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Garth Knox’s Viola Spaces

Paul Groh


H. P. Lovecraft’s 1921 horror story “The Music of Erich Zann” has inspired several works for the viola as well as a stage play, a short film, and at least two rock albums.  The story’s narrator tells of Erich Zann, a mute German viol player who earns a living in a cheap theatre orchestra but spends his nights playing strange music alone in his shabby attic room high atop the steep and narrow Rue d’Auseil in Paris.  The music holds a haunting fascination for the narrator, bearing no resemblance to any he has ever heard before; the sounds “held vibrations suggesting nothing on this globe of earth, and at intervals they assumed a symphonic quality which I could hardly conceive as produced by one player.  Certainly, Erich Zann was a genius of wild power.”  The narrator expresses a desire to look out the single gable window in Zann’s room – the only point in the street from which one can view the panorama of the city below – but Zann is alarmed at the suggestion and refuses to open the shutters.

One night Zann’s viol erupts into “a chaotic babel of sound . . . sounds I never thought a viol could emit . . . fantastic, delirious, hysterical, yet kept to the last the qualities of supreme genius . . . . In his frenzied strains I could almost see shadowy satyrs and bacchanals dancing and whirling insanely through seething abysses of clouds and smoke and lightning.”  A sudden windstorm springs up in response to the music and smashes open the gable window, allowing the narrator to look through it for the first time.  But “while the candles sputtered and the insane viol howled with the night wind, I saw no city spread below, and no friendly lights gleamed from remembered streets, but only the blackness of space illimitable; unimagined space alive with motion and music, and having no semblance of anything on earth.”

Lovecraft’s description of the fictional Erich Zann and his music bears an uncanny correspondence to an actual violist living in Paris today.  Garth Knox has secured a place at the forefront of the European contemporary music scene, as a member of Pierre Boulez’s Ensemble InterContemporain in the 1980s and the Arditti Quartet in the nineties, and more recently as an engaging and charismatic solo performer on both the viola and the viola d’amore.  In the past decade he has begun to compose his own music, drawing upon his extensive experience at the avant-garde to create highly original works that display not only spectacular virtuosity, but also great wit and charm.  Of special interest to violists is his new work Viola Spaces, a set of studies in contemporary viola techniques, the first volume of which was published by Schott in 2009.  The title refers to the annual Viola Space Festival in Tokyo established in 1992 by Nobuko Imai, to whom the work is dedicated, but also denotes vast and unexplored frontiers in viola playing: “space alive with motion and music” in a very real sense.

photo of cd coverViola Spaces was composed in response to a serious problem of long standing in the teaching of contemporary music.  Many students, when confronting a contemporary work, all too often find themselves bewildered by, as Knox puts it, “the complexity of the notation, the unfamiliar musical language, and the kaleidoscope of special effects, all usually piled on top of each other.”  Without a systematic approach to tackling such complexity, students very easily become discouraged and may abandon the piece as being “too difficult”.  This discouragement, sadly, can harden into an antipathy towards contemporary music in general.

Knox is not the first violist who has attempted to address this issue.  In 1995 the American String Teachers Association commissioned Samuel Rhodes of the Juilliard School to edit a volume of Contemporary Etudes and Solos for the Viola, with notes on performance and practice procedure.  It contains seven worthwhile pieces by Paul Hindemith, Betsy Jolas, Milton Babbitt, and others, at least one of which has never been published elsewhere.  However, these pieces are not “etudes” in the strict sense, in that none of them was originally composed with a specific pedagogic end in mind.  Furthermore, they are all exceedingly difficult, and plagued with the confusing panoply of technical issues cited by Knox above.  Rhodes has furnished each piece with as many as nine full pages of explanatory notes; and while his advice is very good, the sheer amount of necessary preparation, even before putting bow to string, is likely to cow students back into their comfort zone.  Contemporary Etudes and Solos for the Viola might have had some value as an anthology of modern music for highly advanced players, but unfortunately most of the pieces contained therein are incomplete versions of multi-movement works.

With Viola Spaces Knox unravels the problem by separating it into its constituent elements.  Each of its eight short pieces, or “spaces”, presents just one specific technique, the musical possibilities of which are then developed and explored in exciting new ways.  Each “space” is also preceded by a cogent technical explanation, only a few paragraphs in length, which not only provides useful advice but also introduces interesting concepts regarding the nature of the instrument and the pertinent technique’s application to string playing in general.  Best of all, beyond their practical utility as practice and teaching exercises, and like all really good etudes, the Viola Spaces make fun and appealing concert pieces in their own right.            

