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.
Nicholas Panagakos is a writer based out of Cambridge, MA. He has published one book of poems and illustrations titled Laughter You See and plays in bands regularly. Soon to open a home for adult orphans. Buy him a drink.
Anti-Cop. Anti-ICE. Pro-Union.