Stephen Scott: The Inside Story
FJO: How did you come to create such communal music? Did you grow up in a commune?
SS: [laughs] Well, I grew up in Oregon. So you know, maybe. No. Maybe it’s not such a simple story. But I spent some time in Africa in 1970. Steve Reich was there at the same time and that’s when I met him. He sort of mentored me a little bit—he’s older than I am. We talked a lot about his compositional ideas. I was lucky enough to be taught by master drummers in Ghana who do polyrhythms where each person has a fairly simple part but the result is extraordinarily complex and impossible to count or beat. I was a part of that community experience of music making in Africa, where there’s no division between performer and audience. Everyone is a performer. Everyone is participating. It’s a very social and communal kind of thing. I was looking for some sort of communal music making device I guess. I was also, as a lot of people were back then, interested in music made of multiple players on the same instrument, like Robert Ceely‘s piece for 40 flutes, Rituals. There was a lot of that kind of stuff going on in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Purely by accident I discovered the sound of a sustained tone made from nylon fishing line on the piano in the work of C. Curtis-Smith who was writing solo pieces at the time. As part of his extended techniques, besides some of the usual inside the piano Cowell-esque stuff that was going on then, he had the performer, David Burge, take some fishing line and just run it under the string and draw it across to produce a sustained tone. As far as I know, that was his invention. There’s some precedent in the last couple of centuries for bowed string instruments like hurdy-gurdy. There was a harpsichord maker in London that made a harpsichord with a bowed stop.
FJO: Before you had heard that sound of the bowed piano, what were you doing as a composer? What was your instrument?
SS: I was floundering. I went to graduate school in composition and I wrote the obligatory string quartet, some orchestra pieces. As a reed player I wrote clarinet pieces, that was my principle instrument, and saxophone eventually.
FJO: We recently did an issue on the symphonic wind band. Did you ever write wind band music?
SS: I did actually. I did one piece prior to discovering the bowed piano medium, but I was already much under the sway of Terry Riley and Steve Reich, so it was very repetitive and the clarinet section hated it because they had to go diddle- diddle- diddle- diddle- diddle- diddle, you know, that kind of stuff. It got one fairly decent performance.
FJO: Before you came to know Riley and Reich and what is now known as minimalism, growing up in Oregon, what were your earlier musical influences?
SS: Jazz mostly. I first really became aware of the world of music, besides maybe just tinkering around on the piano or playing a few chords on the guitar, when I was in junior high school. I discovered the jazz players, specifically Parker, Monk, Davis, Coltrane, and so on. And I played jazz. I learned to play and I played in a small group.
FJO: Playing clarinet and sax?
SS: I played saxophone entirely. At that point it was so unhip to play clarinet in jazz that nobody would touch it. Fortunately, that is not the case anymore.
FJO: Yeah, thanks to Don Byron.
SS: Yeah, Don Byron, among others, but especially Don Byron. When Parker came around everybody thought they had to play alto or tenor or something like that. At least that was my perception of it. I grew up in a small town in Oregon, but it was a university town so Bay Area culture would filter north and we would get a little bit of it. So I have quite a bit of jazz in my background. I think you can hear it in my music through the harmonic structures and some rhythmic devices that I use.
FJO: Who were some of the people you studied music with?
SS: My first composition teacher was a guy named Homer Keller at the University of Oregon. He had studied with Howard Hanson and had a degree from Eastman. He was not well known, but he was a really fine composer. But the more I’ve thought about it, the more I have concluded that Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis were my composition teachers, and then Bill Evans and Gil Evans especially. Then I spent awhile at Brown. I studied with Ron Nelson and Gerald Shapiro. I studied electronic music. You know, Moog IIIP analog synthesizers.
FJO: That’s very interesting because the bowed piano sonorities sometimes sound like they’re electronically generated. It’s so otherworldly sounding. But I think you make a real point that your music is in no way electronic. In fact, your own publishing company name is Adigital Music. I know it refers to the fact that you’re not actually touching the piano, but there’s also this acoustic connotation as well.
SS: A lot of us in my generation and maybe slightly older than my generation who spent time in electronic music eventually saw more and more of its limitations and shortcomings. The resonance of the instrument, the resonance of the grand piano with the pedal down and the soundboard vibrating, is just really hard to match. The experience of being right over that and hearing that, as a lot of people know and have discovered, to me it’s much more fun and attractive. I just gradually stopped doing electronic stuff. You know there was never the right patch chord that had the right ends.
FJO: So, what originally became a neat idea for a piece that extended a C. Curtis-Smith idea became a lifelong obsession. I mean, you and the bowed piano are sort of synonymous. I can’t image a Stephen Scott wind quintet.
SS: [laughs] There are a few, but you might not want to listen to them.