I hasten to point out that none of the techniques showcased in Viola Spaces is particularly new.  All of them have been around for many years and have been used by major composers in important works in the viola literature.  Most of them can be found in the orchestral parts of Mahler and Ravel.  Yet they almost never form a part of our musical training; we generally learn of them from a brief explanation that can be encapsulated in a single sentence, and leave it at that.  Thus extended techniques are widely considered “secondary” or even trivial, and as a result they are often played carelessly, poorly, or incorrectly even by seasoned musicians.

Some string players, embittered by unpleasant experiences with modern music, scorn to play extended techniques at all.  I knew a violinist who steadfastly refused to play col legno after having broken his bow doing so during a youth orchestra performance of the Penderecki Threnody.  Less excusable is a former colleague of mine who refused to play sul ponticello or sul tasto, because he felt it “spoiled” the sound of the viola; he did not even own a mute, for the same reason.  And yet both of them have had long and successful careers as orchestral players.  Such narrow-minded musicians, with no appreciation for the expressive and coloristic capabilities of their instruments (which, it should go without saying, their job requires of them), ultimately do a disservice not only to the music they play, but to themselves.  Just as learning a new style of music improves one’s command of the styles one has already mastered, the practice of extended techniques leads to an improvement of viola technique in general.  These techniques are, in fact, essential to a full mastery of the instrument.  Thus Knox’s Viola Spaces represents perhaps the most significant advance in viola pedagogy in recent years.

It may therefore be helpful to examine each of the Viola Spaces in turn, focusing on the techniques they present, the challenges they pose, and the practical benefits they offer the violist.

No. 1: “Beside the bridge”

Playing with the bow “beside the bridge”, or sul ponticello, yields a timbre rich in upper overtones, often used for mysterious effects.  The technique is far from contemporary in origin, having been used in the operas of Monteverdi four hundred years ago.  It is usually combined with tremolo, which not only creates an atmosphere of dramatic tension but, as it happens, is also the easiest way to play sul ponticello; the correct position of the bow can be maintained easily when using only a very small segment of it.  To play sul ponticello while using the entire bow requires a much greater degree of control.

In “Beside the bridge,” there is no tremolo at all (that occurs in another exercise).  Instead, the violist must keep the bow at the bridge while playing long sustained notes, rapid triplets and semiquavers both at the tip and at the heel, string crossings, and double-stops.  An effect called “irising” is created by increasing bow speed to bring out a radiant sweep of overtones on each note.  In one notable passage, the bow is drawn over the bridge and onto the other side, then back again: first slowly (over two bars), then in increasingly smaller note values, eventually pivoting quickly around the apex of the string in tiny circles.  (Bowing between the bridge and the tailpiece, to produce a thin, squeaky tone of indeterminate pitch, is a legitimate string technique; my orchestra recently premiered a concerto for timpani and strings by the Brazilian composer Ney Rosauro that made ample use of this effect.)

Playing sul ponticello requires a very light, steady bow hand; the least bit of stiffness can cause the bow to skip or bounce.  “Beside the bridge” is therefore helpful in developing bow control and flexibility in the right hand.  It might even be useful to encourage very young pupils to play sul ponticello, using the bridge as a guidepost for keeping the bow perpendicular to the string; and it certainly would do no harm to introduce children to basic extended techniques at an early stage in their musical education.       

photo of Garth Knox

No. 2: “Ghosts”

The opposite of sul ponticello, of course, is sul tasto, or playing with the bow over the fingerboard.  This has the effect of removing overtones from the sound to create a more muted and delicate timbre.  It is almost impossible to play sul tasto at any great volume, and over the years I have heard many conductors exhort the string section to play sul tasto purely as a means of achieving a true orchestral pianissimo.  That misses the point; it is a colour effect, not a dynamic one.  It can be exquisitely beautiful when played properly, as it almost never is; sul tasto means well and truly over the fingerboard, not merely a hair’s breadth closer to it than normal.

In the opening of “Ghosts”, Knox demonstrates the proper position of the bow for sul tasto playing in an ingenious way.  The bow is drawn, not across any of the strings, but against the corner bouts at the edge of the viola, to produce a soft tone reminiscent of breathing, a gentle exhalation of white noise.  (This technique is often used in the experimental music of Marco Lombardi, for example in his Mihrab for solo viola and his second string quartet.)  The bow gradually moves from the left corner bout onto the C string and arrives naturally at the correct sul tasto position.  The music is marked sempre molto flautando, a kind of sul tasto playing using a fast, light bow to yield a tone like a flute; although to my ear, the resulting timbre sounds less like a silver or platinum orchestral flute than a Japanese bamboo flute or shakuhachi.  This, along with the slow tempo, the prevailing modality, and the breath-like sound of bow hair against wood, makes “Ghosts” something of a musical Zen meditation, releasing the mind from extraneous thought by focusing the player’s attention on the sul tasto timbre of the viola.

