Zing went the piano

Times Staff Writer

FOR about three decades, composer Stephen Scott has lived inside the piano. It gets a little crowded in there, but sliding in and out of the strings is not unpleasant musically.

Monday night in the Samueli Theater of the Orange County Performing Artscenter, Scott and nine of his undergraduate students at Colorado College spent nearly an hour bent over an opened Steinway. They bowed the strings with horsehair and nylon. They rubbed them rhythmically with Popsicle sticks. Their tool chest included guitar picks and piano hammers, but not the ones attached to the instrument.

The alluring sounds -- shimmering, often delicate -- evoked the organ, the harmonica, the accordion, the synthesizer and African drums, but rarely the piano. The bowed piano, as Scott calls his altered instrument, was also asked to call up the idea of the Wild West. The concert, which contained a single work, “Vikings of the Sunrise,” was a prelude to the annual American Composers Festival hosted by the Pacific Symphony. This year’s theme is “The West.”

For a weeklong event that will include Copland’s “Billy the Kid,” a taste of Grofe’s “Grand Canyon Suite,” music new and not-so-new inspired by Native American traditions and Virgil Thomson’s score to the film “The Plow That Broke the Plains,” Scott’s opener was slightly far afield.


But his Vikings are Polynesian, not Norse -- if that helps. And the artistic advisor to these festivals, Joseph Horowitz, has an agile mind and is able to make surprising connections when he needs to. Horowitz mentions in the program book that he happened one day to be driving in the Rockies with “Vikings” in his CD player. He found it fit (just as David Hockney found Wagner fit his drives through the Malibu hills, which led to his beautiful “Tristan and Isolde” sets for Los Angeles Opera).

The actual West happens to be on a lot of composers’ minds these days. Two important new American operas last year were Ricky Ian Gordon’s Dust Bowl “The Grapes of Wrath” and Anthony Davis’ “Wakonda’s Dream,” which deals with the legacy of the Ponca chief Standing Bear in Nebraska. This week in Arizona, the Phoenix Symphony will premiere Mark Grey’s “Enemy Slayer: A Navajo Oratorio.”

Still, the idea of the West and the real West are two different things. Moviegoers have little problem associating mesas, canyons, scrub brush and cowboys who stare long and say little with Italian composer Ennio Morricone’s giddy scores for spaghetti westerns. Despite all his Western ballets, Copland lived his life in New York City and its environs. Missouri-born Thomson left his heart in Paris.

Scott is an Oregonian who has been based in Colorado Springs since the ‘70s. He began as a Minimalist, studying drumming with Steve Reich in Ghana. He found the way to his own voice when he heard a composer experiment by passing a fishing line through piano strings and producing a haunting sustained sound.


“Vikings,” which was composed in 1995, is curiously orchestral. The 10-member ensemble, which plays from memory, must wiggle in tightly, like doctors at surgery, careful not to poke one another’s eyes out with their elbows as they bow and pluck and pound the strings. They are in regular motion, changing positions. The musical landscape is rich in timbres and resonances. The sounds are not predictable and invariably lovely.

Scott has a fondness for Minimalist interlocking rhythms and for drones. He creates sweet melodies. He repeats a lot. But he is good at creating the effect of dappled light on waves, of paddling canoes and sailing. The music suits the topic of Polynesian gods and explorers in the Pacific -- and, in later sections, of Spanish and Portuguese explorers in the Atlantic -- probably much as it suits the Rockies. You can pretty much imagine what you like.

What seemed particularly Western to me was the near outsider art aspect of the bowed piano (despite Scott’s academic support), the idea of the West being about doing things your own way. A small stationary video camera was pointed at the instrument’s innards, and the images were projected on a large screen above the performers. The tangle of wires, bows and various doodads gave the appearance of homemade artificial electronics. What came out of the piano had the same almost faux-electronic quality.

The presentation Monday was not, however, as imaginative as it might have been. The Samueli is small and elegant, with wonderfully intimate acoustics. But the video proved impossible to ignore, unmystifying mystical music. Far more interesting was the choreography of the ensemble. Thursday night, for the orchestral component to the festival, the Pacific Symphony will premiere a work by Scott for bowed piano and orchestra. I say lose the video and, true to the idea of the West, trust the imagination.