Interview With Violist Garth Knox

AJ Wilkes: Glasgow has a modest but vibrant contemporary music scene, partly fuelled by the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, which attracts modest but vibrant students from around the world. I was attending a solo concert in a pub basement (all the best things in Glasgow happen in pub basements) when I read that the artist had played in the Ensemble Intercontemporain in the 1980s. A check of some liner notes at home showed he had played on the Perfect Stranger sessions, and a quick email showed he was happy to talk through any memories he might have of that time, a long time ago though it was.

He is Garth Knox, a violist, and here's a link to him playing the viola d'amore, a fourteen string viola, seven of which are resonant strings - lots of other performances on his youtube channel too, and a bio on his webpage.

AJ: What was your first connection with Pierre Boulez, and what led you to join the Ensemble?

GK: I was interested in the Ensemble, I was working in London for a while and wanted to go abroad, I was looking for ways to move to France or Italy or somewhere like that, I was very keen on that, and I was also very keen on Boulez and his group. A job came up in his group, and I went to do the audition, and got the job. The first time I met Boulez was at the auditions, I’d seen him conduct but I hadn’t met him before.

Were the Ensemble Intercontemporain doing something different at that time?

Pierre Boulez persuaded the president of France to make a major investment in culture, especially in music. And he asked for two things—he asked for a centre for electronic music, which is IRCAM; and he asked for funding for a new group to play new music, which was the Ensemble Intercontemporain. The two were mutually enriching in that the IRCAM stuff could be played by the Ensemble and the ensemble could use the electronics produced by IRCAM. Those two things were born in the 70s, big budget and backed to the hilt by the government, without that it wouldn’t have been possible. The ensemble became the leading, most well funded contemporary music ensemble in Europe. The London Sinfonietta is older but it’s never been funded very well, it’s always struggled to make money—the Ensemble Intercontemporain was the Rolls Royce of contemporary music ensembles. There were thirty one musicians, and the idea was to play pieces of about fifteen instruments, but all these instruments were available so that people wouldn’t have to write for the usual combinations. It was an interesting prospect—it was Pierre Boulez’s baby, so he was the main conductor. It was he great, he would treat us like his family, we might be working in small groups of ten musicians with him. With a big orchestra he could be quite formidable and intimidating, but with the small groups, with us, he was really nice.

So from a musician’s perspective it wasn’t just that you were being handed the music and following the conductor, it was much more collaborative?

Yes, much more involving, because in a small group like that you’re very much responsible for your own part. And while Boulez had very strong ideas of his own he also wanted people to contribute, it was a great group to be a part of. And it allowed lots of interesting new music to come about that would otherwise not have come about. It’s hard to understand that in Britain because we’ve never seen that here, the government putting its hand in its pocket and paying for something really prestigious. This happened in France in the seventies, it wouldn’t happen now!

It’s partly because of that funding that the Zappa project came about, if we can jump forward a few years—as I understood it, this funding was then called into question later on in the 80s, and at one point it was looking a bit bleak for the ensemble, they were lacking a bit of money. I think it was at that time that Zappa made his proposition—Zappa had the money and he wanted to do this project, he had a great admiration of Boulez, I think secretly his ambition was to be a serious composer, I think he tried when he was younger. So when Zappa had this proposal that he had these pieces that he wanted recorded by the ensemble and conducted by Boulez, I think at the beginning Boulez didn’t necessarily take him very seriously. Boulez was a great musician but I think quite narrow minded musical tastes, he knew what he liked, so for him Zappa was a rock musician which really didn’t count as music. He was almost persuaded to take this thing on board, not really believing in it, but things changed when Frank Zappa arrived. He saw the scores were well written, and in the rehearsals he realised that Frank Zappa’s ears were as good as his. He was very impressed because Zappa would say things like ‘listen, you have a problem there, the second bassoon is playing a little late in that bar...’ And this he had not expected! He’d expected the guy not to know anything about music and to be all ‘touchy-feely’, but he realised that Zappa was really on the ball, musically, and knew just as much about the music as Boulez did. It was impressive.

What was Zappa’s involvement in rehearsals, was he getting stuck in with the musicians as well?

He was there listening to everything, very interested in working out balance and all this kind of thing. What really impressed Boulez and what really impressed us all was his recording technique, because when we got into the studio he really knew what he was doing, placing microphones etc, which Boulez had no idea about, he didn’t care, he thought that if the musicians play well then we’ll get a good recording, which as we know is not necessarily the case. The recording engineer and how you take the sound is as important as playing the music. In the studio Zappa was teaching the sound engineers what to do, because he was the best at recording, he really knew what he was doing—good at music, good at composing, but his recording technique was exceptional. The engineers couldn’t believe it, they were back at school, learning things they’d never heard of.

Were you aware of Zappa before this project?

I knew a little, not that much. The other musicians hardly knew him at all. He wasn’t as well known in France as he was in Britain and the USA, and the musicians in the ensemble didn’t listen to a lot of rock music. I knew of Zappa, I thought he was great, that kind of iconoclastic figure, a person with a great sense of humour and a very fine musician, but I didn’t listen to his music a lot. But when he arrived, and as a person and particularly his ear, we were all very impressed.

Do you remember any personal interactions you had with Zappa?

It’s strange, he was there a lot but—I don’t know if shy is the right word—he wasn’t shy, he was very sure of himself, but he didn’t come out to people and say ‘Hi, how’s it going’, he wasn’t outgoing in that kind of way. He was quite discrete in a way. If he did have cause to talk to you then he would have something funny to say, but I didn’t get close to him—I chatted to him a couple of times, he always had some surprising things to say but I wouldn’t say I ever had a long conversation with him, he was quite busy.

The music itself I thought was pretty good—it was competent, I didn’t think it was fantastic, I preferred the harder rock stuff he did. I feel in these pieces it was a wannabe composer that was appearing, and it didn’t seem to me as successful as the stuff he did himself with his rock bands. It’s my classical taste, but would rather hear him singing and beating shit out of a guitar. His written stuff, for me, was him trying to be somebody else, in a way.

What do you remember of the concert?

Not a lot—I think it was the Theatre de la Ville. Actually, a whole lot of rock and roll fans came, which was interesting and unusual for the ensemble and the regular audience who were usually very straight laced and from the rich end of society. So it got a very different audience, and I think they could have milked that more than they did, I don’t think they quite realised how big a star they had. I think they could have gone with a bigger venue and probably filled it. The normal hall we played in wasn’t huge, possibly 1000 capacity.

Did you have any idea of the relationship between them, was it of equals?

I think at the beginning Boulez didn’t really take him seriously, like he’d been talked into doing it, but I think he earned Boulez’s respect. I don’t know how close they got—Boulez was warm and friendly, but you never really felt you got to know him intimately, he wasn’t someone to make close friends quickly. It was a working relationship. I think Zappa was very happy to work with Pierre Boulez, you could see he had great respect for him from the start, he was one of his idols from when he was younger, so for him it was very satisfying and fulfilling to work with Boulez and have his pieces played by the ensemble.

From working with Boulez and his ensemble, what would you say you took away from it that stayed with you?

Working with Boulez, what I took away from that was a clarity of vision, because he was the most clear person I’ve ever met when he was talking about something or showing something; he knew exactly what he wanted to say, he had that gift of clarity, literally ‘clairvoyance’ if you like, seeing clearly, a musical lucidity. So that’s what I took from him, musically, to have an overview and a really clear vision of what you’re going to do with it. He had that and he was very good at transmitting it, so that would be my memory of him.

The Planet Of My Dreams