Most of “Ghosts” is in third or fifth position, where it is difficult to play sul tasto without the bow colliding into an adjacent string.  Knox recommends using one of the fingers of the left hand to press a neighbouring string against the fingerboard, out of the bow’s way.  I find it quite easy to hold down the lower adjacent string with the first finger, or the upper adjacent string with the fourth finger, although it takes a bit of getting used to; but it’s certainly a better solution than sacrificing the timbre by moving the bow closer to the bridge.

As with sul ponticello, practicing sul tasto promotes lightness and steadiness in the bow hand.  Once these two extremes have been mastered, then the entire intermediate spectrum of tone colour may be brought to bear in shaping phrases, highlighting dynamic contrast, and creating subtly nuanced interpretations.  A violist whose bow never deviates from the sounding point is like an actor who delivers all of his lines in exactly the same tone of voice; no matter how euphonious, or how expressive, it gets monotonous after a while.

No. 3: “One finger”

I had a composition teacher who hated glissandos; any occurrence of one in a student composition would send him into a tantrum.  He believed that the glissando was a cliché, only useful in circus bands and animated cartoons, and was to be sedulously avoided in serious music.  It is true that certain types of glissando have become clichés: for example, the upbeat harp glissando in a show tune orchestration, and, ironically, the very sort of comic effect that my former teacher cited as the glissando’s only legitimate utility.  In fact the glissando is a wonderfully versatile and expressive technique in string playing.  It may be used merely to bend a pitch, as in blues fiddling; it can sweep across the entire range of the fingerboard, in an instant or at glacial slowness; and it may be combined with any variety of bowings, as well as pizzicato or col legno.  In my own music I have distinguished between a linear glissando, where the rate of the slide is constant, and a hyperbolic glissando, where the rate of the slide accelerates.  Knox notes that the glissando is an integral part of string instrument technique in the musical cultures of China and India, used as a means of imitating the human voice.  Clearly this is a valuable resource that deserves to be cultivated, and practiced, as much as any other.

Far from expressing any comic effect, “One finger” is a poignant and sensitive valse triste in slow 6/8 time.  Its title is derived from the fact that the glissando is produced by sliding one finger of the left hand along the string; however, all four fingers are brought into play in the course of the exercise, both separately and in conjunction.  Each of the first four phrases employs a different finger; the melody begins with semitones, then proceeds to whole tones, then minor thirds, and so on, with the melodic intervals widening as the music progresses.  In the climax of the piece (mm. 37 – 45), a series of arpeggios is played across all four strings of the viola as the left hand is held in “Geminiani chord” position.  This chord, consisting of stacked perfect fourths (with the first finger on the A string, second finger on D, and so on), was devised by the Baroque violinist Francesco Geminiani not for any compositional purpose, but as a means of demonstrating the proper position and curvature of the fingers.  As such, the left hand as a whole maintains its correct position while sliding up and down the fingerboard, at the same time producing a beautifully nostalgic effect like an old-fashioned hand-cranked gramophone going in and out of tune. 

Practicing glissandos in this way improves shifting and intonation, and also helps develop a secure, yet light and flexible, left hand technique.  It can further serve as preparation for the weirdly beautiful solo viola sonata (1960) of Grażyna Bacewicz, the final section of which consists almost entirely of glissandos, always in double-stops and rapid spiccato semiquavers.  Bacewicz is a well-known composer in her native Poland, where there are streets, parks, and schools named after her; and her viola sonata is a powerful, wholly original masterpiece that deserves to be more widely performed worldwide.

No. 4: “Nine fingers”

Pizzicato is not, strictly speaking, a secondary technique, as stringed instruments were plucked long before they were ever played with a bow.  It was eschewed for instruments of the violin family during the Baroque and Classical periods, probably because of the ease with which the gut strings of that time could be pulled out of tune; but in music from about 1800 to the present day, there is hardly an orchestral, chamber or solo work that does not have at least some pizzicato in it.  “The rapidity of passages in pizzicato is necessarily limited by the difficulty of continued plucking by one finger,” wrote Walter Piston in his 1955 textbook Orchestration.  “The trick of alternating first and second fingers in fast pizzicato, acquired by some players, is by no means universal.”  Yet violists who have mastered this “trick” clearly have an advantage over those who have not; and when the bow is put down, more than two fingers may be employed in pizzicato playing, opening up a host of new musical possibilities for our instrument.

