Thursday, March 20, 2014

A Brief History of the Bowed Piano Ensemble - By Stephen Scott, March 2014

Stephen Scott founded the Bowed Piano Ensemble in 1977.  Eight Colorado College students and two faculty members (Scott and Curtis F. Smith) were assembled from the larger New Music Ensemble (founded 1972) to rehearse and perform on tour the first piece ever composed for bowed piano ensemble, Scott’s Music for Bowed Strings (later renamed Music One for Bowed Strings).  There were two devices used, the “soft bow,” modeled on an invention by Curtis Otto von Bismarck Curtis-Smith (no relation to Curtis F. Smith), a Michigan composer who was the first person we know of to sound the strings of a piano with nylon filament, and the rigid bow, invented by Scott with a bit of kibitzing from the other players.  The piece was one of several new-music compositions performed by the New Music Ensemble in Colorado, New Mexico and Texas that spring. 
At the first of these concerts, in the brand-new Packard Hall, the lights went out during the premiere performance of Music for Bowed Strings, the last work on the program.  It was a good excuse to start over, which we did a few minutes later when the lights came up again.  In May we were invited by a sympathetic and gallant Michael Grace to reprise the piece, without the lighting malfunction, during the Collegium Musicum concert.  It’s safe to say this was probably the only occasion in history when a bowed piano piece was performed on an early-music concert.

The Ensemble fearlessly (foolishly?) ignored the omen some read into the Packard darkness affair and went on to tour new (or newish) works for the medium almost every year after 1977.  These adventures took us to California, Wyoming, the Pacific Northwest, New York and New England.  In 1980, the first piece to be premiered by another ensemble (Arcs) was premiered at Boston’s Jordan Hall and New York’s Carnegie Recital Hall by a group from the New England Conservatory.  In 1981 the CC group premiered Rainbows at Soundscape in New York.   In November, 1983 our photo appeared in Life Magazine and shortly thereafter we made our first network television appearance on ABC’s “Ripley’s Believe it or Not.”  (To this day, many people still do not believe it.)

Our performance later that year at 80 Langton Street in San Francisco brought us to the attention of composer Ingram Marshall and new-music enthusiast Foster Reed, who were just then forming a new company, New Albion Records.  In 1984 the first release on the New Albion label (three vinyl LPs including NA 004, “New Music for Bowed Piano”) went into stores and reviewers’ mailboxes simultaneously; all three were warmly praised by critics in the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Keyboard Magazine, Fanfare, etc.  We were on the map!

The Ensemble’s first overseas tour took us in 1986 to Belgium (including our first concert at Logos, in Gent), Holland and West Berlin; this was three years before our heroic president, Ronald Reagan, took down the Berlin wall all by himself, thus single-handedly “winning” the Cold War.  Memorable experiences: walking through the Wall at Checkpoint Charlie into East Berlin to have coffee amongst the “communists,” discovering that Belgium has over 600 breweries, and playing in the Kröller-Müller Museum, a world-famous repository of Van Goghs and other masters, set in the middle of a national park and wildlife refuge in Eastern Holland.

Two tours to Australia (1987, 1991) introduced us to a wide audience with a live national broadcast of Minerva’s Web/The Tears of Niobe from the Sydney Opera House and appearances at several high-profile music festivals throughout the country.  We found that experimental music is quite at home in Australia, almost rivaling bureaucratic red tape and beer-drinking as national pastimes.  The then prime minister, John Howard, heard part of our concert at another important museum, The National Gallery in Canberra, though it doesn’t seem to have affected his politics. 

During the period between these two tours, we did a concert at Town Hall (New York), with John Cage and other composers in attendance.  Soon afterwards, John introduced bowed sounds into revisions of some of his older works, proving how influential we really are.  In 1990, we recorded Minerva and Niobe for New Albion, working for the first time with our now favorite New York recording engineer, Tom Lazarus.  The same year we performed and recorded a collaborative piece in just tuning composed by Terry Riley and Stephen Scott, Bowed Rosary (unreleased) and premiered another just-tuned composition, Thirteen, for the “New Sounds Live” radio series at Merkin Hall (New York). 
Thirteen and other just-tuned pieces, one by Australian composer Vincent Plush, made up our 1991 Australia program, making it the only tour on which we’ve traveled with our own tuner, Hilton White. He jumped ship, married an Australian woman, and moved his piano tuning shop to Tasmania (the devil!).  Other tours in the late 80s and early 90s took us throughout the U.S. and Canada.

