FJO: All of the bowed piano music you’ve done feels somehow interrelated; it builds upon itself and connects in ways that is not true for most composers. Do you think of your music as individual compositions meant to exist autonomously, or is it a continuous body of work that keeps evolving?
SS: I guess I like to have it both ways, because when you perform a piece on a concert or it’s heard on the radio or whatever, it more or less stands by itself, particularly if the people listening don’t know all the other work. I would be vain if I thought that many people know what I have done beside myself, maybe a few friends. But certainly I can look back and see a long progression, as you say, the work building upon itself. One of the most exciting ways that that happens is I have players doing things now that eight years ago the players would not have considered possible, and I wouldn’t have considered it possible. And fifteen years ago the things that were happening eight years ago were inconceivable. For example, playing very fast melodies with 16th and 32nd notes and using both hands for ornaments with pieces of nylon, and one person playing a note in hocket. Well, it takes five people to play a simple melody of five notes. That’s just an example, but each group gets better than the last group.
FJO: Do you ever find yourself going back to the older works and touching them up?
SS: I haven’t done that. Well, for example, on the program we’re putting together for a tour in the spring, we’re doing an old piece. We’re doing Rainbows, which was from 1981. It wasn’t the earliest, but it was one of the earliest pieces. I hadn’t listened to it for a long time and then I listened to it on a CD and I thought it still stands by itself. So it will be a nice foil for this new vocal piece that I’m making which also has a lot of what I consider advanced techniques. But I don’t go back and rewrite those pieces. There’s one piece that we let drop for a while; it wasn’t in our repertoire. It was called Arcs. It’s a piece that’s on the same recording as Rainbows, but was not on the original vinyl release. I brought that back into our repertoire at one point and I thought I could improve it compositionally. So I did make some changes. I added a long sort of coda section which brings back some material that had happened earlier.
FJO: So it’s different than what’s on the recording?
SS: No, the recorded version is actually the more recent one. I composed that piece in 1980 and I think I revised it in 1985.
FJO: The revisions that you’re addressing are compositional rather than technical. What if someone came up with a new way of producing a sound that would work better than the sound that’s in the version that you wrote when you wrote it because you didn’t know that sound was there?
SS: [laughs] I guess I wouldn’t rule that out, but I guess part of the excitement for me is when I discover some new sonic material to see what it suggests compositionally rather than the other way around, rather than reorchestrating another piece.
FJO: The earliest pieces for bowed piano, like Rainbows and what came before that, really do seem like etudes in those techniques. This is something that can be done and here it is; listen to it happen. But then you started doing larger pieces that seem to be about much more than that. Bowed piano is the medium but it’s not an end in itself. Minerva’s Web and The Tears of Niobe, for example, seem to be about how a minor second expands into larger intervals, and you can hear it.
SS: You have been listening haven’t you!
FJO: Then in Vikings, there’s a whole anthropological and historical narrative going on.
SS: Yeah, there is a sort of program to that.
FJO: What struck me when I read your notes was how deeply researched they were beyond the music. How important was that narrative to the music you wrote? Which came first?
SS: Actually, that was exactly the inspiration I had. I have been working some in Australia and lived there for a while. I also did a couple of tours there with my ensemble so I got quite interested in James Cook because he’s a national hero, at least among the white population.
FJO: Not among anyone else?
SS: He’s a controversial figure everywhere. I got interested in the stories and I hadn’t composed any of the music. I was actually just reading for my own pleasure because I’m interested in sailing and in navigation, especially. I learned about the traditional celestial navigation for the Polynesians through reading some book about James Cook. That really got me intrigued and excited, that there was an alternative to and maybe an older and in some ways more precise way of navigating that had come from the East. We think all of our wonderful navigational instruments like sextants, compasses, and the marine chronometer, the clock and all that stuff were so cool because they allowed Cook to find these places and know what his longitude was, but there was this ancient tradition that was an alternative. That got me really excited. Then I started reading books about Polynesian navigation. The more I read, the more this music started happening. I started composing the piece in my head as I was doing that reading.
FJO: So you compose music in your head?
SS: I do, but I’m not one of those people who can hear or claims to be able to hear everything in his or her head and then just write it down. Maybe partly because I have a background in singing and I’m a former wind player, I can hear a lot of stuff in my head. And because I was a jazz player, too. That’s one thing jazz improvisers do. They hear it, either it’s just before or as they’re performing. I was never a great jazz player, but I have some competence in improvising on chord changes and all that. So I do get ideas in my head. I can’t get them out of there until I notate them or figure out how I’m going to use them. Or I just write them down and forget about them, throw them in a heap and never use them.
