Gang Piano

The Stephen Scott Bowed Piano Ensemble plays by committee and sounds good doing it

Mar 13, 2002 at 4:00 am
It's hard to say what's cooler about the Stephen Scott Bowed Piano Ensemble -- the way the 10 musicians, clad all in black, circle the guts of a grand piano, plinking here and bowing there, as if performing surgery on a whale; or the otherworldly cries of that whale, so beautiful and stirring, sounding like an entire symphony orchestra crammed into a small space.

Opening the lid of the piano to tinker directly with the strings is not a brand-new concept. John Cage and others have taken advantage of the powerful sounds a piano can make when the metal coils within are bowed rather than struck with felt-tipped hammers, as per usual. What is unusual is the "string-choir" sound Scott and his team are able to coax from the instrument by virtue of having so many hands working in the piano at once.

When the 10 musicians of SSBPE vibrate the piano strings with rosin-coated nylon fishing line, plastic construction-site tape, rubber plumbing tape, tongue depressors with glued-on horsehair, guitar picks and other unconventional tools, they create dreamy waves of music that wash over the listener. The resulting sounds might be described as a symphony of cellos and double basses under the direction of Tangerine Dream or Vangelis, but really that's just one of many directions SSBPE can take.

"We can come up with a variety of sort of instrumental choirs that are sort of working at the same time against each other in counterpoint and so forth. I like to think of it as orchestral, myself," says Scott.

Scott's group has been around for 25 years. Most of the ensemble is a constantly changing cast of students who pass through Colorado College in Colorado Springs, Colo. where Scott teaches. They must practice long and hard to choreograph their moves within and around the open grand piano, especially because they don't use written music in concert -- it's all memorized.

Their St. Louis concert will feature "Paisajes Audibles." The work-in-progress calls for the group to be joined by a soprano. The captivating instrumental intro for the work, called "Entrata," includes handclaps and a rhythm made by a child's mallet striking a metal hinge on the piano. The other half of the show is a performance of "The Tears of Niobe," a 1986 work based on a Greek myth. The evening could well be the most accessible of the New Music Circle season.

Often when the concert is finished, reports Scott, audience members venture onstage to see the color-coded stickers and tags the musicians insert into the piano case to help them remember which string is which. They check out the custom-made rubber mutes SSBPE braces between some of the coils. But most of all they want to see for themselves how on earth a fishing line and a piano can make that dreamy sound.