Extra Eclectic

Remembering Stephen Scott's Bowed Piano Ensemble

Stephen Scott, left, and his Bowed Piano Ensemble perform in 2008.Tom Kimmell

Extra Eclectic: Stephen Scott's Bowed Piano Ensemble


April 14, 2021

Editor's note: Stephen Scott's Bowed Piano Ensemble jumps to the fore in this week's episode of Extra Eclectic. Our music director, Joe Goetz, joins host Steve Seel at 10 p.m. central Wednesday to share his memories of performing in the group and to play some adventurous music by the composer, who died at 76 in March. Goetz offers more background information here.

I had the privilege of spending 18 months in Stephen Scott's Bowed Piano Ensemble, from January 2006 through June 2007. I had heard about the group several years earlier, but it wasn't until late in 2005 that I worked up the gumption to go through the rigorous audition process to join the group.

In my short tenure in the group, I was challenged musically in ways I never had been before. I had always been a pianist, but here I was, learning to play what seemed to be an entirely new instrument.

I learned the finer points playing the bowed piano: the perfect amount of abrasion on a plexiglass strip, or how much rosin was just enough for a bow made of fishing line. I committed to muscle memory the exact span of a perfect fifth so as to pluck the strings with complete accuracy and memorized a system of colors and numbers designed for only this medium.

Most of all, I went from being a solo performer to a player on a team of 10, each proficient at every skill necessary to create an otherworldly sound. It was like being on a baseball team, only rather than specializing in one position, you had to be prepared to play any position, at any time, often in the same inning (or sometimes against the same batter).

My time in the group took me to places far and wide. My first tour brought me to Santa Fe, Chicago and Milwaukee over the course of one long weekend. Six months later, it was Cincinnati and Jazz at Lincoln Center. And six months after that, Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston, South Carolina, followed by a whirlwind two weeks in Germany.

Not bad for a poor college kid with rarely more than a few hundred bucks in his bank account, trying to pay rent while trying to keep his grades up and work part time at the local public radio station. I still look back at photo albums of those trips and think about how insanely lucky I was to enjoy lavish dinners in big cities, write-ups in the New York Times, and those jet-setting long weekends that made me feel like a star.

Aside from his ingenious and inventive musicianship, what I'll remember most about Scott are his generosity and his patience. He could have had anyone from the world of music in his group. He could have selected professional musicians from wherever he pleased, got the band together for a few intense rehearsals before tours, and saved himself a lot of trouble. But instead, he relied on college kids.

And Colorado College's music department was no conservatory. That's not meant to demean the faculty or students who graduated from the department. (After all, I'm one of them.) But it was not a place that churned out professional musicians like Julliard or Curtis or Oberlin.

The Bowed Piano Ensemble relied on a group of performers who, after graduation, largely went on to things other than music. There was turnover every semester as students graduated, left for study-abroad programs or left the group to tend to other academic priorities. Scott had to adjust his tutelage and expectations every six months based on who came and who left, and that might be one of his greatest achievements. I can't think of another musical group with that amount of churn that maintained its identity and prestige for so long, and that is entirely thanks to Scott's tireless work and commitment.

It's also remarkable to me how much trust he placed in us, a group of not-yet-fully-formed humans. On my last tour through Germany, there were often several days between gigs. Scott told the group to scatter — but just be in Luneburg in four days. Some of us went to Cologne for a few nights, others straight to Luneburg, others to other parts of Germany (or even Luxembourg and France), but we all got to the next stop on the tour on time. His trust in us empowered us and made us resolve to never fail him or one another.

I hope all who listen to this episode of Extra Eclectic get at least a small sense of Scott and his music. I am forever grateful for my short time in the group. He changed my life for the better, both musically and personally, and I will miss him deeply.