Monday, April 19, 2010

How Do You "Bow" A Piano?

(Bowed Piano Ensemble preparation - Santa Fe, April of 2006)

I had been in college for two years before I decided to be a music major. I still remember the look I got from the lady at the registrar’s office when I brought her the form that said “Drop: Geology 250 - Plate Tectonics. Add: Music 271 - Jewish Music.”

"Ooookay,” she said, and that was that.

I knew that being a music major meant that I had to join some sort of ensemble. I was already in the college choir, sang in an a cappella group, and took solo piano lessons, and that should have been enough. But when I heard about the Bowed Piano Ensemble, I knew I just HAD to audition. It turned out to be one of the best decisions I have ever made.

The Bowed Piano Ensemble is the brainchild of music professor and composer Stephen Scott, a man who has studied, played, and enjoyed every kind of music from African drumming to Miles Davis to Franz Liszt. His most impressionable years were in the 1970s, when all kinds of composers were doing crazy things with computers and synthesizers. Others, like Scott and Curtis Curtis-Smith, preferred modifying existing instruments. It was Curtis-Smith who pioneered the idea of draping nylon fishing line with rosin across piano strings, and then Stephen Scott who turned that concept into the Bowed Piano Ensemble.

(Preparing a piano - Lunenburg, Germany 2007)---->

Nylon fishing line is only one of the “implements of piano manipulation” that are found in Scott’s music. Pieces of plexiglass are scratched up and rubbed against the strings, as are tongue depressors wrapped in coarse horse hair. Guitar picks pluck the strings, and orphaned piano hammers strike the strings, soundboard, and harp. There are countless other ways to make the piano creak, groan, sing, hum, buzz, and bang in ways that most of us have never heard.

I’ve performed a lot of music in my life but I have never hard to work so hard and focus as intensely as I did during my two years in the Bowed Piano Ensemble. The audition process was rigorous, as I had to prove I could sight-read complex rhythms in changing meters, and find my place in a weaving line, much like players in handbell choirs. The reward: the chance to play beautiful music all around the country and even across the world. In my two years in the ensemble, I was able to perform in Santa Fe, Chicago, Milwaukee, Cincinnati, New York, Charleston, and Berlin. My musical consciousness was expanded in ways I never thought possible.

<----(Lincoln Center, NYC, October of 2006)

This Friday, April 23rd, the Ensemble makes a stop in Burlington on a tour that also includes concerts in Cleveland and Boston. There will be a workshop with the group at 4:30, I’ll give a pre-concert talk at 6:30, and the main event starts at 7:30.

Stephen Scott and his Bowed Piano Ensemble represent the best of contemporary music. It’s challenging, yet thoughtful. It stretches piano technique, yet always remains tasteful.

You can learn more about the Ensemble this week in a music feature I've produced. It airs on VPR Classical this Wednesday (April 21st) at 4:30 pm and on Thursday during the Noon hour.

Vermont Edition will also offer a short piece about the Ensemble this Thursday, listen in at Noon or at 7 that evening on VPR.

- Joe Goetz, VPR Classical afternoon host and recovering Bowed Piano Ensemble participant

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