The Bowed Piano Ensemble

September 27, 2009 at 5:58 pm 10 comments

About a year ago I signed up for academia.edu, which doesn’t seem to be a lot more than facebook for professors, save that they constantly return the highest Google search result for my name.  It also has the added bonus of informing me by email any time a search of my name leads to my profile.  Fairly often I’ll get a notice that “someone just searched for you on Google” followed by an email from a musicological colleague who was able to quickly track down my info thanks to the academia website.  However, I’ve had a few notification emails lately without the usual followup note, which leads me to presume that a few of my students have been trying to find out who this person is teaching them all about American music.

It is times like these that one Googlestalks themselves.  I was just a tad bit curious to see what my students (or anyone else for that matter) can learn about me.  A lot of the usual stuff pops up: old blog entries, conference papers,  the occasional road race.  But this time, on the first page of results, nonetheless, a YouTube video:

Yes, that is me (at 1:40 or so) with the chin-length brown hair and blond chunks (go college!) playing something on the keyboard (a rare method of producing sound in this ensemble!). I was a member of Colorado College’s “Bowed Piano Ensemble” for three of my four undergraduate years.  It remains my favorite (and most perhaps most challenging) group music-making experience.

As you can gather from watching the above video of “Entrada,” the ensemble gets its name from the method in which most of the sounds are produced.  Namely, bows.  Two types are used: soft (long, fishing-line or ribbon bows strung between the 88 individual strings of the piano) and hard (short, popsicle-stick brushes inserted and removed at various points as needed).   Sounds are also produced by more “traditional” means: picks, mallets, mutes, detached piano hammers, strumming, etc.

Professor Stephen Scott created the ensemble a little more than 30 years ago and, as far as I know, remains the only composer.  My favorite piece is Vikings of the Sunrise (1996), a multi-movement composition on themes of nautical exploration.  Scott’s work navigates the internal sound-world of the concert grand piano, drawing out textures and timbres uncharted by the likes of Cage or Bunger.   Take a listen to “Ocean Drum” via NPR. Relying on my memory of playing this, the entry order for the different sounds you hear is: 1) felt end of piano hammer on slightly dampened bass strings (1 person);  2) claw end of the piano hammer on slightly dampened treble strings (4 people); 3) ribbon bow on bass string (1 person); and 4) picks on open treble strings (4 people).

The sonic feat of Scott’s compositions is all the more spectacular when you take into account the choreographic aspect of his work.  For example, each note of a melody played by the soft bows has to be played by a single musician.  This means that any melodic line consisting of more than about four or five pitches requires an individual to (vary carefully, quickly, and quietly) put down one bow and pick up another.  This usually means scooting around the piano and reaching around another person who is in mid-swing with their own bow.  Things get even more complicated when a bowed melody carries a parallel harmony (as it does about 2 minutes through the “Ocean Drum” clip) and sets of players are moving/relocating in tandem.

Each of the ten musicians in the ensemble must memorize not only their own part but also the accompanying choreography worked out during the rehearsal process.  Perhaps not surprisingly, it takes the better part of a semester to perfect an hour-long piece like Vikings. One misstep or improperly placed bow can bring the entire performance to a halt.

It was fun for me to re-watch the “Entrada” video upon encountering it via google.  Although, it was a strange experience to find that there are multiple copies of this video up on YouTube that amount to more than 20,000 views.  As I contemplate life after graduate school and begin to submit applications for various academically-related positions, I have tried my best to monitor what I make available about myself on the internet.  It is always surprising when something pops up that you didn’t know was out there.  However, in the case of the Bowed Piano Ensemble, it is something I am incredibly proud of and would love to have the opportunity to be a part of again.

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10 Comments

  • 1. T-tone  |  September 27, 2009 at 7:59 pm

    Great piece! (Although I may be biased, being another badly coiffed player in the video). Timo Steiner, who founded the Estonian BPE, also composed for the medium. The group performed his “Descendants of Cain” on tour with us in SF. His bio here suggests other Estonian composers also wrote for his group:

    http://www.emic.ee/helilooja/timosteiner?lang=eng

  • 2. PMG  |  September 28, 2009 at 8:34 pm

    whoa, that’s pretty awesome.

    Googling myself always scares me.

  • 3. Zach Wallmark  |  September 30, 2009 at 11:42 am

    Wow, this is an amazing concept. It almost sounds like a small ensemble consisting of cimbalom, a consort of gambas, percussion, dulcimer, and maybe even a piano!

  • 4. Stephen Scott Bowed Piano Ensemble «  |  October 3, 2009 at 3:58 pm

    [...] Raul Bañagale blogs about his experience performing with the Scott’s Bowed Piano Ensemble. As you can gather from [...]

  • 5. Ryan Raul Bañagale  |  October 3, 2009 at 5:49 pm

    T-tone — Of course! I don’t know why Timo Steiner’s piece escaped my memory. It is too bad that the Estonian ensemble is no longer active (looks like they disbanded in 2000).

  • 6. learn piano songs  |  October 5, 2009 at 2:42 pm

    Its an amazing video, as per i concern about this blog it is a nice blog with amazing material.

  • 7. Racheous  |  October 11, 2009 at 2:08 pm

    The sound that this ensemble creates is incredible. This should be an ensemble that is be more widely recognized in the search for new and interesting performance techniques and composer projects.

  • 8. Jake  |  October 18, 2009 at 8:07 pm

    Very interesting comment about self-Googling (that sounds wrong). I have a very different experience when Googling myself, since I come across hundreds of people with my name, including Rodney Dangerfield with whom I share a birth name. This manifests itself in some funny ways, including once receiving at least ten emails from students directed to their business school professor who shared a name and institution with me.

    A recent Googling of myself has revealed a 6’10” Freshman power forward for the Davidson Wildcats. My, how my future employers will be disappointed when they hire me to pad the intramural faculty basketball team, only to find out that I’m 10 inches shorter than advertised and don’t have much of an outside shot…

  • 9. jay  |  September 21, 2010 at 6:54 am

    hello
    how does s.Scott notate his music? is it stadard notation?
    just curious any comments appreciated

  • 10. Ryan Raul Bañagale  |  September 21, 2010 at 7:13 am

    I don’t know much about Scott’s compositional process, but the scores that the performers work from (prior to memorizing the whole piece) are in standard notation. Each system comprises of 10 staves–one per person.


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