In “Nine fingers”, as its title suggests, fully nine fingers – every digit except for the left thumb – are used to pluck the strings.  It begins with just the first two fingers of the right hand plucking alternately, then in tandem, then alternating in rapid sextuplets; meanwhile the fingers of the left hand either strike the string sharply against the fingerboard (banjo players call this “hammering”) or pluck it as the finger is pulled laterally away.  Gradually the other fingers are brought into play to produce a wide range of colourful effects: triple- and quadruple-stops strummed with one finger or played as a tremolo by all four; descending arpeggios played by rolling the right thumb downward; rapid descending scales articulated by the left hand alone; and throughout, a marvellous interplay between the left and right hands in an amazing variety of intricate combinations.  “Nine fingers” ends with all nine fingers playing a long pizzicato tremolo on the open strings, which are then dampened with an audible slap.

“Nine fingers” is one of the most brilliantly imaginative works for the viola that I have ever heard.  In Knox’s hands the solo viola sounds like a hundred harps or a thousand flamenco guitars all clamouring at once.  However, it is also diabolically difficult, and it still would be even if its revolutionary pizzicato techniques were in general practice.  I am determined to conquer it, but it will likely take me a very long time.  As with any difficult music, it helps to break it down into more manageable units, taking just one bar at a time, very slowly at first, before gradually speeding the tempo.  Be careful not to attempt too much too soon.  An excess of pizzicato playing, before calluses have been allowed to form on the fingertips, can result in the eruption of painful blood blisters.  Trust me.

Mastery of these pizzicato techniques has several positive consequences.  First, it enables us to have a little creative fun the next time we have to play Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony or Lieutenant Kije.  Second, any exercise that builds strength and independence of movement in the fingers of the right hand will also benefit our bowing.  Finally, these techniques are prerequisite to performing a major work in the viola literature that was composed long before Knox was even born.  The second movement of Hindemith’s final solo sonata – composed over two days on a train journey from New York to Chicago in 1937, performed by the composer only a handful of times that year, and then lost until a photocopy of the manuscript was discovered in the Library of Congress in the 1970s – contains an extended pizzicato passage to be played with the bow down, using all the fingers of the right hand.  I own recordings of this work by two different violists, each of whom plays the passage with only one finger – and both of them considerably below the designated tempo of 152 beats per minute.  Only by developing the pizzicato techniques embodied in “Nine fingers” can this remarkable work – the only solo string sonata from Hindemith’s middle period – be performed in the proper spirit.

photo of Garth Knox

No. 5: “Rapid repeat”

Tremolo is one of the most common effects in orchestral string parts, especially in the music of the late Romantic era.  It can also be one of the most physically taxing.  The key is to keep the right arm as relaxed as possible, limiting the movement to the hand and wrist only; in pianissimo passages, a fine tremolocan be achieved by using only the fingers.  The player should be conscious of any tension that may develop in the right arm or shoulder and release it before the muscles begin to lock up.  In this way I have survived double rehearsals of Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony without the need for advanced physiotherapy afterwards.

“Rapid repeat” calls for the C string to be tuned down to B-flat, giving the viola great resonance and depth in the prevailing tonality of E-flat.  The piece begins with repeated notes in increasingly shorter note vales; triplets give way to semiquavers, then sextuplets, then demisemiquavers, before a true unmeasured tremolois attained.  (The distinction between measured and unmeasured tremolo is very important; in some Dvořák symphonies, for example, the viola part consists of little else.) In one passage the player must maintain an unmeasured tremolo while simultaneously moving up and down the bow; this not only emphasises the dynamic contour of the phrase, but also, by confining the tremolo motion to the hand as the lower arm makes smooth bow strokes, helps to avoid muscle strain and fatigue.  Another passage uses a “flying tremolo,” which starts by throwing the bow as in ricochet, then maintaining the momentum of the stroke to create an oscillating tremolo over two strings.  The music builds through steadily rising chromatic intervals to a climax of almost Wagnerian power and intensity, with the furious tremoloencompassing all four strings of the viola at once; yet Knox asks the player to increase the bow pressure still more, until the tremolodevolves into a frenzy of toneless scratching.  (Knox’s cheeky sense of humour is apparent here as in much of his music.)  A gentle three-bar coda, in which the tremolo is produced by a ricochet bow, concludes the piece.  

