by A.L. ADAMS
XX Digitus Duo, Portland’s premiere “four-hand” act, have been tapped to open the Siren Nation Festival on November 3, so now’s a great time to learn more about them! The following piece appeared in Artslandia At The Performance Sept/Oct and appears here courtesy of Artslandia.
In Maria Garcia’s spacious Eliot living room, she and Momoko Muramatsu deftly and emotively co-pilot a Fazioli grand piano (“the Ferrari of pianos,” as Momoko calls it), pausing occasionally to discuss dynamics and scribble notes on their sheet music. As one piece percolates and rises to a rumble, the pencil flies off the piano and skitters across the hardwoods, startling Maria’s dog Cosmo from a rapturous nap.
It’s easy to see why XX Digitus Duo describes their coordinated playing as “choreography.” Their four hands often crisscross over each other; three of their four feet evade the piano’s three pedals while one foot plays designated driver; and whenever one player begins a run up or down the keyboard, the other fluidly completes it. As with roller skates or a tire swing, it takes a lot of synchronized swaying to move forward and stay out of each other’s way. And that’s only the half of it.
“In practice, we’re more subdued. We’re giving this about fifty percent,” Momoko explains. “When we’re performing, we’re giving a hundred percent, so we’re twice as animated!” What’s more, Maria is near-sighted while Momoko is far-sighted, tempting them to lean respectively forward and backward. The duo, which performs November 3 at Portland’s Alberta Rose Theatre, has long since set some ground rules: never share a bench, keep your elbows in. It’s a wonder this system works at all, and a marvel how beautifully.
Each accomplished concert pianists in their own right, Maria and Momoko formed XX Digitus Duo in 2014—more recently than their rapport might suggest. That’s because the pair have been crossing paths since college. They first met while training at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, then reconnected when they both lived in New York years later. “Life brought us back together in different places,” says Maria, and each time, they discussed putting together a project; it just never happened til they were both in Portland.
Embracing Portland’s reputation for flouting convention, the friends forewent an obvious name choice like “Muramatsu/Garcia” in favor of more alternative branding: XX “isn’t ex-ex,” Maria clarifies, “it’s the Roman numeral for twenty”—and “Digitus” is Latin for fingers. “We did wonder, ‘Does it sound risqué?’” she notes, “but ultimately, we like that it’s unique and sets us apart.” Their expanded tagline, “Twenty Finger Symphonic Sounds of Eclectic Repertoire,” sums up their mission as well as their name’s meaning.
The novelty of four-hand piano is far from the Duo’s only hook. They’re equally if not more invested in that part about “Eclectic Repertoire,” to which they could add, “rare.” Nerds for the four-hand form, they’ve collected hard-to-find pieces from artists all over the world who’ve experimented with it. Today, they play from a book of Renaissance works that Hungarian composer György Kurtág reset in four-hand to play alongside his wife Márta well into their old age. They also bust out some four-hand arrangements of Juan Morel Compos that Maria retrieved from the closet of a former teacher in Puerto Rico who had a four-hand act with her sister. Between the pieces Maria has inherited and those Momoko’s gotten from her mother Tamiko Muramatsu, a career concert pianist in Japan, Digitus’ catalog contains some deep cuts.
Some of the hardest works to adapt, oddly enough, are pieces conceived for two full pianos. They tend to be written to exuberantly engulf the whole length of both keyboards, and hence are tricky or even impossible to shrink. Surprisingly, Digitus often finds it easier to convert whole orchestra scores to piano duos, or to divvy a solo piano piece into two parts. Some works, like Morel Campos’ Tambien Lo Dudo, come notated in two distinct sets of different sheet music, while other pieces present two parts in a double-decker stack, with two treble and two bass CM clefs stacked into every bar. Reading such scores is certainly not as easy as Maria and Momoko make it sound, but it’s becoming second nature.
XX Digitus Duo debuted in the summer of 2014 at downtown Portland’s Director Park, purportedly the first-ever four-hand group to grace All Classical Radio’s Thursdays @ Three. After putting in a few more appearances at the Old Church and the Community Music Center, they realized their next step should be recording, for which they sought and got a 2016 project grant from Regional Arts and Culture Council. Grant money bankrolled their debut e.p., 4 + 1, in- cluding a new commission by composer Ken Selden and this week’s album release at Alberta Rose Theatre. Conceived as more “event” than mere “concert”—the show will feature Agnieszka Laska Dancers and perhaps more special guests.
After that, they’d like to settle into a three-show-a-season schedule and potentially some travel, and continue to establish themselves as a fixture in Portland’s thriving chamber-tain- ment scene. And maybe do some gigs on two pianos? “We can dream.”
XX Digitus Duo performs at 7:30 PM Thursday November 3 at Alberta Rose Theater, 3000 NE Alberta Street, Portland. Tickets available online and at the door. For more information about XX Digitus Duo’s upcoming performances, visit xxdigitusduo.com. This story originally appeared in Artslandia magazine.