The Bowed Piano Ensemble
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.