[nextpage title=”Show Review” ]
First off, I was late. This is not unusual, but I was on assignment and I wanted to figure this out. Working off a hangover and wishing I had picked up more cigarettes, I arrived at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum for two performances by Josh Knowles. It was too hot for a suit jacket, but I was working. Having never been to the Gardner museum, much to my own shame, I wanted to look professional. Outside the museum rang a festival. The streets were blocked off with a light police presence, but I was more interested in the kids wearing gis and black belts. Screaming and spinning swords at invisible enemies. There are a few food trucks behind them, so I buy a bottle of water and sit under a tree. There’s heavy drum and bass coming from live performers hooked up to a PA system. People are arranging themselves on Carnaval stilts and dancing to the music. We’ve got Karate kids, Carnaval Calypso, and a few youngsters in proper fencing gear getting ready for something orchestrated. It’s starting to feel more like a fever dream, so I decide to head inside.
The noise all fades away as soon as I get inside. The fact that this was someone’s home at some point is staggering to me. Everyone puts on their museum voices and shuffle down hallways and stairways; occasionally pausing to assess a cup or a drawing by Whistler. Most rooms seem void of function, except for what I would assume to be one of many dining rooms. Although no one is allowed to eat inside, the tables are still set. They have little place cards that say “Please Do Not Touch”. A security guard reprimands me for standing too close to a chair and I have a fleeting thought as to whether or not Mrs. Gardner and I would have been friends. Making my way to the courtyard, I feel more like a burglar. I’m admiring the blank spaces on the walls where some paintings had been stolen years ago. They’ve refused to replace them so empty frames still hang. I think it’s beautiful.
I decide to post up on one of the second floor balconies. There are three floors open to the public and they make a cube around the center courtyard. This is almost a greenhouse for its enclosed with a glass ceiling with real plants growing from the floor. There are some limbless statues and a Greek mosaic with the head of Medusa in the center. On the edge of the mosaic are a microphone stand, a single amplifier, and Josh Knowles. He picks up his violin as people look on with curiosity. I feel as though they may have been unaware of a performance.
He doesn’t say anything. He begins plucking single notes. The museum voices get even smaller as his plucking becomes more and more amplified. Everyone stops what they’re doing and turn towards the courtyard. After stomping on some delay and loop pedals for the plucking, he picks up his bow. Women and men are swooning as his violin swells into long sweeps of sorrowful drones. His face goes weird and you can almost hear him thinking while he’s working through it. Swaying among the courtyard plants makes him seem like a small tree himself. He’s got the build for it: slender, monochromatic in all black, even his hair doesn’t move. He plays on and brings about the idea that he himself is part of the museum. Sounding as comfortable and natural in his surroundings, Josh Knowles comes close to convincing the audience that he’s been there the whole time. It were as though they had each passed him unnoticed and unassuming that he was a museum piece himself. The extension of organic flesh and bone brought up from beneath some secret vault. After he finishes the first piece, there is hesitation to clap. Equal parts museum voice fear and an audience dumbfounded by what they had just witnessed. But applause does come for Josh Knowles and a few whistles as well.
The following pieces from 5:45-7PM are minimalistic layers of build-up and release. Images of quiet Japanese forest scenes and quiet seas after a turbulent storm are brought to mind. You can see each member of the audience taken by Mr. Knowles music. We’re all on our own little journeys. The same security guard taps me on the shoulder and says that I’m standing too close to a different chair. I almost shush him out of reflex, but smile from a different reflex and move to a different floor. The hallways lined with tapestries are reverent with the music of Mr. Knowles. It almost feels like an Italian art film; something where everyone is either crying or smoking…maybe both?
I kept in motion to get a circular sound. Trying to differentiate between rooms and corners as to which provides the best acoustic amplification. Honestly, I can’t tell the difference, but it was worth a shot. Back to a different balcony now as Mr. Knowles finishes his first set. He introduced himself, thanked everyone most graciously, and bowed to applause well deserved. He has half an hour before his full band performance in Calderwood Hall.
I decided to go for a small walk to get away from the crowd. With the music of Mr. Knowles still ringing through me, I found myself walking a little slower and not minding the light rain that had come suddenly. It’s a rain that brings solace to an overheated person. I drank it up and didn’t even bother to wipe off my glasses. Returning inside, I found myself a seat at Calderwood Hall.
Calderwood Hall is another cubed room with 4 tiers of 360 degree seating. It begins to fill up pretty well. The lights dim and the band enter from a side door. Met with applause, each member takes a seat behind their instrument. Except for Mr. Knowles who would stand and Alex Glover who is doing double, maybe triple, duty playing electric guitar, piano, and other electronic synthesizers. Arron Fried is behind his cello and sitting next to Anna Stromer who is tuning her viola. Russ Condon rounds the group off sitting on top of his cajon. There are a few nods and small words exchanged between members, and they go right into it.