Somewhat surprisingly, “Rapid repeat” is a very effective and satisfying piece of music, showcasing a variety of technical and expressive possibilities in a technique that is usually taken for granted.  When properly practiced – with economical hand movement and a relaxed bow arm – it carries benefits for bowing in general, and also builds physical strength and stamina (the piece is quite a workout).  It can also serve as a preparatory exercise for one of the greatest modern works for solo viola, Luciano Berio’s Sequenza VI (1968), notorious for its extended use of tremolo quadruple-stops.  Violists should not be intimidated by its reputation as the single most difficult work in the repertoire (although in my opinion the second Milhaud concerto beats it hands down); it has been recorded several times, by Knox among others, and in recent years it has even been performed on student recitals by ambitious undergraduates.  As musical standards continue to rise, we will no doubt hear more of the Berio Sequenza; after all, the viola part of Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique Symphony was deemed utterly unplayable at its London premiere, but today the piece is a staple of youth orchestra concert programming.

No. 6: “Harmonic horizon”

Harmonics are some of the most beautiful sounds that can be produced by stringed instruments.  By touching the string with the left hand at certain nodes we can separate individual overtones from the fundamental tone, the musical equivalent of turning sunlight into a rainbow.  On the viola only the second, third and fourth natural harmonics are in common usage; however, partials on any note of the chromatic scale may be produced by using artificial harmonics, where the first finger shortens the string length while the fourth finger touches the fourth harmonic node.  Of course, even higher partials are possible; Stephen Cronin’s Flux (1995), a solo viola piece consisting entirely of harmonics, uses the fifth and sixth harmonics as well.  In “Harmonic horizon,” Knox, once again, has taken the technique to new extremes.

Harmonics may be notated in either of two ways.  The actual pitches may be given, with each note surmounted by a small circle (which, in the case of higher harmonics, leaves the method of production open to question); or the nodes themselves may be indicated with diamond-shaped note heads (which does not convey an accurate picture of the resulting pitches).  Knox wisely combines the two systems.  Most of “Harmonic horizon” is notated on two staves like a piano score, the upper staff giving the actual pitches (or sometimes, out of necessity, sounding an octave higher), and the lower one indicating the position of the nodes in a sort of tablature.

The opening melody ascends through the overtone series on the C string as high as the eleventh harmonic (three octaves and an augmented fourth above the fundamental), using the harmonic nodes at both the distal and proximal ends of the string.  In either case the distance between the nodes of the upper partials is very small and must be handled with great finesse.  Most of the melody is played using a fingered tremolo between the flageolet and the open string, which, by a wonderful acoustic quirk, causes both pitches to sound simultaneously and also gives added stability to the upper partials.  The natural harmonic fingered tremolo on the C string is then combined in double-stops with artificial harmonics played on the G string – and yes, this passage is every bit as difficult as my description of it may suggest.

Sweeping harmonic glissandos cause the individual notes of the overtone series to sound in swift succession, an effect familiar to violists from the introductions to both The Firebird and The Rite of Spring.  A strikingly beautiful passage of “trembling harmonics” employs a fingered tremolo between the harmonic and the fundamental, as in the opening of the piece, but here using ingenious combinations of natural and artificial harmonics, in double-stops throughout:  a shimmering, ethereal chorale in four-part harmony for solo viola.  The tempo then quickens, ushering in a virtuosic passage of rapid semiquavers played so high on the strings that the left thumb must be held against the side of the fingerboard.  In the end, the matter of pitch has become entirely arbitrary in an effulgent wash of sound with harmonic glissandos and “seagull” harmonics (an artificial harmonic played in a descending glissando over the full length of the string, creating a semblance of the bird’s cry).  The piece concludes with a “slow gliss. to infinity,” carrying the harmonics upward beyond the range of audible frequencies until there is barely enough room for the edge of the bow hair to pass between the fingers and the bridge.

“Harmonic horizon” is, by far, the most difficult of the Viola Spaces, more so even than “Nine fingers”.  Only the most accomplished virtuoso violists will be able to pull it off in performance – and those who do will no doubt find the experience extremely gratifying.  Yet the rest of us have much to gain from it, even by just working on individual bars, one at a time, far under tempo.  Long ago I discovered that practicing harmonics is a good way to break in a new set of strings, enhancing their responsiveness and enriching their sound.  This holds true for the viola itself.  By focusing on the upper partials individually, the aggregate tone of the instrument becomes fuller and more resonant.  Stringed instruments often improve with age, but this is not an organic process; we have to make it happen.
Works making extensive use of harmonics abound in the viola literature.  A less daunting example, if I may be forgiven an act of brazen self-promotion, occurs in the second movement, “Tick”, of my solo viola suite Three Arachnids (2001).  I found that the third, fourth, fifth, and seventh natural harmonics on each string may be played comfortably by holding the left hand in third position.  This creates a set of sixteen pitches (although I only use fourteen of them, avoiding the highest and lowest) comprising all but two notes of the chromatic scale – only E-flat and A-flat are absent – and allowing for the creation of melodies with irregular intervals that, in contradistinction to artificial harmonics, can be played smoothly and without constant shifting.

