The Bowed Piano Ensemble is a rare gem here at Colorado College, most notably because it is the only ensemble of its kind. Last spring, many were introduced to the innovative musicianship of the Bowed Piano Ensemble when they performed at First Mondays, but in one year’s time the group has achieved international recognition.
Professor of music Stephen Scott founded the group in 1977; since its inception, Scott has led, composed, and played with the group. According to the ensemble’s website, the bowed piano instrument is played by 10 players who “conjure, from one open grand piano, long, singing lines, sustained drones, chugging accordion-like figures, crisp staccato tones reminiscent of clarinets, deep drum tones, and more often simultaneously, to create a rich, contrapuntal new-chamber-music tapestry.” Bowed Piano Ensemble performances are some of the most well attended of all music department events and are even streamed live online.
Over Spring Break, the Bowed Piano Ensemble went on tour, performing at Carroll University in Wakashaw, Wis.; Brunel University in London; Adria and Citta de Costello in Italy, and Malta. The group was able to enjoy days in Venice and Rome as well.
“We had the largest audiences in Italy,” said Sylvie Scowcroft, a junior and current member of the ensemble. “All of the crowds were very receptive and always stayed after the concert to investigate the piano and ask questions.”
Allowing the audience to investigate the piano is a common feature after Bowed Piano performances; during the third week of sixth block, after the group gave a preview concert of the tour, many audience members stayed after to fiddle and try their hand at bowing a piano.
Needless to say, the group could not haul their own piano across the Atlantic Ocean. “We were very much at the mercy of the people who invited us to play and the piano they were able to provide,” Scowcroft said. “Our performance was always impacted by the piano we were playing.”
Most of the pianos the ensemble used in Europe were smaller than what they were used to, which made for some interesting situations. “Our second concert in Italy went pretty poorly because the piano we were using was so terrible,” Scowcroft said. “Strangely enough, that is where we got the most applause. To some extent what we do is so different, that no matter how horribly we think we played, the audience won’t really notice.”
The logistics of playing a bowed piano are unique, resembling in some ways a violin and a guitar. Working together as an ensemble is kind of like playing in an orchestra or small band; Scowcroft was able to provide insight.
“The bowed piano is definitely different than anything else,” Scowcroft continued. “It is truly a team effort. It is next to impossible to rehearse with one person missing. If one person is not as reliable or committed it really affects all of us. Half the battle is figuring out how all of the parts fit together and how we physically all fit around the piano. That being said, there is still some individual work we can do and it is definitely possible and encouraged to spend some time rehearsing on our own.”
Stephen Scott is in the middle of retirement and the fate of the Bowed Piano Ensemble is unknown upon his departure. But with the enthusiasm of the members and the positive reception both on campus and abroad, there is hope for the future of the ensemble.