Singing Strings

Composer Stephen Scott created singular music — and a unique instrument to play it

Stephen Scott was all set to become a jazz musician until the day in 1964 his mentor, University of Oregon music professor Homer Keller, brought a cassette to class. “There’s something going on in San Francisco,” he said, “and you should hear it.” The music, premiered only a few months earlier, was one of the seminal works of the 20th century, Terry Riley’s proto-minimalist In C. Mellifluous, repetitive, and easy for even untrained listeners to grasp, it marked a turning point away from the atonal, often dissonant sounds that had dominated classical music since World War II. 

“It grabbed me by the throat,” Scott recalled. “We were all stunned by it.”

Composer Stephen Scott. Photo: Melanie Tutt.

That ear-opening experience led Scott, who died March 10 at age 76, to blaze his own trails during a long and fruitful career on the faculty of Colorado College.  All composers make new music, but few create an entire new instrument to express their musical visions.  In the able hands of Scott and the Bowed Piano Ensemble he founded at the college in 1977, his bowed piano music became far more than a mere gimmick, even though the instrument’s uniqueness unfairly threatened to eclipse in the public mind the mesmerizing, minimalist-influenced music he wrote for it. In Scott’s case, the medium itself helped inspire the muse.

 “Stephen Scott is an inheritor of the mantle of Henry Cowell and Harry Partch and Lou Harrison and John Cage,” the eminent music historian Joseph Horowitz told me in 2008, “that American maverick tradition that had emanated from the West Coast of self invented composers in many cases using self invented instruments. These composers used novel means in a more traditional musical language. It’s an American phenomenon and he’s at the center of it today.”                                 

From Miles & Monk to Minimalism

Scott’s inventiveness blossomed at UO. After falling under jazz’s spell in his native Corvallis, where his parents were both musicians and scientists, he gigged on saxophone in Eugene with such renowned older students as Ralph Towner and Glen Moore, who would later form the esteemed jazz/world music group Oregon. Although he knew jazz’s legends only through their records, “I came to realize that Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis were my composition teachers, and then Bill Evans and Gil Evans,” he told NewMusicBox. 

Then came his In C epiphany. Because Riley’s masterpiece wouldn’t be released on an album for several years, hardly anyone had heard it when Scott did. But the UO music school was even then one of the country’s most open-minded, one of the few that allowed world music and new sounds into the curriculum. And here were sounds no one else was making.

 “I think very fondly of my years at the UO,” said Scott, who graduated in 1967. “It opened up worlds.” 

In graduate school at Brown University, Scott tried composing for the then-nascent medium electronic music. But he missed the rich resonances of the acoustic piano. And he was “floundering” by writing conventional pieces like string quartets. So, like other Western composers of the time such as Lou Harrison, Riley and Philip Glass, he looked beyond European sources. He flew to Ghana to study the amazing polyrhythmic sounds of that country’s master drummers. One mentioned that another American musician named Steve was also studying nearby; it turned out to be Steve Reich, that other pioneer of minimalism who, like Riley (whom he also later collaborated with) became a mentor to the younger composer. 

After taking a teaching job at Colorado College (where he established the school’s first electronic music studio and created new courses in world music, experimental music and jazz) in 1969, Scott encountered the final ingredient in his compositional recipe. In 1976, Scott heard a performance that required the player to stroke and pluck the strings inside a piano lid with a variety of objects, including nylon fishing line. (West Coast vanguard composers Cowell and Cage had pioneered the so-called “prepared piano” back in the 1930s, and the bowed piano technique itself was devised by C. Curtis Smith in 1972.) The resulting otherworldly sound enraptured Scott as nothing had since that tape of In C. “I instantly started composing for it in my head,” he remembers.

Community Experience

And he never stopped. Over the years, using fishing line, horsehair mounted on popsicle sticks, and eventually guitar picks, fingernails, mutes, piano hammers and other unconventional items, Scott produced beautiful, almost orchestral textures, rooted in minimalism and jazz harmonies, that mesmerized listeners. The instrument’s surprisingly spacious range of timbres could shift from percussive and focused to singing and shimmering, now sounding like an early Baroque viol consort, now an accordion band, a jazz combo (though his work allowed only a little improvisation), sometimes even a chamber orchestra.