No. 7: “In between”

Years ago I played the Concert Piece for Synket (an early synthesizer) and orchestra by John Eaton, who makes extensive use of quartertones in all of his music, even his operas.  In this work, dating from 1967, each section of the orchestra is divided: half of the musicians use the standard tuning of A 440, while the other half tune their instruments a quartertone flat.  (I was principal of the quarter-flat violas.)  In this way a melody in quartertones can be played by any section of the orchestra without anyone having to employ an unconventional fingering; and although the necessity of passing melodic fragments back and forth between the divisi halves of each section makes it terribly difficult to shape phrases as a whole, it demonstrates the extent to which some composers will go to accommodate musicians whose classical training does not prepare them for such fine divisions of the octave.  It’s time that we met them halfway.

As Knox pointed out in “One finger”, a string is not naturally divided into semitones but is a continuum, like a Euclidean line comprising an infinite number of points.  Thus stringed instruments are perfectly capable of playing quartertones; on the viola, quartertones in first position are physically no closer together than semitones in seventh position.  (In fact they are, in terms of actual distance, precisely the same.)  Microtones are by no means confined to the experimental music of the 1960s.  They occur naturally in the overtone series; the eleventh harmonic is almost exactly a quartertone above the fourth scale degree.  Quartertones are found in a variety of musical styles, for example the “blue note” in jazz; and I have a recording of Bulgarian folk songs in which two a capella singers frequently cadence on a neutral third (a quartertone between major and minor).  The first step in learning to play quartertones, and the most important part of the process, is training the ear to hear them.

“In between” introduces the concept of quartertones in relation to the pitches of the chromatic scale by the clever expedient of taking an interval made up of an odd number of semitones, then simply dividing it in half.  It opens with a melody built on a repeating minor third, B to D on the A string; at the cadence, the second finger is then placed exactly halfway between, yielding a C-quarter-sharp.  Other in-between intervals are introduced in a similar fashion, always using an open string as a point of reference.  Adjacent pitches a quartertone apart may, and generally should, be played with the same finger; however, Knox has included a series of quartertone trills, as high as fifth position, which require the fingers to be practically piled on top of each other.  (My former teacher Nathan Gordon, whose sensitive yet thick-boned hands resembled hairy-knuckled fielders’ gloves, might have had trouble with this passage.)  The piece ends with a reference to the Gyorgy Ligeti sonata, one of the best known solo viola works to employ quartertones; the sonata’s second movement, “Loop” (which was the first movement to be composed), was premiered by Knox in 1991.

There are several systems for notating quartertones; unfortunately, Knox has chosen the worst possible one.  The in-between pitches are indicated with traditional accidentals – sharps, flats, and naturals – to which tiny arrows, pointing either up or down, have been appended.  This system allows for the use of enharmonic equivalents – for example, F-three-quarters-sharp is equivalent to G-quarter-flat – but in the absence of any generally accepted theory of tonality governing the use of quartertones, such a superfluity of accidentals only confuses matters.  Worse yet, the tiny arrows, especially the descending ones, are easy to overlook; and finally, my sense of logic balks at the idea that a note can be “quarter-natural”.  On the other hand, “In between” was not written to facilitate ease of sight reading, but to develop acuity of pitch; and it seems somehow fitting that such close attention must be paid to the accidentals on the page, as well as to the pitches that fall to ear.  A student who learns to play quartertones from “In between” will have no trouble later on dealing with any of the more readable alternative notational systems.

John Eaton acquired his conversance with quartertones by playing simultaneously on two pianos, one of them tuned a quartertone flat.  We violists do not have this option, of course, but “In between” is an excellent means of introducing these sounds, their notation, and the musical possibilities they present.  Using it as a guide, I have adapted some of the Schradieck finger exercises to quartertones and find practicing them tremendously satisfying.  A musician who can hear and play precise quartertones has a decided advantage over one who cannot, and this enhanced sense of pitch will lead naturally to an improvement in intonation overall.                 

