Strings Attached

To most of his friends and neighbors in Colorado Springs, the notoriously conservative town where he's lived for the past thirty years, Stephen Scott is simply a professor of music at Colorado College. But to listeners interested in the development of classical music during the twentieth century, Scott, 52, is a praiseworthy artist responsible for this year's Vikings of the Sunrise: Fantasy on the Polynesian Star Path Navigators and several other recordings produced for the forward-looking New Albion label. Moreover, he's viewed in post-modern musical circles as the inventor of "bowed piano," a compositional and performance format in which multiple participants bow and pluck strings inside the instrument's body rather than using the keyboard to hammer them. Like "prepared piano," created in 1938 by the late John Cage, bowed piano is an innovative technique that's earned Scott a considerable reputation throughout the music world.

Despite these accomplishments, though, Scott exhibits none of the stiffness and stuffiness that most people associate with high art. He takes great delight in explaining his processes in layman's terms, so those listeners without formal training can gain some understanding of his work. And by comparison with Cage, who concentrated on removing all vestiges of personality from his music because he felt emotions, feelings, memories, beliefs and prejudices might obscure it, Scott seems less doctrinaire. He's more interested in using the piano to duplicate the sounds spinning in his head than he is in establishing inflexible rules of musical conduct.

"I started working with bowed piano in 1977," Scott divulges. "I was actually inspired by a composer named Curtis Curtis-Smith; as far as I know, he invented the idea of using nylon fishing line to produce a sustained tone from a piano string. He was doing a lot of stuff inside the piano strings, à la John Cage, as a composer, but the fishing line was something Curtis-Smith came up with. I heard a piece of his where he used single sustained tones in a piano and that kind of struck my fancy. So I began amplifying on his ideas, and then I invented some new ones and I borrowed some from John Cage. I've been working in this medium for almost twenty years now."

Scott has made substantial progress since his 1981 debut, Rainbows. While Minerva's Web/The Tears of Niobe, a mid-Eighties project, is intriguingly dense from a tonal perspective, Vikings displays a melodic and rhythmic richness that's light years beyond it. You'd swear that the number features harps, cellos, violins, mandolins or other stringed instruments. Instead, the sounds are created by ten people tickling a piano's vital organs.

Performing such a composition isn't easy. "To prepare for a piece like Vikings of the Sunrise, which is a big piece, requires about three hours, I guess," Scott says. "In this case, we loaded in about 75 nylon bows--what I call soft bows. They're made of nylon fishing line and are fastened together at both ends with color-coded tabs of paper. The color codes represent the pitches--C is purple and D-flat is blue and yellow, for example. It's an arbitrary code that I made up, because inside the piano, you can't tell one note from another--because you don't have the keyboard.

"Then," he elaborates, "we drape the bows under the strings of the piano. Let's say you are talking about middle C. You take one of these bows and you drape it down under the left of the three strings that represent middle C. Then you grab it with tweezers and you pull it up on the right side of the top one of the three strings. So you've got three strings lying parallel in a flat plane and you just loop something under those three strings. We put those in all over the piano, in all registers that we need, low to high."

Scott keeps the bows in order by laying their ends in something he calls a "bow trap"--a notched wooden stick that prevents them from becoming tangled when they're not in use. "We also put color codes for the pitch on the dampers--not on the dampers themselves, but on the wooden part that the felt damper is fastened to," he says. "We do this so you can see when you're working with some other technique, like pizzicato, or using a smaller bow. Then you can tell what pitch is what inside the piano."

Among the other tools Scott employs is a tape bow, so named because it's made of tape. He also uses a series of rigid bows made from tongue depressors or nail files; Scott ties or glues rosined horsehair to the bows so that the friction they create will cause the piano strings to vibrate. Scott's ensembles also use guitar picks, soft mallets, piano hammers and wire brushes of the sort favored by jazz drummers. Scott insists that the use of these implements does not damage the piano in any way: "People get really concerned--they think we're destroying it. Actually, when we're on tour, we're kind of like the Girl Scouts at a campsite. We leave the piano in better condition than it was when we got there.

"All of our materials are harmless--we have lots of testimonials from all over the world saying that," he goes on. "People still freak out. But we only use preparations that are removable and leave no trace. When we're done, you should be able to put the lid back on and play Beethoven."

In Scott's view, playing in a bowed-piano group is among the more challenging assignments a musician can undertake. For instance, some of the spirited melodies in Vikings move in eighth-note increments--and each of these notes has to be played by a different individual. "See, one person might have to play on the second half of the second beat and play a real short note with a piece of nylon dragging under a string," he says. "Then the next person has to quickly do the same thing. Obviously, a great deal of rehearsal is involved. My melodies used to be simpler and have longer notes in them. But I've found that you can actually get a lot more out of players than you think you can."

Because of the demands of his compositions, Scott must serve simultaneously as performer, conductor and choreographer. "You've got ten people around a piano," he notes. "It's a very crowded work space. You have to plan very carefully where each person is going to be at every moment of the hour-long piece. And they have to stay consistent. If somebody decides to stand a different way or lead the bow with the left hand instead of the right hand, it will throw everybody off. We spend a lot of rehearsal working on that."

The groups that perform with Scott generally consist of students from Colorado College; hence, Scott must deal with one or two personnel changes each year. For example, two of the musicians who worked on Vikings have already moved on, meaning that Scott has to train their replacements in time for an October performance in the Canary Islands. By 1998, when the combo is set to play in London, Scott expects more alterations in membership. Fortunately, he gets nearly as much enjoyment out of teaching new inductees the ropes as he does composing.

"There's a real communal sense in learning a piece like this," he says. "It's very hard to learn to play in this manner. But it's very rewarding. It takes a certain type of person to be able to do it, because you have a lot of overlapping into each other's space. It's as if the saxophonist in a jazz ensemble came over to sit in the drummer's lap--it's that type of closeness and intimacy.

"All of the members are musicians," he continues. "But not all of them are music majors. I've had geologists, chem majors and theater majors in my groups. I like the thought that there are people out there practicing medicine or doing geology who have been in my ensembles. They're richer people."

According to Scott, performances of Vikings should fill his extracurricular schedule for the next several years; after that, he'll consider what to do next. By then, other composers may be working in the bowed-piano field, but Scott isn't worried. "Nobody owns an idea--not really," he muses. "I borrowed some techniques. People can borrow mine. We even influenced John Cage to try this. He heard one of our performances in New York a few years before he died, and in one of his last pieces, he used some bowed piano. I was really flattered that he wanted to try it. But I think I'm the only one so far who has been crazy enough to concentrate on this as much as I have.

"People are coming up with new ideas all the time," he adds. "So I don't think it's so much what you are playing. It's all what's in your head, between your ears. It doesn't matter what you use. I think it's more your attitude. To tell the truth, I'm delighted to see all the experimentation that is going on today, especially with acoustic instruments. And you know, there's a lot more that hasn't even been mined yet."

In the meantime, Scott plans to hold on to his post at Colorado College. "I love teaching there," he says. "It's a great place--ideal. But someday, when I retire, I'll move somewhere else. I don't know where. But that won't be anytime soon. My wife and I are currently involved in remodeling a house, so we have immediate long-term plans to stay here." After a pause, he admits, "I could quit tomorrow if I wanted to. But then I'd have to figure out a way to make a living." Scott laughs before adding, "It's tough to make a living as a composer.