FJO: Your music is uniquely communal, but of course any music played by more than one person is communal.
SS: I always say that too.
FJO: But the idea of all these people huddled over a single instrument seems without precedent.
SS: I can think of some smaller precedents, but I think this particular size of group and size of instrument—the closeness and intensity—is probably precedent-making, or was years ago when I started doing this. However, on the smaller level there’s a xylophone tradition in Mexico where four guys will play two on each side of the xylophone. We thought it was a big deal when Steve Reich was doing that in the ’70s, but that’s actually a pretty old folk tradition. I can’t think of anything on the scale of what we do, particularly because we all move around. We don’t stay stationary. So we are sharing the same part of the instrument at different times.
FJO: There are Native American traditional drum dances where a group interacts with one large drum.
SS: But in Western historical concert music there aren’t precedents; I can’t think of any.
FJO: There’s piano four-hand music, but that’s hardly a comparison to what you’re doing. You’re really doing piano twenty-hand music.
SS: Sometimes I liken this to what it might be like in a string quartet performance if you’re the violist and I trade instruments with you, or I take your chair, or I borrow your bow for awhile, or I take your music stand. Multiple people are handling the same devise or the same area of the piano at different times—sometimes at the same time, and then it’s really crowded.
FJO: Are there ever any soloists?
SS: No, not really, I guess, except for what I’ve been doing lately with vocal solos. But a lot of it is individually recognized parts, certainly.
FJO: You call it the bowed piano ensemble, but that’s not a completely accurate description for it because it’s not just bowing; there are many other kinds of sound activities going on.
SS: To start with, everything was literally bowed in the first pieces except there was one anomaly where we used something that was the equivalent of having 12 EBows on a chromatic octave on the piano in a piece called Resonant Resources. Except for that, all the ensemble-played pieces were done using nylon fishing line drawn under the string or horsehair on a stick rubbed against the string. Both are kinds of bows. So, originally, the Bowed Piano Ensemble seemed like the thing to call it and it stuck. I have resisted calling it The Bowed, Plucked, Rubbed, and Struck Piano or The Thoroughly Extended Piano or The Total Piano, which people have suggested, but it sounds a little bit pretentious.
FJO: What is the basic tool kit for you?
SS: I still consider the bows a basic tool, especially the nylon fishing line. I do still use what I call the rigid bows and my friends and I are developing new kinds. The other basic tools that we use frequently are guitar picks and/or fingernails, but those steel strings are very hard and very taut. I’ve got a fingernail split from the rehearsal yesterday. I couldn’t find a pick—somebody had moved it—so I just started plucking with my fingernail. You can do that but it’s tough. It’s a lot harder than finger picking on a banjo or a guitar. We use piano hammers we just discovered by accident. We found a box of piano hammers in a piano shop that had been taken out and new hammers had been put in, so we started experimenting with handheld piano hammers. It’s a great technique. You can use the felt end of it, which is the way a piano is normally played when you hit the key, or you can turn it around and use the wood which is the counterbalance on the other side. I call that col legno ’cause it’s like the playing with the wood on a violin or a cello bow. I use some much older techniques like Henry Cowell‘s “Aeolian Harp” technique, where you depress certain keys to raise the dampers and then you strum the strings. There are places where that works quite effectively compositionally.
FJO: Any “Banshee” kind of techniques like rubbing fingers across the string?
SS: Occasionally we’ll use that a little bit, especially in some of the improvised sections.
FJO: Do you ever prepare the piano?
SS: Not in the Cageian sense of adding stuff to or between the strings with one little exception and that’s mutes. We invented a whole kind of piano mute that we make from a secret formula and we form this on to the string. But it remains elastic so you can take it off, but it has a memory and it will remember that particular string when you put it back on and mute the sound. So anytime I use this on the keyboard, that’s a kind of preparation, I guess.
FJO: How’d you get the bird sounds in Paisajes Audibles?
SS: The strings on a piano have bridges on both ends. The string is strung between two points as on a violin between the bridge and the nut. But, as everyone knows who plays the violin and guitar, after the bridge there’s still some string. They’re not tuned rationally or in some way that you would care about because you’re playing in between those two other points on the string, but you can use the other parts. That’s what that is, on the very high end, the top octave of the piano, toward the keyboard from the bridge.
FJO: It was so authentic sounding. Even my cat, who couldn’t care less about most music, but is always unsuccessfully trying to chase birds thought it was a bird and went nuts!
SS: I never even thought of that as a bird sound but I will from now on. Just last week we discovered a new way of bowing the strings. It was actually my assistant who came up with the idea. I was trying to get them to use a particular technique to produce a new kind of sound and it just wasn’t working. There’s a thing I call a rigid bow which is a flat piece of wood—it’s a tongue depressor in fact. And it has horsehair tied and glued to one side, or both sides if I want to use two adjacent pitches. And it’s rosined and that’s rubbed against the strings. But it makes a very short, choppy, staccato kind of sound and I used a lot of that in my earlier pieces. Rainbows, for example, used that technique. I don’t use those as much anymore but I wanted kind of a lilting sound with a beginning but not an end. In other words, with a long ring, but still a kind of bowed attack; the kind of stuff you can do with an EBow on a guitar very easily, but not so easily on the piano, although I know some people who have done it. Anyway, these little tongue depressors with horsehair tied and glued on them weren’t working. My assistant, who is a member of the ensemble and does a lot of technical work for me, just went and got a piece of Plexiglas that was lying around because she had been making some other stuff that we make out of Plexiglas, and ruffed it up with some sandpaper, and took it in and rrruhing. It was just the sound that I was looking for. You know, we all applauded and said, okay now we want 12 more of those for the next rehearsal. So there’s always new stuff that’s evolving and I don’t always think of it; it’s often members of the group.
FJO: What about the physical stamina needed to play this music? I have back trouble so I think about this all the time.
SS: So do I.
FJO: I know why!
SS: Believe it or not I had back trouble before I started doing this. I’m actually like a lot of people, when you get to a certain age sometimes the back trouble goes away. But I still get a little lower back pain sometimes, and members of the ensemble, even younger players, have it too.
FJO: Playing a piece like Rainbows is probably OK for your back, but something like Vikings of the Sunrise which lasts over an hour seems a lot to ask.
SS: I think the most demanding part is the mental concentration. Generally speaking, I try to keep it this way so that no one person does something for so long that there’s physical pain or extreme physical discomfort. Sometimes that happens but then I’ll modify it because I don’t want to hurt people and they’ll let me know if something is bothering them.
FJO: So if they do, you’ll rework the score?
SS: I’ll rework the instrumentation. I’ll say, OK, at this point, so and so will take over to keep this figure going. There are ways to solve these problems. I’ve had a few people have problems with Carpal Tunnel Syndrome especially from repetitive stuff like using these little sticks. That can cause injury and so I try to be sensitive to that. People have suggested that we hire a chiropractor as a regular member of the group but we haven’t done that yet.