Perfect Sound Forever

Stephen Scott

interview by Daniel Varela
(March 2005)

Tonal centers, static harmonies and short melodic fragments are all features related to minimalism. Starting from this point, American composer Stephen Scott has created a very strong musical personality, thanks to his inventive bowed piano techniques. It's different from the normal piano traditions (say, from Cowell to Cage), and Scott has developed a rich sense of new sounds, exploring the qualities of piano strings.

After many years within the darkness of the radical experimental circles, his compositions have gained wider recognition thanks to many years of work with his Bowed Piano Ensemble. The layers of Scott's sound result from plucked, bowed and excited piano strings, creating a strange orchestra, a sound world from static tonal spirit exhibited by many so-called "West Coast" composers, and documented by labels like New Albion and Cold Blue.

The following interview was conducted between July and August 2003.

PSF: Many times, your music has been linked to the minimalist tradition. Do you agree with this comparison?

Scott: I was profoundly influenced by two of the early minimalists, Terry Riley and Steve Reich. As a student, I heard an early tape of Riley's "In C" shortly after its California premiere, and I performed in the New England premiere of the piece, at Brown University in 1968.

Later I met Terry in Colorado, and we collaborated on a work for electronic keyboards and bowed piano ensemble, using his "thirteen limit" tuning. We presented a sketch of this work at the first Composer to Composer Festival in Telluride, Colorado, and later a completed version at Colorado College, where I teach. Following that collaboration I wrote two more pieces in his "thirteen limit" tuning, which we performed (without Terry) for John Schaefer's "New Sounds Live" series in New York, and also on tour in Australia in 1991.

I met Steve Reich much earlier (1970) in Ghana, where we had both gone independently to study West African drumming; his instrumental works around that time impressed and influenced me greatly, and of course the dense polyphonic patterns and tightly integrated Ghanaian percussion ensembles soon found their way in some sense into my own music.

PSF: Could you comment on the history of your bowed piano techniques (with the Bowed Piano Ensemble history and others)?

Scott: In the early '70s I was composing under the influence of Riley and Reich pieces for mixed ensembles which are perhaps similar to what Paul Dresher was doing then. Lots of repetition, modal construction, drones, etc. But I was searching for a new kind of ensemble sound, which might be produced by large groups of like instruments or by invented instruments; I imagined an automated "hocket machine" made of a spinning set of mallets and retractable wood bars, like those of a xylophone, so that you could add and subtract pitches in a way similar to Reich's "Drumming"

In 1976 I heard David Burge play a solo piano piece by Curtis Curtis-Smith which included a few single sustained tones created with nylon fishing line drawn under the strings. This sound amazed and captivated me, and I wrote to Curtis to ask how he made his "bows." He sent me a sample, which I adapted and modified to be used by a group of players to produce sustained, organ-like chords from an open grand piano. In my first piece for the bowed-piano medium, I wanted to create sustained five-note chords leading smoothly to other five-note chords, which required ten players (all surrounding one concert grand piano) to accomplish.

I also wanted to make repeating hockets of staccato notes in fast tempo. As the fish line bows, which I call "soft bows," were unwieldy for the precision needed for the hockets, I experimented with a variety of small bows, to be manipulated by the hand and wrist against the side of the piano strings. I finally settled on "popsicle" sticks with horsehair glued and tied to one or both sides (later, these would be made with either tongue depressors or nail files, but they are all referred to as "rigid bows.")

The first piece using these tools was "Music One for Bowed Strings" (1977), which is available on the New Albion re-issue New Music for Bowed Piano (NACD 107). Most of the music on that recording uses only the "soft bow" and the "rigid bow," but "Arcs" (1980) employs also plastic guitar picks, producing hockets in pizzicato. There's also "Resonant Resources" (1983), in which the sounds are made by an electromagnetic "piano bowing device" similar to the e-bow for guitars. I still enjoy listening to that piece, but I haven't used the device since the mid-eighties, as I much prefer the human interaction and musicality of a group of ten musicians making sounds directly on the piano strings.

