Stephen Scott was all set to grow to be a jazz musician till the day in 1964 his mentor, College of Oregon music professor Homer Keller, introduced a cassette to class. “There’s one thing happening in San Francisco,” he mentioned, “and you must hear it.” The music, premiered only some months earlier, was one of many seminal works of the twentieth century, Terry Riley’s proto-minimalist In C. Mellifluous, repetitive, and straightforward for even untrained listeners to know, it marked a turning level away from the atonal, typically dissonant sounds that had dominated classical music since World Warfare II.
“It grabbed me by the throat,” Scott recalled. “We had been all surprised by it.”
That ear-opening expertise led Scott, who died March 10 at age 76, to blaze his personal trails throughout an extended and fruitful profession on the school of Colorado School. All composers make new music, however few create a whole new instrument to specific their musical visions. Within the in a position palms of Scott and the Bowed Piano Ensemble he based on the school in 1977, his bowed piano music turned excess of a mere gimmick, although the instrument’s uniqueness unfairly threatened to eclipse within the public thoughts the mesmerizing, minimalist-influenced music he wrote for it. In Scott’s case, the medium itself helped encourage the muse.
“Stephen Scott is an heir of the mantle of Henry Cowell and Harry Partch and Lou Harrison and John Cage,” the eminent music historian Joseph Horowitz instructed me in 2008, “that American maverick custom that had emanated from the West Coast of self invented composers in lots of circumstances utilizing self invented devices. These composers used novel means in a extra conventional musical language. It’s an American phenomenon and he’s on the heart of it right this moment.”
From Miles & Monk to Minimalism
Scott’s inventiveness blossomed at UO. After falling underneath jazz’s spell in his native Corvallis, the place his dad and mom had been each musicians and scientists, he gigged on saxophone in Eugene with such famend older college students as Ralph Towner and Glen Moore, who would later kind the esteemed jazz/world music group Oregon. Though he knew jazz’s legends solely via their information, “I got here to comprehend that Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis had been my composition lecturers, after which Invoice Evans and Gil Evans,” he instructed NewMusicBox.
Then got here his In C epiphany. As a result of Riley’s masterpiece wouldn’t be launched on an album for a number of years, hardly anybody had heard it when Scott did. However the UO music college was even then one of many nation’s most open-minded, one of many few that allowed world music and new sounds into the curriculum. And right here had been sounds nobody else was making.
“I feel very fondly of my years on the UO,” mentioned Scott, who graduated in 1967. “It opened up worlds.”
In graduate college at Brown College, Scott tried composing for the then-nascent medium digital music. However he missed the wealthy resonances of the acoustic piano. And he was “floundering” by writing typical items like string quartets. So, like different Western composers of the time resembling Lou Harrison, Riley and Philip Glass, he seemed past European sources. He flew to Ghana to check the wonderful polyrhythmic sounds of that nation’s grasp drummers. One talked about that one other American musician named Steve was additionally finding out close by; it turned out to be Steve Reich, that different pioneer of minimalism who, like Riley (whom he additionally later collaborated with) turned a mentor to the youthful composer.
After taking a instructing job at Colorado School (the place he established the college’s first digital music studio and created new programs in world music, experimental music and jazz) in 1969, Scott encountered the ultimate ingredient in his compositional recipe. In 1976, Scott heard a efficiency that required the participant to stroke and pluck the strings inside a piano lid with quite a lot of objects, together with nylon fishing line. (West Coast vanguard composers Cowell and Cage had pioneered the so-called “ready piano” again within the Thirties, and the bowed piano approach itself was devised by C. Curtis Smith in 1972.) The ensuing otherworldly sound enraptured Scott as nothing had since that tape of In C. “I immediately began composing for it in my head,” he remembers.
And he by no means stopped. Over time, utilizing fishing line, horsehair mounted on popsicle sticks, and ultimately guitar picks, fingernails, mutes, piano hammers and different unconventional gadgets, Scott produced stunning, virtually orchestral textures, rooted in minimalism and jazz harmonies, that mesmerized listeners. The instrument’s surprisingly spacious vary of timbres may shift from percussive and centered to singing and shimmering, now sounding like an early Baroque viol consort, now an accordion band, a jazz combo (although his work allowed solely slightly improvisation), generally even a chamber orchestra.
