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For all the artistic inspiration that’s packed into the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, violinist Josh Knowles found some of his own in his first ever solo set at the historical Boston mansion.
After 10 years of laying down the violin rock with Nemes, the lifelong instrumentalist decided to kickstart his own self-titled solo project after hearing the way his improvised notes echoed off the walls at that fateful solo gig. Fast forward to 2018, and he’s morphed his once-uncertainty into his debut electric violin album Spin Without A Sound, which dropped in February, and his new video for “Great Blue World,” released today (April 13).
“To be honest, I was pretty unsure what I was gonna play and how to make it interesting and engaging for the whole set (which was about four hours),” Knowles says of his solo set that day at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. “The cool thing is that it was from the uncertainty that the sound you hear on Spin Without A Sound was kind of conceived. I’ve always loved to improvise on the violin, so I looped simple improvised melodic ideas and built them gradually into these expansive soundscapes and played over them. And since the courtyard at the Gardner has such high ceilings, any note I played sounded really lush and ethereal, so I tried to make each sound fit the space and kind of diffuse through the space. The whole performance was such a unique and cathartic creative experience that I think from then on I knew it was a sound I wanted to pursue and capture on a record.”
Building off his experience at the museum, Knowles crafted his eight-track electric violin album using little more than some looping and home videotape sound effects.
“Besides sampling in some sounds from my family’s old home video VHS tapes, every sound on the album is from my live violin takes of each of the songs,” he explains. “Something about violin standing on its own invites a really beautiful sense of intimacy and nostalgia, which are definitely the main sentiments I wanted to communicate with these songs.”
Following the release of Spin Without A Sound, Knowles debuts the video for “Great Blue World” today, courtesy of Boston Ballet dancer Sabi Varga. The pair met when Knowles was touring with the the Boston Ballet a few years ago, and Knowles and Varga have been collaborating on and off ever since; The “Great Blue World” video came to fruition after a late night choreography and dance session that Varga cooked up on his own at 4 a.m.
Taking all eight instrumental tracks into account, the overall departure from Knowles’ typical Nemes rock repertoire is significant — the closest thing to Spin Without A Sound being the group’s violin-driven ballads — but according to the him, the musical move was much-needed for him to branch out.
“I think it was less intimidating as it was necessary,” he adds. “I’ve always had a huge love for instrumental music. Whether it’s Bach or Explosions in the Sky or the score to There Will Be Blood, I’ve always known I wanted to explore that part of the music cosmos. The real challenge was figuring out how to channel all of the different influences into a cohesive sound of my own. The beauty of it, though, is that whether I’m playing with Nemes or solo instrumental music or with dancers or anywhere in between, each musical venture gives me a deeper appreciation and understanding of all the others.”