Garth Knox on His Ancient, Resonant Viola D’amore

"The notes ring on after you play, which is very beautiful and changes the whole sound of the instrument"

By Cliff Hall | From the May-June 2024 issue of Strings Magazine

Garth Knox has been on quite the journey. Born in Ireland, he spent his childhood in Scotland and eventually moved to London, where he studied the viola at the Royal College of Music. Now residing in Paris, he still tours the world over, giving recitals, playing concertos, and performing in chamber music concerts.

And that’s just the geographical parts of his story. Musically, his voyage started back in 1983, when Pierre Boulez extended an invitation to join the Ensemble Intercontemporain in Paris. There, he engaged in frequent solo performances, including concertos under the baton of Boulez himself. Additionally, he delved into chamber music, embarking on extensive tours and participating in numerous international festivals. Following this he joined the adventurous Arditti Quartet in 1990. As his time with this legendary group came to an end in 1998, he really stretched his legs as a chance encounter with an ancient instrument turned his world upside down in the best possible way.

Tell me about your primary instrument.

The viola d’amore comes from the viola da gamba. Basically, it’s a small viola da gamba, like a treble viol, which you play under your chin as opposed to the gamba, which is played between the legs. You take the frets off, and you add a second set of strings underneath the fingerboard. Then you have seven playing strings and seven sympathetic strings, which vibrate in sympathy. You don’t play them directly, but it means everything you play on the instrument has a resonance behind it. The notes ring on after you play, which is very beautiful and changes the whole sound of the instrument.

What do you know about this instrument’s history? 

My own particular instrument was made for me by André Sakellarides, a Franco-Greek violin maker who lived in Marseilles. He died very unfortunately of Covid a couple of years ago. I was giving a concert in Marseilles on my first viola d’amore, and he came up to me at the end of the concert and said, “Bravo—your viola d’amore is very nice, but I think I can make you a better one.” I didn’t know him at all, and I was a bit offended, so I said, “Well, I’m not sure about that. If you want to make a viola d’amore, fine, but I’m not going to promise to buy it.” Six months later, he phoned me up and said, “Your viola d’amore is ready.” I went there to see it, and it was fantastic! So I bought it immediately, and we became good friends! 

How did you come to play it? What first drew you to it and how did you know it was the right fit? 


The viola d’amore in general I first came across in Italy when I was playing with a Baroque group called I Solisti Veneti. Claudio Scimone, the conductor, had a beautiful old viola d’amore, which he lent me for a week, and I fell in love with it. But then life went on. I kind of forgot, but it was there somewhere in the back of my mind. It was only when I left my string quartet, the Arditti String Quartet, in 1998 that I suddenly had a yen to play something different and to see different kinds of music. And part of the reason I left the quartet was to change repertoire or to expand my repertoire. 

The Los Angeles Times noted in a 2009 article that you used to be associated with hard-core European modernism but switched to early music around then. What motivated you to make the change?

The Arditti Quartet was a very hard-core contemporary quartet with a huge repertoire of very complex and experimental pieces. But when I left the quartet, I expanded my repertoire greatly. I didn’t give up new music, but I started doing Baroque music, folk music, improvisation, etc., and opened up to a much wider range. The viola d’amore was perfect for this. It gave me the possibility to do Baroque music, traditional Irish music, and allowed me to improvise in a modern way also. It seemed to cover everything I was looking for.

What gift does your instrument bring to your playing that can’t be found in any other instrument?

I think what I learned most from the viola d’amore was resonance and real harmony. When you play two notes together on the viola d’amore, which is the most normal way to play it, then the instrument comes alive, and with the sympathetic strings, you get a resonance of both those notes and the resonance of the way they melt into one harmony. It’s something that’s quite unique to the viola d’amore—it doesn’t quite sound quite the same on any other stringed instrument. It has a kind of purity about it, a resonance, which is beautiful and almost spiritual. 

What is your instrument’s personality and temperament like? Does it remind you of anyone or anything?


It’s like an intriguing friend who doesn’t give away all their secrets immediately. It’s very versatile, unusual. It’s interesting. Each sound lasts a little longer than you think it will, always surprising you. When I start improvising, I always find some sounds I’ve never heard before. 

Does it perform better in certain situations?

Yes, in small halls and small rooms. It’s made for intimate situations. And when you play unaccompanied, it sounds so full and perfect. 

What are some of its limitations?


Limitations would be playing in a very big concert hall, trying to compete with a modern violin or a modern viola, because the viola d’amore works on resonance, like the viola da gamba, and not on projection, which is what modern instruments are made to do. Playing one note on one of the middle strings is extremely difficult on the viola d’amore because the strings are so close together, and you prefer to play two notes and make harmony. 

The hardest thing you could possibly do on a viola d’amore is play a simple scale from top to bottom and bottom to top, just playing one note at a time, because of the tuning. It’s not tuned in fifths, so every time you change strings, you have to think about where you’re going! Some are fourths, some are thirds, some are fifths. Playing a simple scale becomes surprisingly challenging. 

If given the ability, what would your instrument say to you if you sat down for tea (or any beverage of your choice)?

I think it would just listen to what the other people were saying and would make a resonance of what was going on, turning it into something much more beautiful. What it’s best at is taking something very simple, like a D major chord, for example (which is the usual tuning, or D minor), and transforming it into a thing of wonder. When you hear a chord like this played on the viola d’amore, you hear amazing things hidden inside it. It’s a way of enhancing the sound, or even of enhancing life.

What Garth Knox Plays

Strings: Thomastik-Infeld Dominant
Bow: By Stéphane Müller, “who’s a very good French maker based in the south of France.”
Case: “The case is a normal viola case, which my viola’s maker, André, had the brilliant idea of fitting in the viola kind of diagonally because, of course, it’s long, much longer than normal viola. It wouldn’t fit in a normal viola case. This is quite a big viola case, a square one, but by putting it in sideways or diagonally from corner to corner, it fits just perfectly, so I’m very happy with this.”
Rosin: “I use the same as on the viola, just any old rosin. I’m not very fussy.”