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PERFORMING ARTS

Adventures Inside the Piano

Stephen Scott has found a special niche in the music world with the bowed piano. This week, he'll expand his repertoire with a piece for chamber orchestra.

December 08, 1996|Josef Woodard | Josef Woodard is an occasional contributor to Calendar

Callers to composer Stephen Scott's home in Colorado Springs, Colo., might be greeted by a peculiar voice calling itself Macintosh and digitally vocalizing a script in wry, robotic tones. To those unfamiliar with Scott's musical m.o., this first impression would be misleading: Scott, the king of the bowed piano, is anything but a technophile geek. This experimentalist's creative domain is all about the splendor of the acoustic piano, revisited. He lives for the sound of real strings, and real tones generated in unusual ways.

"What I'm fond of," he says, "are low-tech ways of producing sound--like working inside the piano."

For 20 years, Scott, 52, has been faithfully developing a distinctive niche in the new music world from his home base, teaching at Colorado College and relying on students to perform in his ensembles. Gradually, the outside world is getting the picture, with increased ensemble and solo touring, with Scott training ensembles at other locales and with CDs--the latest on the Bay Area-based New Albion label, is "Vikings of the Sunrise."

Scott's music--atmospheric, Minimalist, graced with sounds you can't quite place--is both sound and sight to conjure with. Critics have cited its elegance and adventurousness, but they sometimes seem surprised when they don't find the process gimmicky. Scott's ensemble, armed with custom-made bows and other implements, delves inside a lidless grand piano, the strings of which are marked with colored tabs to identify the pitches.

From a theatrical point of view, a Scott performance suggests nothing so much as an elaborate, tightly choreographed surgical operation, as musicians move around one another manipulating the strings in all ways except the conventional one, and with Scott serving as the Frankensteinian surgeon overseeing it all.

On Friday and Saturday, Scott brings the bowed piano to Los Angeles with the premiere of his Music for Bowed Piano and Chamber Orchestra, with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra and members of the USC Contemporary Music Ensemble "operating."

In a sense, Scott has performed a subversive reinvention on his chosen instrument. He defies piano logic by coaxing sustained tones, which suggest a reverberant, otherworldly string section, along with percussive sounds like those of a gargantuan hammer dulcimer. In the swirl of sounds, you might also imagine the presence of an accordion or a hurdy-gurdy too. Yet, however avant-garde Scott's practice might sound on paper, the musical result is almost romantic, in an agreeably postmodern way.

It's not that the electronic-digital age passed him by. Like many composers coming of age in the '60s and '70s, Scott deployed synthesizers and tape loops in search of new modes of self-expression. The charm, however, faded.

"Although the sounds are wonderful on the surface," he says, "to me, they lack the kind of depth and richness and unpredictability of acoustic sounds."

Scott had played clarinet and saxophone, working as a jazz musician while studying composition at the University of Oregon and Brown in the late '60s. The impetus for his bowed-piano work came from hearing a piece by composer Curtis Smith in the mid-'70s. It used bowed piano strings, though on a modest scale and for a single performer.

"I was so struck by the sound of a truly sustained tone coming out of the piano that I immediately began imagining how I might have a fairly large group of players bowing different pitches at the same time," Scott recalls. "I've done a lot of things to extend the idea, but that was my epiphany."

In terms of compositional structure, Scott found himself on the same track as other Minimalist composers who were dissatisfied with the atonal schemes of serialism and were attracted to the patterns found in other non-Western cultures. Scott met prominent Minimalist Steve Reich in Africa, where they were both studying indigenous music.

"The modalism and the reliance on pulse of that early so-called Minimalist music did strike a chord with me," Scott says. "It seemed like the way to go."

In considering Scott's place among 20th century figures who have redefined the use of piano, it's hard to get around the precedents of John Cage's "prepared piano" experiments and the virtuosic player piano studies of expatriate Conlon Nancarrow. Scott is, by now, accustomed to the perhaps inevitable comparisons.

"I view both of them as ancestors in my musical development. I would also throw in Henry Cowell, who was probably the first person to begin making [unusual] sounds on the strings in any formal way. Cowell was, of course, John Cage's teacher and a big influence on him."

Whereas Cage's doctored piano pieces emphasized the percussive nature of the piano, Scott is after the opposite effect.

"I do use percussive techniques, certainly," he says, "but I try to make the piano more into what you might call a string orchestra, a more lyrical medium than Cage did in his pieces or that Nancarrow did in his."

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