No. 8: “Up, down, sideways, round”

We violists are taught from the very beginning of our musical training to move the bow steadfastly in a straight line perpendicular to the string.  Even when bouncing the bow in spiccato or saltato, we maintain that strict linear orientation.  In “Up, down, sideways, round,” the last of the Viola Spaces, Knox asks us to take the bow in the directions given in the title, opening up a “viola space” in three dimensions.  It is also a very cool piece; with its persistent rhythmic momentum, modal harmonies, frequent use of parallel fifths, and nearly constant use of double-stops and triple-stop chords, it is very much like a rock and roll instrumental for solo viola.  In fact it uses many of the same techniques espoused by Australian rock violist Shenzo Gregorio, whose YouTube instructional videos, like Knox’s, are definitely worth a look.

“Up, down, sideways, round” begins with the bow tapping vertically against the strings using no horizontal movement whatsoever; this allows rapidly repeated, unbroken triple-stops to be played at a low dynamic level.  Gettato is a kind of ricochet bowing, like saltato but with less horizontal motion; the vertical and gettato bowings constitute the “up” and “down” of the title (what we normally think of as up-bow and down-bow are, in this context, actually back and forth).  Knox then introduces three types of “sideways” bowing.  The first is a “pan-pipes” effect, played with the vertical bowing as before but done poco ponticello and with a bit of sideways movement to simulate the characteristic breathy timbre of the ancient syrinxSpazzolato (“brushed”) means brushing the bow laterally along the string, oscillating rapidly between tasto and ponticello.  This has been frequently used by the Italian composer Salvatore Sciarrino, for example in his Tre notturni brillanti (1974-75) for solo viola; here, however, in restless demisemiquavers, it rather reminds me of the synthesizer riffs in 1970s funk tunes such as Shaft and Superfly.  The third, circular bowing, a technique grossly overused in the music of the late Donald Erb, consists of drawing tiny circles on the string, moving the bow from tasto to ponticello with just a modicum of horizontal motion.

All of these bowing techniques are combined with col legno in the second half of the piece; the transitions between arco and col legno may be either gradual or sudden and require a great deal of control in the bow hand.  The climax of the piece is reached with a “helicopter” bowing, a combination of spazzolato and circular bowing played fortissimo at the heel, the bow flailing vigorously like a helicopter’s rotor blade – an effect as impressive visually as it is musically.

After I played through “Up, down, sideways, round” for the first time, my right hand and wrist were terribly sore from the strain of moving the bow in new and unfamiliar ways.  As with any new skill, however, it becomes easier with repeated practice.  Any comprehensive fitness regimen will subject all muscle groups to a variety of repetitive motions; thus the bow techniques used here, by increasing strength and flexibility in the right hand, will engender an improved command of standard bowing techniques as well.  It is also an excellent exercise in col legno playing, a technique which, to my eternal frustration, is all too often played sloppily even by professional orchestras.  That passage in the finale of the Symphonie Fantastique always reminds me of having my teeth cleaned.

The eight Viola Spaces cover the most common extended techniques with great thoroughness, but there are other aspects of contemporary performance practice which Knox does not address.  Samuel Rhodes, in Contemporary Etudes and Solos for the Viola, writes:  “The most important technical element by far that the student will have to develop is the ability to use the high and even extremely high registers of the instrument accurately and fluently”; and while I feel he may be overstating his case, there is no question that the stratosphere of the viola’s range is too often neglected, especially by those of us who did not start out on the violin.  I must confess to having occasionally transposed a passage into a lower octave when it suited me, and if the composer was not around to object.  Once, when the composer was present, I told him that a particularly lofty passage in his new work was unplayable as written and would have to be taken down an octave, to which he responded:  “But in Die ägyptische Helena, the violas have to approach that high A chromatically, and at a faster tempo, too.”  When a composer can cite viola excerpts from the operas of Richard Strauss, he deserves to be taken seriously. 

Except for “Harmonic horizon” – and harmonics constitute an exceptional case of high register playing – there is very little in Viola Spaces that goes above fifth position.  Yet etudes written expressly to develop fluency in the viola’s high register, if any exist, are perhaps unnecessary; the best way to feel at home on the near end of the fingerboard is simply to spend more time there.  Simple melodies may be taken up an octave, or two, or even three, concentrating all the while on intonation and tone production.  We could also stand to cultivate a familiarity with the three-octave scales we ordinarily avoid like the plague, namely B major and B-flat minor.  Violists vary widely in size and shape, as do our instruments, and some of us may have trouble physically reaching those extreme high notes; but Knox’s solution of placing the left thumb against the side of the fingerboard, as in “Harmonic horizon”, can be helpful in negotiating the viola’s upper frontier.

