February 25, 2022 § Leave a comment

Captain of None 2015 press photo by Iker Spozio

Sometimes an instrument changes your life. It’s happened to me several times over the course of 30 years: the guitar at age 15, the bass viola da gamba when I turned 30, my first real synthesizer (the Grandmother) in 2018 – but the treble viola da gamba holds a truly special place in my heart and in my life as a musician.

Setlist from my last show performing Captain of None at Moogfest 2017

It’s one of the smaller versions of the instrument and is pretty rare even in its original context – baroque music – in which you only find it in viola da gamba ensembles. The idea is that it complements the other parts, it is never meant to be a solo instrument, and certainly it was never meant to be played the way I play it: tuned down, like a guitar with a capo on the 5th fret, played fingerpicked rather than bowed, amplified, delayed – in other words transformed.

As with some of the good things in life, it took me a pretty long time to actually get there: I commissioned it in 2008 to my luthier who had made the bass viola, the incredibly talented François Danger of Atelier des 7 Cordes, who unfortunately passed away prematurely 2 years ago. I firmly believe that if my treble viola had been of inferior quality, I could never have gotten away sonically with what I did to it. My dream was to have a small portable instrument which I could fingerpick to get a harp-like sound and still bow. I hadn’t expected I would hit a massive wall: a near-burn out coupled with a deep creative crisis that left me silent for all of 2009, and from which recovery was slow (there is a 6-year-gap between 2007’s Les Ondes Silencieuses and 2013’s The Weighing of the Heart).

In 2010, reading Tim Lawrence’s stellar biography of Arthur Russell and immersing myself in his music and fearless way of doing things was the first step to me feeling like making music again. I started to sing, to play percussion, and coincidentally moved to San Sebastián, Spain, where I got a space which I used as a music studio. It wasn’t perfect, but cutting myself from daily life was of tremendous help. As I slowly emerged from my creative cul-de-sac, I remembered the treble viola, which I felt terribly guilty for not using.

San Sebastián studio, circa 2014

I never really liked how high-pitched the treble viola da gamba was, so I just decided to tune it down. The decision to try and tune it like a guitar came almost instinctively, and when I did, all of a sudden everything made sense. At the time I was listening intensively to many string instrument traditions from Africa, Central Asia and the Middle East, and all of these went into the search for a personal way of playing my unfamiliar, newly-transformed instrument.

“Geometría del Universo” was the very first song I wrote on it, and you can see from the tabs written in different pen colours, that it happened over various work sessions. It took me so long to understand what the best positions for the instrument and my hands would be that when I hit on something that worked, I made super precise notes for fear I would forget. The treble viola first appears on what is admittedly my most diverse album in terms of instrumentation and influences, 2013’s The Weighing of the Heart, along with its big sister the bass viola da gamba, which was the main instrument on what I guess was my “baroque minimalist” album Les Ondes Silencieuses from 2007.

My 5th album Captain of None was the unlikely meeting of my new favourite instrument with an old love of mine, Jamaican music and dub in particular.  This took the instrument even further out of its original territory, transforming it into a bass thanks to an Octabass octaver pedal. I stopped playing the viola after that album because I felt I had nothing better to say with it than what I had already said.

Live in Constellation, Chicago, 2017 – photo by Lily Oberman

Rehearsing this repertoire now for my 2 upcoming shows in Barcelona and London makes me feel incredibly lucky that I did construct such a relationship with the instrument. The older I get, the more I get this sense that as musicians, we get back from music *exactly* what we pour into it in terms of energy, dedication and sheer love. In that sense, music never disappoints.

2022 rehearsals for Captain of None

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