In May 1995 we premiered Vikings of the Sunrise at three concerts in Norway, one in Estonia, and return visits to Amsterdam’s De Ijsbreker, where London artist Peter Savage made a concert film of Vikings, and Logos Foundation in Gent, by which time the Tetrahedron performance space had been created.  Our first concert on this tour, at the Maijazz Festival in Stavanger, Norway, was the only time we’ve ever had a warmup band, in this case a Norwegian jazz bass soloist.  Norway in general was stunning, especially Bergen, a city on a beautiful fjord, where we were the U.S. stars at the Music Factory Festival, given in a converted sardine factory.  (They really packed in the audience.)  Vikings was recorded late in the year and released by New Albion in the spring of 1996.  In October we made our first trip to the Visual Music Festival in Lanzarote, Canary Islands, playing Vikings at Jameos del Agua, the famous concert-hall-in-a-lava-tube.  After the Canaries, Stephen and old-BPE-hand Karl Walter spent a week in Ireland, training music students at the University of Limerick for a performance of Arcs at an “Irish world-music” festival.  (Earlier BPE colonies had been founded by Stephen at New England Conservatory, Princeton, Aspen Music School, USC, and the State Music Academy in Tallinn, but all have gone the way of Roanoke Colony, your grade-school ant farm, etc.)

July 1998 found us in London, again with Vikings (it’s a hard piece, we had to keep trying to get it right).  We were guests on a live BBC Radio 3 “drivetime” music show, previewing our concert the next night at the Almeida Opera Festival; the Almeida, now a legit theater in North London, had been in the Nineteenth Century a medical lecture hall, so the tired old surgery jokes about the bowed piano seemed more apt than usual.  In February 1999 BPE joined the Estonian Bowed Piano Ensemble (in its twilight days as a colony) in Shove Chapel to help celebrate Colorado College’s quasquicentennial with Double Variations, a work for 20 players, 2 pianos; we then took a full concert program to Theater Artaud in San Francisco, where we gave a benefit concert for Radio KPFA.  In October 2000 we had a return engagement at “New Sounds Live,” this time playing at the Winter Garden of the World Financial Center, part of the World Trade Center complex.  Unfortunately, we were up against the fourth game of the “Subway Series,” (Mets vs. Yankees) so thousands of baseball fans failed to attend our concert.  In retaliation, we boycotted the fourth game of the series.

Less than eleven months later, the Winter Garden would be gutted by the 9/11 attacks, though the building itself would stand, and it was eventually restored.  Our radio recording of Entrada from the 2000 performance played a significant musical role in the “Sonic Memorial Project,” which debuted on September 11, 2002 on NPR and has since been re-broadcast several times and incorporated into a memorial “sound walk” at Ground Zero in September 2004.

April 2001 marked another first for the Ensemble: we collaborated with soprano Victoria Hansen for a benefit concert for the Colorado Springs Pioneers’ Museum, performing in the restored 19th-century Courtroom.  (It was our closest brush yet with the law.)  In September our recording of Vikings of the Sunrise was used in the score for NBC’s prime-time documentary “Revenge of the Whale.”  The cannibalism theme of this show began a new Gothic Era for BPE, culminating in the use of Arcs soon afterwards in the DVD of the drug film “Traffic.”

Our Late Renaissance began In March 2002 when we performed with Victoria at the Maerzmusik Festival (Berlin), the Wolfsburg Art Museum, the ppIANISSIMO Festival in Sofia, Bulgaria and the Jaroslav Jezek Conservatory for jazz and pop musicians in Prague.  The students there must have wondered why we didn’t swing.

