Consider this a love letter to a love letter. I’m increasingly certain that my favorite single track of recorded music from 2010 was “Homage to Jack Vanarsky” by Garth Knox, off his album on the netlabel SHSK’H (shskh.com), Solo Viola d’Amore. Despite the album’s title, this particular track is, technically, not a solo viola work. It’s a duet for Knox’s viola and a small mechanical device. The device was created by artist Vanarksy, a sculptor who was Knox’s late father-in-law. It makes a distinct creaking sound, like metal coming occasionally into contact with wood. As the device makes this sound, for close to eight minutes straight, Knox’s viola glides in and out (MP3).
Knox was, for most of the 1990s, a member of the Arditti Quartet, which speaks to his technical and interpretative skill, and to his comfort in the realm of experimental contemporary composition. In this homage, which he wrote, you can almost hear Knox limiting, damping, that virtuosity so as not to overwhelm his mechanical collaborator.
As the piece proceeds, Knox’s viola traces the sounds of the machine, listening to its drone and whir, paying attention to its tonality, registering its key and meter, and treating all of that as his sonic equal. Rather than be overwhelmed, the mechanical device comes into its own as a participant in the duet, repetition bringing into focus its special sound, its slightly off rhythm, and other minute yet unique characteristics. If you accept that the viola is, itself, a gadget, albeit a highly developed one, then a kind of romance comes to light, bringing to mind the one between two robots in the film WALL-E: one rusty and beleaguered, the other elegant and refined.
Writes Knox of the piece in a brief entry in the album’s liner notes:
My father-in-law and friend, Jack Vanarsky, made beautiful moving sculptures which had little motors inside. Like the one we hear on this track, they make gently purring noises, and I wanted to make a piece based on these sounds, as a homage to Jack, who died unexpectedly in February 2009.
I don’t know a lot about Vanarsky, but I have read that he was an active participant in Oupeinpo, which applied to painting the same sort of constraints-based approach that writer Raymond Queneau and others developed in the 1960s under the name Oulipo (which has also engendered Oubapo, which applies the same mode to the creation of comics). This small bit of biography further reinforces the sense in which Vanarsky’s device can be heard to set boundaries within which Knox composed and performed.