What I had heard in the courtyard was not lost with the additional musicians. The same build up was there, all the swelling and sorrow was present, but the new possibilities for layering were by no means underutilized. Arron and Anna move in synchronicity and resemble organic machinery; precise and certain in their actions. Josh, Alex, and Russ are harmonizing vocals three ways and pressing the impetus out from their guts. I believe what they are doing. I trust what they are doing. There can sometimes be a lack of believability if an artist is too polished or too clean sounding. There’s something you can trust about people who can’t sing well. Josh, Russ, and Alex are an exception to this thinking because they each have beautiful singing voices without the pretense of apprehension. These are people you can talk to and drink with.
They play enthusiastically with each song and you can tell that they enjoy what they do. Occasionally Josh would scratch his head and turn to Alex and ask him what the next song was. There’s modesty and a sense of real gratitude in what they’re doing. These don’t seem to be people who do anything half-way. The audience can see that, too. Wherever I scan the room I can see people fixated and smiling at the presentation that they are witnessing. Josh is swaying as he was in the courtyard, but this feels more like a confession than a museum piece. I’m suddenly twelve years old again in church. “Bless me father, for I have sinned…”
And in that moment I see how Josh has sinned and has been sinned against. The music pouring out from the group is in longing for action and explanation. If no answers were to come, then they would have to ask in a different way. You can rearrange the same question six different ways and still get the same answer. It may not be the answer that you want, but you get used to that.
[nextpage title=”Interview” ]
Nicholas Panagakos: Josh, first of all, congratulations on the show. How are you feeling about the performances tonight?
Josh Knowles: I feel very splendid about it, I do. I was really nervous before.
NP: Do you usually feel nervous before shows?
JK: Debilitatingly. It’s so weird, it never goes away. But depending on the performance, you can melt into the situation.
NP: Right, you can tell how the nights gonna go, or how it is going, and that can set the tone. Now how long have you been playing the violin?
JK: Too long. (laughs) Um, 24 years now.
NP: How old are you?!
JK: 28, so since I was 4. I saw something on Sesame Street; this little animated clip. This guy started [playing violin] as a little kid and he’s playing Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star. Really shitty, really scratchy, and then as he kept playing he got older and older his playing gets more nuanced. At the end he’s playing in a concert hall and he sounded beautiful. So I said that’s what I want to do.
NP: And that was it for you at that point, right?
JK: That’s right.
NP: I was picking up during the instrumental songs, more so than the songs where you’re singing, there are hints of Eastern influences in the music that you play. Do you take a bit from Easter styles for your music?
JK: Totally! I’m glad that comes across because
it’s always been a huge inspiration. I guess, in a broader sense, maybe my personal mission with violin is bridging gaps between genres. Growing up and learning [violin] I kind of hated it. There were moments, at least, where it was just terrible because I felt so pigeonholed in a classical bubble, y’know? I think that kind of just became my credo.
NP: Yeah, because really with the violin you have either bluegrass fiddle or classical music on what you want to do. Those are the two schools of thought.
JK: Yeah, and that’s so silly; absolutely unnecessary. Especially now that, literally, all music is at your fingertips, there’s no reason whatsoever to stay like that. But that doesn’t mean I don’t love classical music. Especially as I’ve gotten older. I actually train classically still, to keep the chops. All of that tradition is amazing. It’s just when people get stuck in it, it becomes like any religion. There’s this level of fanaticism that people have when really, it’s all fucking music.
NP: I feel like it could potentially take away from some of the creativity if you get stuck like that.
JK: I think there’s a choice that you make either consciously or subconsciously where you’re either more subscribed to a certain tradition, which is totally fine. There’s nothing wrong with that. And then you’re coming from that place like that’s your comfort, and maybe you’re trying other things. I guess for me it feels like the other way around where I try to start from a neutral place and then leak into different places; trying to find where it joins back.
NP: Sort of seeing where it can go and being brave enough to follow through with it?
JK: Yeah, and being ok with it sounding like shit sometimes. (laughter)
NP: How long have you been playing with this ensemble?
JK: This is our second show. It’s fun because everybody in this ensemble have played so many shows in different groups, different respects, different areas. We all know how to have poise without necessarily having some crazy familiarity with people, y’know? I love that. It’s fun to be able to hand pick people that I know are amazing and can rise to the occasion.
NP: It’s rare that you can find people who you can instantly gel with and say, “Oh, we’re doing this. OK, this makes sense.”
JK: I know, man. They’re all great friends, too. They’re great people and a blessing.
NP: You mentioned you have a new album coming out in the fall. Is this the ensemble playing on the album?
JK: They’re peppered in. Alex, who was playing keys and guitar, he’s producing the album with me. We’ve been working on it for the better part of a year now. They’re definitely going to be on it. It’s all figuring out how to incorporate it. I definitely love live performances that are just as solid, but have a different aesthetic from studio recording. I’ve never understood the aspiration to sound like an album.
The album How Deep the Dark should be coming out this fall. Don’t sleep on this, nerds!