2002-03 was the “Year of St. Francis” for the Ensemble.  We returned, with Victoria, to the Visual Music Festival in Lanzarote in October 2002, premiering the new song cycle, Paisajes Audibles, in the Convento de San Francisco, an 18th-Century stone church in the little town of Teguise.  The following March we did the piece again in our own San Francisco as the final performance of the Other Minds Festival.  In January 2004 the Ensemble returned to the scene of its original crimes, Texas and New Mexico, with Paisajes.  May 2004 saw the release on Albany Records of Paisajes Audibles, the Ensemble’s first recording not for New Albion.   In June our concert film of Entrada was screened at the Key of Z Festival of the Pacific Film Archives in San Francisco.
Spring break of 2004-05 took us again to the still-wintry capital of Estonia for the world premiere of The Deep Spaces, Stephen’s second song cycle.  Victoria and the Ensemble performed in the beautiful 1402 Town Hall of Tallinn, then in the spanking new concert hall in Pärnu.  Other concerts were given in Lüneburg and Gent (our third concert there).  Back home, we did two concerts at First Congregational Church, with live video extravaganza, and a student convocation at DU (sucks).

Between Block VIII and Commencement 2005 we recorded The Deep Spaces with Michael Grace fils engineering, and Stephen and Victoria edited and mastered the CD with Tom Lazarus at Classic Sound (NYC).

During the fall of 2005, Stephen was on sabbatical leave; nonetheless BPE played excerpts of for the Music Department’s open-house concert in September and rehearsed a bit during Block IV.  The spring tour of ’06 took us again to Santa Fe for two shows and onward to the Chicago Cultural Center and Milwaukee.  The short train trip from Chicago to Milwaukee reminded us of the civilized rail travel networks we had enjoyed throughout Europe.

BPE regrouped in July for a performance of Deep Spaces excerpts as part of Ofer Ben-Amots’ New Music Symposium in Packard Hall.

On September 11, 2006, the Sonic Memorial (with sound-track including our Entrada) was rebroadcast as part of the commemoration of the fifth anniversary of the destruction of the World Trade Center.  Fall semester 2006 also saw the evolution of two overlapping ensembles; for our performances at Cincinnati’s Contemporary Arts Center and at The Allen Room (Jazz at Lincoln Center) in New York, four alums were in the “Deep Spaces” group and four “newbies” replaced them for the premiere of New York Drones, written for Steve Reich on the occasion of his 70th birthday.  There was a good crowd for our performance in the magical environment of The Allen Room, and many of them crowded into the Riverside Drive apartment of David Baldwin and Helen Milner (Bellagio friends of Stephen and Victoria) for a lovely after-concert reception.

On January 15, 2007 The Deep Spaces was released on New Albion Records (NA 132).  At press time, favorable reviews had appeared in L.A. Weekly and the Santa Fe New Mexican.  (A non-exhaustive search has yet turned up no negative reviews.)

On April 23 and 24, 2007 the Ensemble celebrated its thirtieth anniversary with “Beyond the Keyboard: the BPE in and on Film” (with special guest filmmakers Peter Savage and CC alum Lane Hall) and “The BPE @ 30: a Retrospective Concert.”  Crossover, a new piece by Ensemble Manager and paraprof Bernie Brink, was premiered; also on the program were excerpts of Vikings of the Sunrise and The Deep Spaces.

The May—June tour of 2007 began at Spoleto Festival USA (Charleston, SC) and continued in three German cities: Michelstadt, Lüneburg and Berlin.  Our program consisted of New York Drones and The Deep Spaces.

In August and September, 2007 the BPE was featured in three magazines:  Gramophone (one of “fifty recordings which are among the finest ever made but which few even know exist”  --way to go, publicity department!!--, Symphony and The Chronicle of Higher Education.