The matter of complex rhythms is likewise a serious deficit in string pedagogy.  Our etudes are composed largely of didactic quavers and semiquavers which, useful though they may be in developing basic technique, leave us wholly unprepared for the ballets of Stravinsky, let alone the string quartets of Elliott Carter.  With the exception of “Nine fingers,” the Viola Spaces are all very straightforward rhythmically; half of them do not contain any metre changes at all.

Inculcating a keen sense of rhythm, however, is of key importance to percussionists.  When I was a student, I was intrigued by the rhythmic complexity in a friend’s book of snare drum etudes, and he was kind enough to let me borrow them for a while.  I spent a little time every day practicing them on the viola (I played every note as E-flat on the D string, but obviously any pitch would have served as well) and found them enormously challenging, but they gave me great insight into the rhythmic structure of the fascinating new music that I was then just discovering.  Given the lack of such resource material written specifically for us, we violists can benefit greatly from the study of percussion etudes (obviously leaving out such idiomatic flourishes as flams, rimshots, and paradiddles).  My friend was so gratified that a mere string player was aspiring to a percussionist’s level of musicianship that he was only mildly annoyed at having to erase my bowings!

Two additional volumes of Viola Spaces are due to be published by Schott at the end of 2011.  These have already been recorded on Knox’s CD Viola Spaces, which was released by Mode Records in 2009.  The recording features several other recent works by Knox, including the droll Jonah and the Whale, one of the very few duets in existence for viola and tuba.

Volume 2 of Viola Spaces contains the same set of eight pieces in Volume 1, arranged as duets for two violas.  The first viola part is identical to that in Volume 1, while the second provides a somewhat simpler accompaniment using the same extended techniques.  Thus a student may become acquainted with a particular technique through the second viola part before advancing to the first; this is especially helpful in learning the more difficult of the Viola Spaces, namely “Nine fingers” and “Harmonic horizon”.  As concert pieces, the duets are every bit as colourful, challenging and fun as the solo version, providing violists with a wonderful opportunity to make music together after we’ve outgrown the duets of Stamitz and Rolla.

The third volume of Viola Spaces is a set of variations for four violas based on La Folia d’Espagna by the Baroque viola da gamba virtuoso Marin Marais (1656-1728).  An early proponent of program music – one of his works describes a gall bladder operation – Marais was solo gambist in the court of Louis XIV for over thirty years and composed prolifically for his instrument.  A number of his works have been transcribed for the viola, for example, the lovely Five Old French Dances arranged by L. T. Rowe and M. E. Aldis for viola and piano; an old Schirmer edition of La Folia for viola solo and string orchestra has been out of print for years.

In Knox’s arrangement, each variation showcases one of the extended techniques used in the previous volumes of Viola Spaces; and remarkably, he has managed to combine seventeenth-century musical style and modern instrumental technique without the least trace of aesthetic anachronism.  The ponticello and tasto variations suggest the timbres of early stringed instruments, while the pizzicato variation sounds like a consort of lutes.  Even the quartertone variation, ostensibly the technique least adaptable to Baroque music, conveys the sense of an ancient tuning system rather than a modern one anachronistically superimposed upon the past.  The tremolo variation that concludes the piece shimmers like light through the stained glass of a cathedral before swelling to a glorious, sonorous finish.  The work as a whole is a clever example of viola ensemble writing, and at the same time it provides an excellent means for introducing extended techniques to students who do not yet understand, or who lack an appreciation for, the bewildering complexities of contemporary music.

Yet they really have nothing to fear, for the three volumes of Viola Spaces prove, above all, that the study of contemporary music can be every bit as enjoyable, fulfilling and useful as that of the classics.  Those of us who are already well acquainted with these techniques also have much to gain from Knox’s novel and imaginative treatment of them.  It has been immensely gratifying for me to find that even now, in my fifties, and having been a devotee of new music since my teens, there are still ways in which I can grow and improve as a musician. Composers may be inspired to expand further upon these techniques and discover even more exciting possibilities, provided that violists rise to the challenge – and we have every reason to do so.  We need not shy away from extended techniques as we would from the eldritch horrors in an H. P. Lovecraft story.  With Viola Spaces, Garth Knox has opened a gateway to new sonic worlds that we violists would do well to explore.

photo of Garth Knox 

For more information on Viola Spaces, including video of the Garth Knox’s performances, visit his website on