Surbiton percussionist Greg Knowles talks cultural collaboration with Russia in the search for a unique instrument
For the Bolshoi Ballet’s performance of The Winter’s Tale, Joby Talbot composed several complex pieces to be played by a three-and-a-half octave chromatic dulcimer.
There was only one problem: no such instrument existed.
Moscow’s search spanned Europe before settling in a small corner of south-west London, with Surbiton-based percussionist and leading London dulcimer player Greg Knowles.
He said: “Little did I know the email from Joby would lead me down a rabbit hole. He sent me fragments of music which could never be played by a dulcimer!”
Dulcimers, an ancestor of the piano dating back to Babylonian times, are a family of stringed instruments, widely used in Hollywood for their shimmering, mysterious and sinister sound.
In 2014, the Bolshoi Ballet began the search for a dulcimer to lend The Winter’s Tale a lively folk feel with a dark edge, with the unusual proviso – given its great size and weight – that it was portable.
Greg continued: “The music written for the new ballet was not compatible with anything in existence, because of the range of notes, the complexity.
“And of course they wanted it carried around by the on-stage bohemian gypsy! There was no instrument which would tick these boxes.”
When approached, Greg was honest with the Russians.
“I said to them, this is an Eastern European instrument, you could actually get a cimbalom (large Hungarian dulcimer) made out there.
“But if they got an instrument maker and it didn’t come out right, there wouldn’t be time to modify it.”
The Russians persisted, so with the deadline looming Greg turned to Tim Manning, the UK’s only dulcimer maker, to fashion the instrument: starting with Greg’s own cimbalom.
However, it was too heavy to be carried, the bottom was massive and the string tension was even greater than a dulcimer, which can routinely carry up to one tonne of pressure.
After two failed attempts, the duo heard about a Toronto-based ballet using a Bavarian Hackbrett, a German dulcimer based on a simpler scale, with fewer notes.
Greg said: “Over in the Americas they think uniquely. When I saw pictures of it I thought: what a great idea, we can use that!”
After five years and five attempts – cramming a few centuries of natural development into just five years, observed Tim – the ballet finally have their instruments, but the work isn’t quite over.
Greg stated: “In Moscow they asked for modifications, so the story isn’t finished. They are one-of-a-kind instruments, so who knows if the design process is complete?”
Greg also spoke proudly about the wider ramifications of the project.
“This story is not so much about the instruments, but the real artistic and cultural collaboration going on with two countries who, in a political sense, are at loggerheads.
“It belies the nonsense of politics when Moscow and London are in an ongoing spat and yet actual artists are still working together on meaningful things.”
Despite this, Greg will probably not get to see his handiwork in action in Moscow.
“I haven’t had an invite!” he said.
The Bolshoi Ballet, choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon and composed by Joby Talbot, will perform The Winter’s Tale in February 2019.
Feature image shows Tim Manning (left) and Greg Knowles at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden (where the third version of their instrument was played).