The skipping steps of the saltarello provide a fitting image for an album which leaps, imaginatively and gracefully, through almost a thousand years of music history. With repertoire ranging from Hildegard von Bingen and Guillaume de Machaut to Kaija Saariaho via Purcell, Vivaldi, and Celtic traditional music, it’s a recording that attests to the scope of Garth Knox’s enthusiasms and experience. The former violist of the Arditti String Quartet has long been a traveller through musical idioms.
Born in Ireland, raised in Scotland, educated at London’s Royal College of Music, Knox was already playing music from baroque to contemporary in his student years. In 1983 Pierre Boulez invited him to become a member of the Ensemble Intercontemporain in Paris, where he had the chance to do much solo playing and chamber music, and toured widely. With the Arditti Quartet he premiered works by composers including Kurtág, Berio, Xenakis, Lachenmann, Cage, Feldman and Stockhausen, and in the 21st century he has become involved in aspects of improvisation, performing with, amongst others, Steve Lacy, George Lewis, Joëlle Léandre, Dominique Pifarély, Bruno Chevillon, Benat Achiary and Frode Haltli (he appeared on Haltli’s ECM CD “Passing Images”, alongside Arve Henriksen and Maja Ratkje). In the past decade he has also begun to write his own music – some of which can be heard on his ECM album “D’Amore” (recorded 2006) – and to feature the viola d’amore and the fiddle as well as the viola.
Viola d’amore is the first instrument heard here as Knox, joined by frequent collaborator Agnès Vesterman, plays “Black Brittany”, creatively cross-referencing the traditional folk song "Black is the Colour of My True Love's Hair" and “Leaving Brittany” by the late Scottish fiddler, Johnny Cunningham. Echoes of Celtic folk music are heard throughout the album – in Knox’s own viola showcase ‘Fuga libre’” and in the medieval fiddle of the concluding track, “Pipe, harp and fiddle”.
At the centre of the album is a pair of pieces by Kaija Saariaho for viola and electronics, which the Finnish composer (b. 1952) wrote for Gath Knox: Vent Nocturne I and II – their respective subtitles “Dark Mirrors” and “Breaths of the Obscure” indicative of the textural terrain traversed here. According to Knox: “Kaija Saariaho’s work explores the sound the bow produces when it is drawn across a string, a soft breathy sound, like breathing or wind. This ‘white’ bow noise is amplified and multiplied by electronics and woven into a tissue with the composer's own breathing sounds and some electronic wind-harp effects. Pitch becomes breath, breath blows into wind, wind swirls into music.” The two parts of “Vent Nocturne” are here separated by Dowland's "Flow my tears", its three strophes ‘sung’ by the cello, with free instrumental commentary from viola d'amore.
In his Vivaldi adaptation Knox reduces a concerto (the D-minor concerto RV 393) to its barest essentials, retaining the melodic/harmonic viola d'amore line and its complementary bass played on cello. “In this intimate chamber version, the spontaneity and purity of Vivaldi's thinking is even more astonishing.” Knox’s "Fuga libre" described by its composer as a free fantasy, builds momentum from its “baroque jazz” beginnings, “until a vortex pulls it into a ‘crash’, after which high and low notes are separated into different universes. In the slow central section we hear them evolving in their parallel worlds…”
Violoncellist Agnès Vesterman was a member of the Arpeggione Quartet from 1988 to 2001, she is currently playing the sonata repertoire with pianist Jean-François Bouvery. With fellow cellist Anja Lechner she is developing a project around Silvestrov's cello works. Contemporary premieres are a priority on her agenda with composers Philippe Forget, Nicolas Bacri, Régis Campo, Olivier Greif and others. Vesterman has composed music for several shows with actor and writer Vincent Vedovelli working on the relations between words and music. In their recent collaboration "Bach/Cage", Bach’s cello suites were juxtaposed with texts from Cage’s "Silence". She is presently professor of chamber music at the Conservatoire National Superieur de Paris and professor of cello at the Conservatoire National Régional de Boulogne.
Percussionst Sylvian Lemêtre studied chamber music and percussion at the Conservatoire National de Région de Rueil-Malmaison and traditional percussion at l’École Nationale de Musique d’Argenteuil. He has worked closely with numerous composers, directed his own percussion ensemble, and experimented with music theatre productions.