It takes as much as a dozen gamers to supply the wealthy sound of Scott’s compositions, so at Colorado School, he re-created “the neighborhood expertise of music making in Africa, the place there’s no division between performer and viewers” by forming an ensemble of scholars who take a course during which they be taught to carry out bowed piano music. It’s a rigorously choreographed operation — “site visitors management” he known as it — with the gamers transferring consistently across the piano so as to hit the proper word with the proper object on the proper time, a tableau that viewers typically examine to an working room desk. The visible element of the coordinated gamers enchanted live performance audiences past the sounds they produced.
Scott selected the gamers, a lot of them non-music-majors, partially based mostly on how effectively they may memorize their elements (no time to learn scores on the transfer) and work collectively underneath strain in very shut quarters, the place arms and egos can simply be bruised. They’re cautious by no means to wreck the pianos they use. Composition is usually a lonely occupation, and Scott actually cherished the social side of performing within the bowed piano ensemble. It additionally afforded him the chance to check out elaborate new concepts and get prompt suggestions, a luxurious few composers in addition to, say, Haydn or Duke Ellington loved. Though different composers additionally wrote for the ensemble, it was primarily Scott’s expressive car.
After his sonorous first album got here out in 1981, phrase unfold, leading to invites to convey the brand new sounds to folks and pianos past Colorado. The ensemble turned one of many only a few undergraduate pupil teams invited to worldwide skilled music festivals, touring a couple of times per 12 months, performing throughout Europe and in Australia. Their expertise developed to the purpose that the gamers (who typically steered methods and concepts) may deal with Scott’s more and more refined music — extra advanced rhythms and harmonies, sooner tempos, bigger constructions, wider influences, bold themes, extra devices like digital keyboards, chamber orchestra, vocalists. He even coaxed ensemble members to sing often. Throughout Scott’s tenure on the school, which ended along with his retirement in 2014 because of the encroaching dementia that ultimately claimed his life, the BPE launched six albums on a number of file labels, culminating in 2013’s Ice and Hearth.
A outstanding voice on later recordings, soprano Victoria Hansen, turned Scott’s spouse. And his Oregon upbringing little question influenced his love for outside recreation like mountaineering, crusing, mountaineering. He additionally acquired quite a few fellowships, residencies, awards and commissions from varied universities, conservatories and festivals.
In February 2008, I met Scott when his music was featured within the Pacific Symphony’s acclaimed American Composers Sequence. The live performance, on the glittering Renée and Henry Segerstrom Live performance Corridor in Costa Mesa, California, included two of his most bold works: the hour-long 1995 composition Vikings of the Dawn, impressed by voyages of Magellan, James Cook dinner, and early Polynesian sailors; and the world premiere of Pacific Crossroads, which paired his ensemble with the orchestra. A video digital camera mounted contained in the keyboard captured stay pictures, projected on a large display, that demonstrated the intricate interaction of 24 palms. Together with the speedy however exquisitely managed actions of the black-clad ensemble, the projections added a mesmerizing visible complement to the magical sounds.
Though he wrote a couple of items for different combos, Scott’s compositional focus primarily remained on his distinctive instrument, generally accompanied by extra typical forces, just like the English horn that blends so superbly with the bowed piano on his closing composition from 2011, Lyric Suite. “I feel it’s important to go the place your thoughts leads you,“ he instructed me. “This medium nonetheless has a lot in it that I haven’t found.”
Scott by no means stopped exploring, and within the wake of his passing this month, the ensemble announced intentions to discover a new house for the bowed piano and its legacy. I hope extra discoveries lie forward, from his college students and different composers impressed by the superbly resonant sonic textures that Stephen Scott pioneered. Each his instrument and his music need to endure.
An earlier model of this story appeared in Oregon Quarterly.
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