Bowed Piano Ensemble

Stephen Scott: The Deep Spaces

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While most classical composers attempt to spread around their artistry among various mediums, Stephen Scott has put all of his eggs into the proverbial one basket, specializing in bowed piano music as founder/leader of the Bowed Piano Ensemble, est. 1977. This is not as limited a resource as it sounds; in 1930, Henry Cowell stated he had discovered 165 ways to play the inside of a piano, though if he made a list of all those methods no one has been able to find it. Moreover, Stephen Scott doesn't seem to mind being regarded as "the Bowed Piano Guy." New Albion's The Deep Spaces is his sixth bowed piano CD and demonstrates some measure of stepping out of the box on Scott's part; The Deep Spaces is a song cycle, set to poems by Shelley, Wordsworth, Lord Byron, Pliny, and Pablo Medina and sung by soprano Victoria Hansen. Not all of these texts lend themselves well to musical settings, and Hansen is dedicated, but a less than ideal voice for this music; her singing has a fair amount of heft, and it's an odd fit for music so diaphanous and atmospheric as what the Bowed Piano Ensemble can produce. A more transparent singer or even a "pop voice" might have been more congenial. Some of Scott's writing for the voice also tends to follow along with the harmony rather than establish itself as an independent entity; however, this is clearly intentional. At one point the bowed pianos produce a melodic figure in response to the voice that is even more arcing and enraptured than the vocal statement that preceded it. Although the music is generally calm and accessible, the formlessness of the texture can be a bit disorienting; in some places, one wonders "Where is this going?"

Despite these flaws, it is certainly difficult to dislike The Deep Spaces; even though Scott is based in Colorado, there is so much of the California sea air in it. Certain passages are strongly reminiscent texturally of the work of Brian Wilson, and even though he is never referenced in the music, one feels the spirit of Lou Harrison hovering over this music. One would be interested in hearing what Scott would do without his main instrument -- his bowed pianos -- or with it in a subsidiary role, or in combination with other ensembles. If one can get used to the way the voice is handled then this -- at least in spots -- can provide considerable enjoyment, though it wouldn't do much for high-strung impatient New York types who can't stand anything "West Coast."

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