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The Bowed Piano: Fishing for a New Sound

Stephen Scott, left, and his ensemble playing the bowed piano.
Tom Kimmell
Courtesy of the artist
Stephen Scott, left, and his ensemble playing the bowed piano.

What happens when you take a perfectly good invention — one that's been around for several hundred years — and completely rethink it? That's what an enterprising musician and composer named Stephen Scott has done with the grand piano.

For the past 30 years, Scott has been exploring, obsessing over, and pushing the sound of the piano far beyond its traditional boundaries, creating a new kind of instrument he calls the bowed piano.

To get a sense of what the bowed piano is, imagine a grand piano with the lid lifted off. Ten musicians crowd around, leaning over the innards of the instrument, like a team of surgeons performing an operation.

Scott says you won't find any traditional-looking bows — like the ones violinists use — in his ensemble.

"The primary sound is produced by a bow of nylon fish-line, which is rosined, and that's just threaded under the piano string and across it. There's another kind of bow, which is a stick of wood which has horse hair affixed to it, and that's rubbed against the strings to produce a short, percussive sound."

The bowed-piano ensemble also uses guitar picks, Popsicle sticks, tongue depressors, and even rubber plumbing tape to expand the palette of sound colors for Scott's compositions.

Even as a kid, Scott always seemed to be searching for a sound. He played in high-school jazz bands, striving for his own unique approach. Then he studied music in Ghana alongside one of his idols, the minimalist American composer Steve Reich.

But Scott finally found his sound in a concert hall in 1976. He was amazed to see a pianist pull a single strand of fishing line through the strings of a piano, and by the time the concert was over, Scott had already envisioned a vast expansion of that idea. The following year, he formed his bowed-piano ensemble, and premiered his first composition.

Scott set up his first bowed-piano ensemble at Colorado College in Colorado Springs, where he still teaches. He has also created ensembles in Ireland and Estonia.

Scott's new composition, Pacific Crossroads for Bowed Piano and Orchestra, receives its world premiere Feb. 7 at the American Composers Festival in Orange County, Calif.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tom Huizenga is a producer for NPR Music. He contributes a wide range of stories about classical music to NPR's news programs and is the classical music reviewer for All Things Considered. He appears regularly on NPR Music podcasts and founded NPR's classical music blog Deceptive Cadence in 2010.