FJO: Nowadays, do you ever think about writing music for other ensembles?
SS: Well, I have occasionally done pieces for other media since I started this bowed piano thing, but only if someone asked me to write a piece or I got a commission for it that I wanted to take. I wrote on commission a solo piano piece for Lois Svard. Then I arranged a two-piano version for a duo called Quattro Mani. Sue Grace, one half of Quattro Mani, is a college friend of mine at Colorado.
FJO: Is it meant to be played on the piano keys, rather than inside?
SS: Yeah, it is. Well, there’s a little bit of inside stuff.
FJO: You can’t resist it.
SS: I suppose. But there are no bows. There are things like piano hammers that are wielded by hand by the performers on the strings, and some standard, or by now standard stuff like pizzicato, and finger dampening to change the timbre.
FJO: Have you written anything that’s not for piano?
SS: Not much, really. There are a few things here and there. I did a brass ensemble piece once because someone wanted a processional for a commencement at the college where I teach. And I composed an orchestra piece which was kind of a concerto—bowed piano in the middle of a chamber orchestra—which had a couple of performances by a very good chamber orchestra, the L.A. Chamber Orchestra, but none since then. It wasn’t well enough rehearsed. You know the old story—it didn’t come across the way I felt it should in the first two performances, and there were only two.
FJO: As a clarinet and sax person, do you ever pick up those instruments?
SS: I haven’t for years. I decided a long time ago that there were a lot better players and if I wanted to even be competent I’d have to practice everyday. I just didn’t want to spend my time doing that. I wanted to compose and do other things rather than practice.
FJO: Well, on your latest recording, there’s a vocal element and that’s something completely new. It’s still the bowed piano ensemble, but you have a solo voice as a separate soloist. What I find so unusual about the piece is you have this solo voice, but then you have the members of the bowed piano ensemble singing as a chorus as well. They sort of do double duty.
SS: I got to a point in composing that piece where I thought all these other human beings there have voices as well. In fact, I had some really good singers there at the time, voice students of Victoria Hansen, who is the soloist. And I’ve done some choral singing myself. Not in a solo way, but I can sing fairly complex music. So I came to a point where I needed some sort of choral response to something that was going on in the piece. I don’t remember specifically what it was now because eventually I ended up using the technique quite a bit. Some people liked that a lot and other people have not been excited by that.
FJO: Critics or the people in the group?
SS: Not people in the group. I think they pretty much got into it. Some of them had to be browbeaten into actually singing because of how they considered themselves. You know, like “I’m only a bassoonist, I don’t sing.” I’d have to say, “Everyone sings. That’s the original instrument; that’s where it all comes from.” I’m working on another piece now that’s similar, but it will be quite different compositionally. Not everybody likes this, but I do. I’m having fun.
FJO: Are you ever afraid of being typecast as a composer? You know, “You’re the guy who does the bowed piano thing.”
SS: No, not at all. In fact, I kind of like that because at least there’s this sort of niche that I fit into, and maybe inhabit and typify.
SS: Nancarrow is a great example.
FJO: But Nancarrow also wrote wonderful string quartets and they’re now starting to get played from time to time. Meredith Monk, who’s devoted her whole life as a composer to creating a new kind of vocal music, has recently done stuff for orchestra with Michael Tilson Thomas and a string quartet for Kronos. Phil Kline made his reputation doing music for boomboxes, but his recent work doesn’t have a single boombox. Yet it’s still his music. Labels can be limiting.
SS: I think you have to go where your mind leads you. This medium still has so much in it that I haven’t discovered. I know it’s in there, but I don’t know quite what it is or how to get it. That’s a feeling that a lot of people have. You know, like Charlie Parker when he was trying to figure out what to do with “Cherokee” and realized that there were all these other notes up there—all those extensions in the chords—and finally figured out that when he used those he could do what he had been hearing but hadn’t known how to play. I have that feeling still about this big resonant box with all those strings in it.