A look inside CC’s world-famous bowed piano
words and photos by Phoebe Parker-Shames, editor
“It’s a one-instrument orchestra,” said professor Stephen Scott, describing a machine that has made his ensemble, and CC, famous for musical creativity.
This machine makes drones and chords, sharp plucks and taps, sounding all at once like a guitar, an accordion, a woodwind, a marimba and a percussion section. Like nothing you’ve ever heard before, it produces such a wide range of sounds that it’s hard to believe it’s all coming from a single grand piano.
That is the essence of the Bowed Piano Ensemble—ten musicians around an open grand piano, plucking, bowing, tapping and moving in choreographed patterns that visually reflect the dynamic music they are playing. “It feels like dance choreography in a lot of ways,” said senior AJ Salimbeni, a member of the ensemble.
“When you’re watching, there’s a great visual aspect,” said Scott. The music professor has carried the ensemble into what is now its thirty-third year after he founded the group as part of an experimental “new music ensemble.” Eventually, the bowed piano became their main instrument.
“It’s riding on the backs of some pretty reputable modernist composers,” Salimbeni said. “Scott’s turned it into a melodic instrument that provides its own harmony, like an orchestra.”
As a result, the ensemble—the only one of its kind—has gained worldwide recognition. “It’s really neat to go on tour because everyone knows about us when we get there,” said Salimbeni. “It really feels like a professional group.” The ensemble has traveled across the globe, from the Canary Islands to Estonia.
By now, bowed piano is Scott’s instrument of choice. “It’s become my voice as a composer,” he said. He even has students compose for it.
That collaborative aspect of composition is part of what makes the ensemble unique in the musical world. There is a huge range of possible sounds, and due to the relatively recent origin of the instrument and the creativity of the players, there are many new techniques still being created. Scott explained that many new ideas have come from his students. “As it’s grown, I’ve learned new things I can do . . . There’s a lot of collaboration in this ensemble. I’m still conducting, but everyone contributes not just their own notes but their own ideas.”
It’s easy to see how this can happen when you sit in on rehearsal. The music never stops, even when the song does. While Scott pauses the song to look over the music (he explained that he will even tweak some of the compositions during rehearsal to better suit the ensemble), students grab mallets, picks and bows and start dabbling of their own volition. They argue over sound quality (trying to decide, for instance, what a jellyfish sounds like) and particular “sweet spots” for bows.
The collaborative aspect of the group also extends to the learning process. Scott explained that the students help teach each other how to play bowed piano. “This is my first year with the ensemble. Running around the piano and squeezing between people can be really difficult sometimes, but everyone’s been really supportive and the music just gives me chills,” said junior Nicole Santilli.
Scott, at least, seems pleased with the product: “There’s a lot of exploration that goes on and we come up with some great things.”
But how exactly does it work? Have a look at the ensemble’s inner workings . . .