If you see us perform, you will notice that much intricate and "choreographed" movement is necessary to play my music. The players work in very close quarters, and every player's movements have to be planned so as not to conflict with those of the other players. Much negotiation and "problem-solving" goes on in rehearsals to create the smoothest possible and most musical performances. This is not so hard to do with an ensemble, in which the players have their own instruments their own chairs and music stands, their own "space." In my group, we all share a very small space, and several people will use one device at different times or need the same space at the same time, so there is great potential for conflict, but also for sometimes elegant solutions and artful compromises. It's therefore a very "social" music in rehearsal and performance, which is one reason I still love doing it.

PSF: How do you compose? Do you have some kind of formal plan? Is it possible to think in terms of general principles, or is it a question of using different methods for different works?

Scott: I do make some sort of plan. If there is a narrative quality to the piece as you bring up in the second question the plan will of course give some attention to the narrative thread. I find that poetry usually sets itself, in other words suggests its own melody, but this doesn't happen so easily for me if the poetry isn't in my language. Translating it myself or using someone else's translation helps, but still the rhythms and pitch contours of a language not your own don't come as easily.

PSF: I've noticed that earlier pieces (like those on Minerva's Web) have a more static character than "Vikings of the Sunrise" (which has a more narrative structure). Is it possible to quantify the different stages of your work?

Scott: In the twenty-six years I've been working with the bowed piano medium, I suppose two processes have taken place. One is that I've become a better composer, or at least one who pays more attention to large and more complex structures, and has developed a set of techniques for creating these. And the other is that the ensembles just keep getting better and I keep pushing them to do more complicated things. This leads to more complicated music.

There are many tools used in "Vikings of the Sunrise" (1995) that don't appear in the earlier ones, such as hand-held piano hammers, percussion mallets, and specially-designed mutes that change the piano's timbre. And some of the older tools are used in much more complicated and difficult ways, as for example when I ask "soft bow" players to play very fast legato melodies which include eighth notes (remember that each player plays only one pitch in a melody, so it has to placed in exactly the right place rhythmically and also connected to the previous and following notes which are played by other players). But with lots of work I can get eight or ten players to sound something like the cello section in a Brahms symphony...maybe.

PSF: I'm interested to know more about "Paisajes Audibles," considering its inclusion of outside elements in the music, like the soprano Victoria Hansen. There are choral sections as well, with almost chant-like. How do you develop such a composition?

Scott: I've used outside elements before, but not in any of my released recordings. The piece with Terry Riley I mentioned above, "Bowed Rosary," included electronic keyboard. "A Rosary of Islands" (1991) required players in the ensemble to step away from the piano at certain points and take up "their own" instruments, which included clarinet, horn, trumpet and strings. And my "Music for Bowed Piano and Chamber Orchestra" set a piano ensemble of ten amid the members of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, which premiered the work in 1996.

What's new about "Paisajes Audibles/Sounding Landscapes" (2002, thus far unreleased) is the use of voice. As you point out, there is extensive soprano solo work, both sung and spoken, and the players also do some chanting and choral singing. Like "Vikings of the Sunrise," "Paisajes" has a narrative structure which stems from its being composed as a tribute to and evocation of the island of Lanzarote, one of the Canary Islands. In this case, I wanted some of the narrative to be quite specific, so I set poetry and poeticized prose of several Spanish writers, hence the need for singing voices.

PSF: Several aspects of "west coast music" seem related (or have some family ties) with musicians like Lou Harrison and, starting from early '70s, Harold Budd. Certain composers seem connected with the idea of a static/extended "aimless tonality" in Tom Johnson's words sense of harmony.

Scott: I like Tom's phrase (as well as his music!), which does describe quite a bit of the so-called "west coast" music. I'm originally from Oregon and so I'm sure I share some kind of cultural background with some of the other composers usually associated with the west coast (Lou was from Portland, for example), and I also have some roots in West Coast jazz of the '50s, which I think also shows in some of Harold's music. As you have pointed out, earlier music of mine, for example "Minerva's Web" and "The Tears of Niobe," are pretty slow-moving, if not quite static, harmonically. But I don't think that description fits my more recent harmonic language, which I think of as chromatic modalism, with a strong (post-minimal?) analog to older functional harmony; in other words, a strong harmonic directedness.

When I compose a large-scale piece like "Vikings" or the new "Paisajes Audibles," I strive for an elaboration over time, of a simple harmonic relationship say a particular interval, or set of related intervals. This is really no different than Beethoven or Webern, just that in each case the sounds, rhythms and melodic gestures are wearing different clothing.


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