And actually, tempos have been getting a bit faster. And I thought it'd be nice to see just how far I could go. And in this Vivaldi piece, I think we've reached the limit because you couldn't really take anything else out (unintelligible).

SIEGEL: You got to have two instruments to play Vivaldi.

KNOX: There are only two. Yes, that's right.


KNOX: But I think everything - all the essential is there and actually gains something. I think it's really rather exciting and interesting to hear it played like this.

SIEGEL: It is lovely, and it makes you wonder why one would have needed the other couple of dozen players there.


SIEGEL: Garth Knox, you mentioned being literally born to play the viola because your oldest siblings already played two violins and a cello.

KNOX: That's right.

SIEGEL: Was the family - are there other professional musicians in the family?

KNOX: I'm the only one who carried on. We used to play together every Christmas, our string quartet. In the beginning, I was the worst and, you know, I then got better and better, and they got worse and worse. In the end, it was kind of torture for me. They completely ruined Mozart's "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik."


KNOX: It's the piece we played every year, I just can't hear it anymore without bringing back those memories.


KNOX: But we had a lot of fun.


SIEGEL: Were your parents musicians as well?

KNOX: My father played the bagpipes, which is a great instrument, and the further away you get, the better it sounds.


KNOX: When it's played inside right next to you, it's almost unbearable.



KNOX: And my father - my mother played the piano. See, everyone played something, which is the way in Ireland. You know, there's not the separation between performer and listener. Everybody does it.

SIEGEL: Well, Garth Knox, thanks a lot for talking with us about your new album.

KNOX: Thank you, Robert. It's a pleasure.

SIEGEL: Garth Knox plays the viola, the viola d'amore and the fiddle on his new album called "Saltarello." He spoke to us from Paris.


BLOCK: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.