The 2007-08 season began with the premiere performances, with the Pacific Symphony, of Pacific Crossroads, a new “concerto” for bowed piano and orchestra commissioned by the PSO, in Orange County, California, as well as a stand-alone concert of Vikings of the Sunrise by the Ensemble.  We got good publicity and reviews in the Los Angeles Times, the Financial Times of London, NPR and the Orange County Register.  In August 2008 we were featured on the 08-08 New Albion Records Festival at Bard College in Annandale, NY.  We played Vikings again, this time in a “spiegeltent,” a performance enlivened by a cacophonous thunderstorm drumming on the canvas.  Another highlight was the two five-hour airport delays of our flights from and to DIA.

The 2008-09 season began with a block-break ensemble-in-residence stint at SUNY Fredonia, near Buffalo, NY, Victoria again as soloist.  It was something of a somber weekend, as we landed in Buffalo Thursday night, February 12, in an ice storm about ten minutes before a commuter plane from Newark crashed on approach to the airport with no survivors.
In April we played to a full house at First Christian Church in downtown Colorado Springs.  The Fredonia and Colorado Springs concerts covered two different programs, one featuring excerpts from The Deep Spaces and one featuring Vocalise on “In a Silent Way” and excerpts from Paisajes Audibles.

On May 23, 2009 we embarked with both programs on our eighth tour of Europe, with concerts in Gent (Belgium) Tuoro sul Trasimeno (near Perugia) and Bellagio (Italy), Bratislava (Slovakia), Klaipeda and Kaunas (Lithuania) and Lüneburg (Germany).  Bellagio was a homecoming of sorts for Victoria and Stephen and for The Deep Spaces, much of which Stephen composed at Villa Serbelloni there, on a Lake Como theme, in 2004.  The central Europe cities were exotic for most of us, especially the two on the fabled Danube River:  Budapest beneath the Castle and hard by the Chain Bridge, and Bratislava, where we played in the inverted-pyramid Slovak Radio studio, had dinner afterward with 1991 Australia-tour alum Miles White, then teaching African American music in Bratislava, and finally settled down for the night in a “Botel,” a river boat converted to a hotel, moored quayside on the Danube.  Lithuania was beautifully green (maybe because it rained every day we were in the country) and produced wonderful concert audiences crowded into beautiful halls (maybe because it rained every day we were in the country).  Victoria and Stephen each bravely piloted a student-filled van the 630 kilometers from Vilnius across the country and back again.  (Did I mention it rained during the whole trip?)

The 2009-10 season brought our third gig at Santa Fe New Music, in yet again another Santa Fe venue, the Opera Festival’s new orchestra hall, in March.  In April we did a weekend run-out to the impressive Cleveland Art Museum, the Lane Concert Series at University of Vermont (where one of our hosts was Joe Goetz, BPE alum and Vermont Public Radio DJ, and the beautiful new Granoff Music Center at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts, where the music department chair is Joe Auner, a member of the very first bowed piano group and survivor of three early US tours.

2010-11 acquainted the group with Thomas Stacy, who in October 2010 had retired after 38 years as English horn soloist for the New York Philharmonic and who in 2008 had asked Stephen to write a piece for him with the Ensemble after hearing a late-night broadcast of one of our recordings on WNYC, New York’s leading new-music radio station.  With Tom We premiered Lyric Suite for English Horn and Bowed Piano at CC February 10, 2011.

In May 2011 we made our third Down Under tour, with concerts at University of Aukland, New Zealand School of Music in Wellington, Canberra International Music Festival, Campbelltown Arts Centre (Sydney) and Queensland Conservatory in Brisbane.  We reunited with our old friend, Aussie composer Vincent Plush, who had been involved in both our 1987 and 1991 Australia tours.

In October 2011 we hosted Piano Circus, the six-piano ensemble from London, and their concert included Stephen’s piece Mr. Fibonacci at Work and Play for Bowed Piano Ensemble and Piano Circus.  Seven grands were on Packard Stage, which did not, thank you very much, collapse!

Our May/June 2012 tour took us to Charleston, SC for our second concert at Spoleto Festival USA, and then to the Bermuda School of Music in Hamilton, where CC alum Chas Arnold has been teaching for several years.  The water was turquoise and the sand blue…  Who could ask for anything more?

