Bowed Piano Ensemble Triumphs (for most) at the Memminger 

Five years ago, when they last appeared at Spoleto, I was so thoroughly blown away by composer and new music champion Stephen Scott’s Bowed Piano Ensemble that there was no way I was going to miss their return engagement this year. And their appearance Tuesday night at Memminger Auditorium justified my determination to be there. It was an audio-visual experience that will forever adorn the memories of most of those who packed the Memminger.

Imagine nine incredibly busy musicians (mostly students) and one somewhat older composer/player flitting around and leaning over a single concert grand piano that had been meticulously “prepared” with various thicknesses of monofilament fishing line looped around the strings for all 88 notes. And there was an incredible array of other tools and devices, like cloth strips, guitar picks, sticks and metal rods of all kinds, ribbed paddles, assorted percussion mallets and drum whisks, etc. — even bare fingers.

Then, imagine just about any kind of musical (or non-musical) sound you’ve ever heard — and this group produced them (and more), using all of the above devices to bow, pluck, brush, stroke, strum, or hammer the piano’s strings. In some of the pieces, the piano’s keys were occasionally played, but, prepared as the strings were, they didn’t sound much like they belonged to a piano. The result was a veritable symphony of infinitely varied, shifting, and overlapping sounds, unlike any you’ve ever heard before.

I heard reasonable sonic facsimiles (and blends) of stringed instruments, brasses, woodwinds, foghorns, gongs, bells, whistles, birdsong, sharp sonic “pings,” low seismic rumbles, and more coming together like some kind of vast electronic orchestra. The only valid comparisons I dare make are to the kinds of sounds you’d hear from synthesizers, like the ones used by all-electronic ensembles such as Vangelis (of Blade Runner soundtrack fame). But such comparisons don’t even begin to convey the full impression. The only sounds that didn’t come from the piano were occasional human vocals. In some of the selections, the players would occasionally hum or sing, often wordlessly, in small sub-choruses, both in unison and in harmony; two of the selections were actual songs featuring the only named solo vocalist, sweet-toned soprano Victoria Hansen (who also sang with the ensemble the last time they were in town).

Then, with meticulously planned choreography dictating the players’ every movement and musical function, the sounds I’ve described came together to produce music — real music that evoked images, set moods, pleased the senses and stirred emotions. It had everything music is supposed to have: melody, harmonic chords, rhythm (though often subtle), dynamics, phrasing, and calculated effect. In some pieces, repetitive patterns produced quasi-minimalistic effects; otherwise, the music sounded largely impressionistic, designed to convey images or natural phenomena. Some of it even sounded vaguely pop-inspired.

Having called this an audio-visual experience, I should mention that video cameras were placed directly above and to the sides of the lidless piano, and real-time images of the players’ constant activity were projected onto a stage-right screen so that the audience could see what was going on and how the various sounds were being produced. It was fascinating to observe five or six pairs of hands doing their infinitely varied thing together and at the same time: some bowing, others plucking, strumming or beating. It was also interesting to watch the players directly as they constantly traded places, shifting into the different positions required to get to their assigned places and functions. Said positions were often rather undignified ones, with players draped awkwardly across each other or bunched tightly together in close contact; as one player told me afterward, “It’s a good thing that we’ve all gotten to be pretty close friends.”

This ensemble, the only one of its kind in the world, has been around since the early 1980s, though membership in the group constantly rotates as students come and go. Some of the compositions they played here date back that far: like Rainbows, parts one and two; a work that Scott wrote in 1981, in which the sounds were largely bowed. As you may well imagine, that piece was all about tone colors. Later compositions included a wealth of non-bowed sounds, too; sounds that Scott gradually incorporated into his music as his art evolved and he discovered new sound-generating techniques and sonic variants.

My personal favorite among the compositions was an ethereally lovely piece called Aurora Ficta (Latin for the actual natural phenomenon of “false dawn”). Behind closed eyes, it came across as very “pictorial,” as my imagination conjured up a dark seascape under slowly growing illumination. Not surprisingly, it was also quite meditative in nature. Also of particular appeal were the two songs performed (in Spanish) by Ms. Hansen: excerpts from a longer vocal cycle entitled Paisajes Audibles (audible landscapes). The final piece, 1977: Music of Three Worlds, was composed in honor of the Spoleto USA festival, and offered here in its world premiere performance. It actually contained melodic quotes from (among other sources) the two operas that were presented at the first Charleston festival in 1977: founder Gian Carlo Menotti’s The Consul and Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades.

My dilemma here, as a critic, has to do with how one goes about judging music that is totally unique; art that defies comparison to anything else, and can only be defined or evaluated in terms of itself. Not knowing the first thing about the performing techniques (other than what I observed), how can I realistically report on how well it was all played? To say something like, “Johnny Jones bowed his A-flat string with particular virtuosity and flair” would be totally meaningless under circumstances like these.

All I can tell you is that it was really, really good music; I loved every minute of it. Not everybody agreed with me — like the small processions of apparently disaffected gray-haired audience members who trooped out of the hall after the first number or two. I suppose it must not have jived with their personal definitions as to what real music is all about; like melodies you can whistle or rhythms you can tap your toes to (even though there were some of both to be heard here). So what if it offered other musical riches, like pleasant moods, cunning impressions or beautiful sonic textures? Oh, well. Some people will just never “get it.” But the vast majority of the people who were there (including lots of other, more adventurous older folks) did indeed get it — and will never forget it.

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