There's a depth of sound that's hard to put your finger on in Garth Knox' 2008 recording D'Amore. It's not about the number of players: He's got just one collaborator, cellist Agnes Vesterman, and it's pretty easy to sort out their parts. It's more about resonance. He's not playing with amplification or reverb, and it's not an echo from a big empty hall. The notes simply sound a little bit more.
That's because Knox is playing viola d'amore, a baroque-era instrument which in fact has a little bit more: Besides having seven strings, compared to the modern violin's four, and a flatter bridge, which makes it easier to play more strings at once, it's got a separate set of strings beneath the ones you touch with fingers and the bow. These vibrate in sympathy with the ones above, which makes the notes fuller and more complicated. It's almost like they're moving.
"I think it was an early attempt at amplification," says Knox. The Irishman living in Paris begins a U.S. tour this week in Boston, making his second stop in Cleveland — his local debut — as part of the Cleveland Museum of Art's Viva and Gala series.
"Instruments are not passive," says Knox. That's especially apparent with this one. The sympathetic strings respond differently, depending on the note played above them. "It makes every note sound a little different," he says. "It's like it's doing everything it can to make things unequal."
What's especially interesting about Knox taking up a 400-year-old sound is that he's devoted his career to contemporary music. After studying at London's Royal College of Music, he accepted Pierre Boulez's invitation to join the Ensemble InterContemporain, the Paris-based chamber orchestra dedicated to 20th-century composers like Ligeti, Stockhausen and Frank Zappa. After that, he joined the Arditti Quartet, another seminal proponent of contemporary music, which has given lots of world premieres, including works by John Cage, Elliott Carter, Benjamin Britten and Wolfgang Rihm. Since leaving the Arditti in 1997, he's pursued a career as a soloist.
His baroque instrument fits beautifully into that path. Key to the modernist aesthetic is the sound quality of a given note. There's an apt parallel in Mark Rothko's paintings, with their deep and synesthetically resonant blocks of color. If you could hear a Rothko painting, a color field might sound like a single note on a viola d'amore.
"Resonance is a very important part of contemporary music," says Knox. "It's the center of interest. And viola d'amore brings out that resonant side. In that sense, it makes a modern sound, which is why I thought it would be interesting [to use in contemporary music]."
Recently renewed interest in baroque music has reintroduced a range of forgotten instruments or earlier versions of modern ones. "It's as if hearing the old-music way awakened people's ears to think of sound in a different way," says Knox. To apply that sound quality to modern approaches to resonance and tonal quality, he's writing new repertoire specifically for viola d'amore. To fully appreciate the sound requires either an acoustically lively hall or a recording studio. The resonance of his local venue — Plymouth Church in Shaker Heights — ought to serve well.
Knox will perform a mixture of different styles, including music from his new recording, Viola Spaces, which explores extended technique for the modern viola, which he also plays. But on the resonant viola d'amore, he'll play "old music," including baroque-era works by the English composer Tobias Hume and Frenchman Marin Marais, juxtaposed with new music he's written for the instrument. He'll also perform traditional Irish music, including tunes for uilleann pipes, the Irish cousin of the bagpipe. Pipe music is especially effective on viola d'amore, because the sympathetic strings offer an intriguing variation on the pipes' drone.
"That's what I like in this program, putting things together," says Knox. "Marais' 'Les Folies d'Espagne' has a very folky quality. When you put it alongside folk music, that becomes more apparent. You can see relations."