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Bowed piano ensemble takes you to the Canary Islands

An instrument is all in the way you play it. At least that's what local composer Stephen Scott has conveyed to the Bowed Piano Ensemble, a constantly changing performance group of Colorado College students under his direction since 1977. On Thursday, Feb. 27, the current incarnation of the ensemble, along with soprano Victoria Hansen, will throw all musical conventions to the wind as they perform Scott's composition Paisajes Audibles (Sounding Landscapes) at CC's Packard Hall.

For Scott and his ensemble, the instrument itself is of paramount importance, and be warned: this is not your grandmother's piano.

Adorned with all the trappings of a handyman's suitcase, the ensemble's stately grand piano overflows with black plumbing tape and threaded nylon fish line as 10 players hover over its open belly like musical surgeons. Each member of the group plucks or picks the rapidly oscillating piano strings creating an almost unimaginable palate of sounds that evoke not only symphonic tones, but also postmodern electronica in their ambient droning.

"We use various bows to create sustained tones. That's something you can't do on a standard piano," says Scott, a longtime faculty member at CC who has been composing for the bowed piano for over 25 years.

Paisajes Audibles (Sounding Landscapes), Scott's featured piece about the multi-textural landscapes of the Canary Islands, was originally commissioned by the San Franciscobased Other Minds Festival -- an annual new music festival that brings contemporary composers together to share ideas and give public concerts. While Scott incorporates many familiar minimalist techniques and jazz-influenced harmonies, the thematic imagery of the piece's lyrics draw heavily on the "the volcanic, moonlike landscape of these islands, and the way this landscape shapes the culture," says the composer, who collected the text from various poetic and prose sources including famed poet Federico Garcia Lorca.

Scott premiered the piece at the Visual Music Festival last October in the Canary Islands and has played parts of it in Germany, Bulgaria and the Czech Republic.

The visual aspect of the ensemble's presentation is also undeniable. "The choreography arises out of necessity," says Scott. "The goal is to move from one part of the piano to the next in the most direct way possible." And the precision of their art invariably creates beautiful music, as syncopated rhythms give way to legato spirals of piano strings sounding like a string quartet. It is truly a multifaceted art.

Scott and the ensemble will be returning to the West Coast on March 8 for the Other Minds Festival, and will be releasing a recording of Paisajes Audibles (Sounding Landscapes) later this year on San Franciscobased, New Albion Records.

"Regardless of an audience's preconceptions coming in," says Scott, "people really need to hear our music to understand it."

After all, a piano is more than just a piano. Unless it's your grandmother's piano.

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