Interview Garth Knox

Violist and composer Garth Knox is a featured artist at the Amsterdam Viola Festival 2019. DVS president and ad-hoc reporter Karin Dolman found him available for an interview.

DVS: So, you’re Scottish?

I was born in Dublin, but we moved to Aberdeen when I was 5 years old, so I had my education in Scotland. I’m probably more Scottish than Irish, but I have family on both sides of the water.

DVS: So you’re influenced by Irish and Scottish music, folk music?

Well, I don’t always do it consciously, but it’s there, you grow up with it in your ears, and it naturally finds a way to come out. And I like it, I think folk music is the strongest kind of music there is, a lot of classical music is taken from folk music and brought into the concert hall. And that’s very interesting, once you take folk music away from the place where it happens, you change it. It doesn’t work the same way up on a stage, in a listening situation. So it’s interesting to see what part of this music still survives in the concert hall, and how you can use that, without losing that spark. It’s very hard, it’s a kind of holy grail, but when you can do it, it’s the best thing there is – I really try to get there.

DVS: And then you were the violist of the Arditti Quartet?

Yes, for seven very full years, it was a great experience, very hard work, I learned a lot!

DVS: But seven years was enough?

Yes – it was good to change people, because the Arditti quartet is not your normal classical string quartet; they focus strongly on contemporary music. Arditti is a special case, because when they originally started (1974, red.) they were pioneers in this sense, to always want to play new music. And Irvine (Irvine Arditti, the founder of the quartet, red.) never wanted to dwell on a single piece for 6 months to make it a masterpiece, he rather wanted to promote new works and maybe influence the programming of other quartets. And it worked, more and more other quartets started to include the Arditti’s pieces in their repertoire.

DVS: In The Netherlands there are more new compositions being made than there are quartets to play them… and you are composing too – when did you start composing?

I started composing seriously after I left the quartet, around 1998, then I had more time.

DVS: So you thought, what they write for us, I can do as well?

Well, there were so many interesting ideas that were not obvious from the outside, that the audience didn’t hear, because there were so many other things going on in the music. And I wanted to broaden my interests, beyond quartet music. And I wanted to move back to Paris, where I lived before I joined the quartet; so those were reasons for leaving.

What I tried to learn from the quartet, and use in my music, is a way of presenting sounds so that people could really enjoy the sounds themselves. Many pieces have almost too many ideas, they’re a whole universe in themselves, which you can get lost in. But I thought, why not present people with new sounds but in a context they know already, instead of unleashing a new revolution upon the world every day! You can present the audience with just a subtle change in the sound, to be interesting enough.

So what I try to do in my music, especially in the Viola Spaces, is to write simple pieces. A straight line, a little melody, no complex metrics, one step at a time, focusing on the sound, without difficult notations. As it progresses, I only change little things, like technique, to modify the sound it makes. So my aim would be to persuade classical musicians to listen more to the sound they’re making.

DVS: So you started composing, at first for yourself – what would you suggest as a starting tip for a would-be composer?

Go for it – but keep it simple, less is more! Don’t start too ambitiously, just write what’s on your mind.

DVS: You have a family – did you have to shut them out in order to find room for composing?

I’m not really a full-time composer, I’m also a player, and I combine the two. So I don’t have to shut out my family to compose. In fact part of the reason for composing was to be able to spend more time at home with my family.

DVS: Are there still things you want to do more of?

Composing-wise, yes! The Pocket Concerto is a good example; the piano is not my favourite companion instrument, it seems to suck all the sound away from the viola. I always thought the viola sounds better without the piano, in a quartet for example.

So I was asked to write a Concertante piece for viola for this competition, and I wanted to open a door to a new combination, by using the cello instead of a piano to play the orchestra part.

DVS: Yes you’re totally right, but at the same time, this particular combination made it difficult for many viola students to enter this competition – the cellists often backed out when they saw the score, they couldn’t muster the time and energy to practice this demanding part as a mere “accompanist”.

Really? I’m surprised to hear that. I tried to make it easy on the cello …

DVS: Yes, it’s really an attitude issue among conservatory students,
which we have to try to change…

…anyway, next topic! The Viola d’Amore, a special love of yours. Where do you start to learn this instrument?

I think you can just start to play, and teach yourself. And there’s also a method by the 18th century composer-violist Milandre, with lots of nice little pieces and tips to get started.

DVS: And the tuning – D major seems to be the standard?

Yes, but it can also be D minor, which is my favourite. And you can arrange the sympathetic strings according to the piece.

DVS: I also saw the Hardanger fiddle mentioned on your site?

Yes, I played with Caoimhin O Raghallaigh, an Irish fiddler who has a 5-string “Hardanger d’Amore“. But I don’t really play the Hardanger fiddle myself, although I did play it once in a video. And it is of course related to the Viola d’Amore.

DVS: Some last questions then – did you ever play in an orchestra?

I played in the English Chamber Orchestra for a while, after leaving college.

DVS: And with whom did you study?

I studied with Frederick Riddle at the Royal College of Music in London, a great violist. He’s also known for having made the first-ever recording of the Walton Concerto.

DVS: And where could students reach you – do you teach?

I do some summer courses, but no year-round teaching position.

DVS: Then we’ll make sure your summer courses are shown in our website’s Summer Courses guide!
Thank-you for your time!

Editor’s note:  Tomorrow (Nov 16th), Garth Knox will perform his own Pocket Concerto (for viola and cello) at the Evening concert of the DVS National Viola Gathering in Splendor Amsterdam! Reserve your tickets and come!