It takes up to a dozen players to produce the rich sound of Scott’s compositions, so at Colorado College, he re-created “the community experience of music making in Africa, where there’s no division between performer and audience” by forming an ensemble of students who take a course in which they learn to perform bowed piano music. It’s a carefully choreographed operation — “traffic control” he called it — with the players moving constantly around the piano in order to hit the right note with the right object at the right time, a tableau that viewers often compare to an operating room table. The visual component of the coordinated players enchanted concert audiences beyond the sounds they produced. 

Scott chose the players, many of them non-music-majors, in part based on how well they could memorize their parts (no time to read scores on the move) and work together under pressure in very close quarters, where arms and egos can easily be bruised. They’re careful never to damage the pianos they use. Composition can be a lonely profession, and Scott really cherished the social aspect of performing in the bowed piano ensemble. It also afforded him the opportunity to try out elaborate new ideas and get instant feedback, a luxury few composers besides, say, Haydn or Duke Ellington enjoyed. Although other composers also wrote for the ensemble, it was primarily Scott’s expressive vehicle. 

After his sonorous first album came out in 1981, word spread, resulting in invitations to bring the new sounds to people and pianos beyond Colorado. The ensemble became one of the very few undergraduate student groups invited to international professional music festivals, touring once or twice per year, performing across Europe and in Australia. Their skills evolved to the point that the players (who often suggested techniques and ideas) could handle Scott’s increasingly sophisticated music — more complex rhythms and harmonies, faster tempos, larger structures, wider influences, ambitious themes, additional instruments like electronic keyboards, chamber orchestra, vocalists. He even coaxed ensemble members to sing occasionally. During Scott’s tenure at the college, which ended with his retirement in 2014, the BPE released six albums on several record labels, culminating in 2013’s Ice and Fire. 

A prominent voice on later recordings, soprano Victoria Hansen, became Scott’s wife. And his Oregon upbringing no doubt influenced his love for outdoor recreation like mountain climbing, sailing, hiking. He also received numerous fellowships, residencies, awards and commissions from various universities, conservatories and festivals.

Scott and the Bowed Piano Ensemble performing at Orange County’s Segerstrom Hall. Photo: Pacific Symphony.

In February 2008, I met Scott when his music was featured in the Pacific Symphony’s acclaimed American Composers Series. The concert, at the glittering Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa, California, included two of his most ambitious works: the hour-long 1995 composition Vikings of the Sunrise, inspired by voyages of Magellan, James Cook, and early Polynesian sailors; and the world premiere of Pacific Crossroads, which paired his ensemble with the orchestra. A video camera mounted inside the keyboard captured live images, projected on a giant screen, that demonstrated the intricate interplay of 24 hands. Along with the rapid but exquisitely controlled movements of the black-clad ensemble, the projections added a mesmerizing visual complement to the magical sounds.

Although he wrote a few pieces for other combinations, Scott’s compositional focus primarily remained on his unique instrument, sometimes accompanied by more conventional forces, like the English horn that blends so beautifully with the bowed piano on his final composition from 2011, Lyric Suite. “I think you have to go where your mind leads you,“ he told me. “This medium still has so much in it that I haven’t discovered.” 

Scott never stopped exploring, and in the wake of his passing this month, the ensemble announced intentions  to find a new home for the bowed piano and its legacy. I hope more discoveries lie ahead, from his students and other composers inspired by the beautifully resonant sonic textures that Stephen Scott pioneered. Both his instrument and his music deserve to endure. 

An earlier version of this story appeared in Oregon Quarterly.

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Brett Campbell has been classical music editor at Willamette Week since 2008, music columnist for Eugene Weekly since 1996, and West Coast performing arts contributing writer for the Wall Street Journal since 2000. He is a frequent contributor to San Francisco Classical Voice, Oregon Quarterly, and Oregon Humanities and has also written for The Oregonian, Portland Monthly, West: The Los Angeles Times Magazine, Salon, Musical America and many other publications. He is a former editor of Oregon Quarterly and The Texas Observer. He is co-author of the biography Lou Harrison: American Musical Maverick (Indiana University Press, 2017) and has taught news and feature writing, editing and magazine publishing at the University of Oregon School of Journalism & Communication and Portland State University.

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