Monkey Fist by Sam Nichols. David Russell, cello. Recorded on February 6, 2011 at UC Davis.

A monkey’s fist is a knot that's both functional and decorative. It’s made by wrapping a piece of rope over and around itself in a certain pattern; it’s sometimes formed around a heavy object such as a lead weight or glass ball. This makes it possible to heave a line to another person, across water or some other obstacle.

Growing up near the water, I watched as people tied monkey’s fists and other knots (such as sheepshanks and bowlines). After watching someone tie a knot a few times, and seeing its twists and turns, I could duplicate it. But then I would usually forget how to tie it. So, learning a new knot meant obsessively tying and retying—worrying at it, knowing that sometime soon I’d probably forget how to do it.

Learning to tie a monkey’s fist was the inspiration for the musical structure of this piece. It’s a tangle of different strands of music, resembling not only this particular knot, but maybe also the way memories are layered on top of other memories. Its anxious, obsessive quality reminds me of the feeling you get when you expect that you might forget something important...

samnichols.net

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