The Bowed Piano Ensemble: “Ice & Fire” = STEPHEN SCOTT: Afternoon of a Fire; New York Drones; Vocalise on “In a Silent Way”; Aurora Ficta; “La Guitarra”; Baltic Sketches – The Bowed Piano Ensemble/Stephen Scott, dir. – Navona Records NV5937 [Distr. by Naxos] (11/19/13) 50:38 ****:

There has always been a peaceful, Zen-like, “para-minimalist” quality to the music of Colorado composer Stephen Scott for his one-of-a-kind creation, The Bowed Piano Ensemble.

I had the good fortune to first become exposed to Stephen’s unique and engaging work nearly forty years ago at the New Music America festival in Chicago. (In fact, sections of one of his earlier Rainbows pieces was used as the sign-in music to the radio broadcasts from this iconic series.) I remember being immediately impressed and wanting to hear more.

Those familiar with those early works will recall, as I do, that his style was in step with the times and felt much more “minimalist” than the works in this collection do. For those unfamiliar, Scott’s Bowed Piano Ensemble is pretty much what it implies. A group of performers plays the inside of a grand piano, with the lid removed, by mostly “bowing” the strings laterally back and forth with a variety of filaments, such as various grades of fishing line, to a fully notated score. The sight is, initially, a little weird and has prompted some audience chuckles at first but the sound is ethereal and, I think, quite pleasant. The music does not sound like a piano, nor a string section, nor a harp but is wholly unique.

Over the years, Stephen’s music has evolved and expanded not only its sound; its “voice,” but the instrumentation as well. Previous works and collections of works like his Vikings of the Sunrise and The Deep Spaces illustrate the point. In works like the present Afternoon of a Fire (which was written in reflection upon the devastating forest fires in Scott’s Colorado) or Vocalise on “In a Silent Way”, Scott creates not only an artistic response to events and cultures such as Native American ritual, but also expands the aural palate of his fascinating art.

The expansive Aurora Ficta is a drone-like work that seems very meditative and tranquil while his set of “miniatures”, Baltic Sketches, uses extra sounds like rapping on the braces and sides of the piano to create a sound like native percussion.

If you have never heard the work of the Colorado College ensemble that Scott created and has directed for many years now, this is a good place to start. I have enjoyed his music for a long time now. Indeed, there really is nothing else like it and, in many ways, it is the very nature of the ensemble and the requisite skills for the group, itself, and Stephen’s music to be its own niche. I do strongly suggest you listen to this album and any of his music. I think you will enjoy it!

—Daniel Coombs