Adventures Inside the Piano

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."

"With a lot of ensemble practice and pretty nuanced technique on the part of several players, you can produce a very nice legato line out of the piano, something that pianists are constantly trying to do by using the pedal. When you bow it, you can achieve a different level of that kind of lyricism."

Scott's music has been sporadically documented on New Albion recordings, beginning with his now out-of-print debut in 1984 and his popular recording of the pieces "Minerva's Web" and "The Tears of Niobe" in 1990.

The relatively complex, epic sweep of "Vikings of the Sunrise," based on Scott's interest in Polynesian navigation and folklore, "seemed like a logical extension of what I had done before," he said.

" 'Minerva's Web' and 'The Tears of Niobe' are both 25-minute pieces dealing with mythology--in this case, Greek mythology. I also just felt ready to tackle a really big piece. The challenge of trying to hold it all together, formally and compositionally, appealed to me."

This weekend's premiere grew out of a meeting between USC music professor Donald Crockett and Scott at the Aspen Festival in 1990, where Crockett heard the bowed piano for the first time.

"I was immediately excited by it," Crockett says, "I wanted to be a part of it, as a presenter or performer."

Crockett decided to have the USC Contemporary Music Ensemble, which he conducts, tackle "Minerva's Web," and he also asked Scott to write a piece especially for the ensemble and the L.A. Chamber Orchestra, where Crockett is composer in residence.

Mastering "Minerva's Web," says Crockett, required intensive rehearsals. "You work on a piece for a couple of months and you get an entirely new sound world, a new technique, and a new relationship with your fellow musicians--the element of group music-making that is so powerful."

Scott's new work represents a different wrinkle for the composer, who who has never before combined a bowed piano with an orchestra. In conceiving the piece, Scott "viewed the orchestra as an extension of the ensemble."

"The wind instruments and the strings in the orchestra are just naturally more lyrical than anything I can do with the bowed piano," he says, "so there are quite a few solo passages for many of the instruments in the orchestra that are melodious in a way that is difficult to do with the bowed piano. In some passages, I build a texture in the bowed piano or an accompanimental musical passage which then has orchestral melodic voices weaving in and out of it--solo English horn or oboe or flute, for instance.

"Other times, I turn the tables and use the orchestra as an accompaniment for the bowed piano, in some way that allows the bowed piano to show off its capabilities--like in a traditional concerto, maybe, where the orchestra is supporting a soloist who has a particular set of skills or a particular voice--except that here the soloist is really 10 soloists."

Scott sees the addition of chamber orchestra as another way to spread the bowed-piano message. His own Colorado College-based ensemble has been getting out into the world, often to Europe, where new music often has a higher profile and more performance opportunities. The group recently performed "Vikings of the Sunrise" at a festival in Lanzarole, in the Canary Islands, and Scott will perform in London in 1998.

The composer is also spreading the bowed-piano gospel by conducting residencies, indoctrinating new performers. Recently, he spent a week at the University of Limerick in Ireland, honing a new ensemble from scratch, and he plans to do the same in Tallin, Estonia, next year.

Scott finds it rewarding to work with "musicians who are completely uninitiated in bowed piano--as most musicians are--and take them from that point on Monday morning to performance level on Friday night."

"This fall," Scott says, "we had equipment in three different countries, one of which was the country of L.A. I use that phrase advisedly. It has sort of turned into a cottage industry here."

For the moment, Scott is anxious to hear the fruits of his orchestral foray with LACO.

"It worked out really well on paper," he says, "but until we actually get the ensemble rehearsing with the orchestra, it's hard to guess how it will all work or come together. I know it will, because of the quality of the people involved, but it's a little bit of a nail-biter."

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STEPHEN SCOTT, with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra and the USC Contemporary Music Ensemble. Dates: Veterans Wadsworth Theater, Brentwood, Friday, 8 p.m.; Alex Theatre, 216 N. Brand Blvd., Glendale, Saturday, 8 p.m. Prices: $10-$48. Phone: (213) 622-7001.

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