At 3:30 am March 13, 2013 the bleary-eyed 2012-13 Bowed Piano Ensemble boarded a CC bus in the Packard Hall  “parking lot” and headed toward DIA for a flight to O’Hare and then sub-zero Milwaukee (no train this time) for an evening concert at Carroll University in Waukesha, Wisconsin, home of the Pioneers.  The Pioneers were very friendly, hospitable and well organized, and they seemed to enjoy our music.  Next morning we were back on a plane to O’hare, then a flight toward London (which after 2 hours turned back to O’hare, everyone’s favorite airport!) due to hydraulic system problems.  We all got a fun snack in the airport and sometime after midnight in the Ides of March were ushered onto another plane for a flight toward London.  We were only six hours late upon landing at Heathrow, so our planned sightseeing in central London fizzled for the most part.  Our afternoon concert at Brunel University was well received, but we came close to outnumbering the folks in the audience.  Altogether we were in UK less than 48 hours, each one of them nourishing the land- and sky-scape with plenty of drizzle.  We did, however, get a chance to re-connect with a few of the Brunel faculty who had performed with us in 2011 at CC as members of Piano Circus.  In the wee dark hours of March 17 we bused back to Heathrow, headed for warm, inviting Italy.
We had less than 24 hours to enjoy Venice, which seemed enough, since the weather there was colder and wetter than London’s (go figure!).  Our two Italy concerts were at the Conservatorio Adria (near Venice) and the Sala Degli Specchi (Hall of Mirrors) in the medieval hill town of Cittå di Castello, where we tried to make music on a medieval piano (obviously built long before the piano was invented.)  Both concerts were extended by long, flowery speeches by the presenters, meaning dinners were even later than normal in Southern Europe, and sleep was only a concept.  The highlight of the tour, for most of us, was our final destination, Malta.  Our hosts there, Marthese and Mario Vitale, the parents of Rachel Vitale CC ’12, were very generous with their time and hospitality, along with guided tours of the ancient cities on the beautiful and fabled island.  A short stop in Rome allowed some worthwhile sightseeing before our long trip home.

The fall of 2013 was action-packed for BPE.  The highlight was undoubtedly our return to the stunning Allen Room, Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York.  There were echoes of our 2006 concert there, for which we had two over-lapping ensembles, as described earlier.  This time we were a gang of seventeen.  The 2013-14 ensemble began the season in September with four new members, who valiantly and quickly learned the ins and outs of playing our communal instrument and learned several pieces for the New York performance in record time.  On top of that, six alums from the 2010-11 ensemble were brought back to the campus from far-flung locations (the furthest being Japan) to help reprise Stephen’s Lyric Suite for English horn and Bowed Piano, commissioned by Thomas Stacy, retired English horn soloist for the New York Philharmonic.  Tom and the ensemble had premiered the work at CC in 2011, and the same group rounded out the Allen Room concert on October 26 2013 with this second performance and excerpts of Vikings of the Sunrise.  The concert, which we considered a “farewell to New York,” and the long history of the Ensemble, were the subjects of a generous and insightful New York Times article by Allan Kozinn on the front Arts page in that day’s paper.

Two weeks later, we performed the same pieces, minus the Lyric Suite, at Media Live, an annual arts event at the University of Colorado, Boulder, for an enthusiastic and informed audience.

Now comes the bittersweet part.  Because Stephen will retire from teaching at the end of this academic year, the Bowed Piano Ensemble as we know it will cease to exist, at least at Colorado College.  Quite a few musicians have borrowed or studied some of the techniques developed and deployed by the Ensemble over the decades, and the probable extension of Stephen’s work with afore-mentioned temporary “colonies” may continue to keep the music alive in different ways and different places.  And there are the recordings…

[Editor’s Note: this history of the Bowed Piano Ensemble, the most comprehensive and reliable ever written, was carefully researched through extensive browsing in the dusty stacks of a certain aging professor’s brain; all facts noted herein are certified to be either true or made-up.]

1 comment:

  1. Stephen,

    Such an honor to have been just one of the many pairs of hands drawing a bow during this most illustrious run. Ah, those early morning rehearsals!!

    Bill Hulings '88