FJO: Do you use standard Western notation? How does that work?
SS: Pretty much. Yeah.
FJO: So you’re notating pitches and harmonies, but your music is all about timbre.
SS: Indeed. Well, I suppose in a way that would be similar to writing an orchestra piece. Sometimes I can see the sound that I want and then the melodic idea or the rhythmic idea will follow from that. I use the piano, by the way, to compose.
FJO: The keys of the piano?
SS: That’s right. Well, I use the insides too. I sometimes compose in the abstract, just notes. Then I decide how to orchestrate it, just the way you might orchestrate a symphonic piece. Some orchestral composers don’t work that way. They know what the timbre is when they hear it. But often it comes later.
FJO: So, since you’ll have these ideas and then you’ll flesh them out, do you ever come up with an idea for the ensemble that, given the nature of this ensemble, physically just doesnÕt work?
SS: Yes. And that’s the great thing about rehearsing with your own ensemble, especially over a period of time. You can throw stuff out. You can recompose it during rehearsal. I do that often. It’s easy for a player to say, “Oh, I can’t do that. That can’t be done. That hasn’t been done before.” And even these players who are automatically, by virtue of the fact that they’re open, not about to say, “Oh, I can’t play that high C on my bassoon,” or whatever, they’re just going to try to do it, and they’ll say, “I canÕt do that.” I try to somehow make it happen, or get them to make it happen.
FJO: So do you test an idea yourself before you throw it to other people?
SS: I do some. Some I don’t.
FJO: Of course, you can’t be 20 hands at once where this person needs to pass this person, like in a football game.
SS: Sure. There are those plays, like football plays almost, or choreography. Sometimes it’s just literally not possible for a person to get from this end of the instrument to that end of the instrument in two beats to do something they have to do down there and they’re the only person available to do it. Sometimes my ideas are just a little too impractical, so I’ll make a change, but only when I’m forced to.
FJO: Do you always have an exact idea of what you want? Does any of this ever happen by chance? Someone will do something and there’ll be a sort of an accidental thing and then that’s kind of worked into the piece.
SS: Yes, definitely. I’m trying to think of a concrete example and I can’t right off the bat. There are accidental sounds that are produced. I often do this myself. I still think of this as experimental, although that’s a word fraught with difficulty, as we all know. I sometimes just go down into the studio where we have our own grand piano dedicated to this ensemble, a lovely luxury. There are so many places in the world where I wouldn’t be able to do that. We have this beautiful room with a wood floor and a Baldwin piano, and that’s mine. You know, I mean that it’s mine for this work and that’s great. So it’s like my little laboratory in a sense. I’ll go down and drop things on the strings. I’ll do things to that piano that I wouldn’t do to someone else’s piano just because it’s my piano, basically. So for example, the other day—we use magnets sometimes to fasten the nylon to make it taut, or to keep it out of the way of another piece of nylon, and we just put those on the frame, so they’re not a musical device—but I started dropping those magnets on the strings, but also on the frame of the piano. Taking the magnets and just letting them go about two inches from the frame. Then they go thunk. As a lot of us know who work inside the piano, the steel frame inside, or the harp as it’s called, is very resonant and has different pitches. Depending on what the length is and what sort of tension is on it and so forth, they’re often played with mallets. George Crumb does a lot of that sort of stuff with mallets. But I discovered that this magnet makes a really beautiful sound. I haven’t figured out how to use it yet. It was just an accident. I picked up magnets to move the bow that it was fastening down to the frame, and I let go of it and [claps hands together]. It wasn’t like that. It was a beautiful, metallic, but almost drum-like sound at the same time—like a steal drum almost, without that finely honed sense of pitch. So, little accidents like that will sometimes materialize.
FJO: But there aren’t any bowed piano improvisations, per se?
SS: Well, no. That’s not exactly true. Even in Vikings of the Sunrise, but also in this newer recording of Paisajes Audibles there are a few improvised sections. It’s pretty carefully controlled improvisation, but the details are left to the performers.
FJO: The details about specific pitches or about how they’re played?
SS: Well, in one section that I’m thinking of in the Paisajes Audibles piece, the pitches are specified but not when they’re played. So there’s a little bit of an aleatoric character in it with the judgment of one player deciding when or how to respond to another player’s part, but it’s carefully controlled in terms of pitch. There’s a section in Vikings of the Sunrise where there’s a metric structure, but not all the details for the sounds, pitches if there are pitches, noises.
FJO: Is that the passage that sounds like a bunch of birds taking off?
SS: That’s one of the figures—it’s not really a figure because it’s not set—but that’s one of the kind of timbral/rhythmic devices I have going on.
FJO: Your compositions seem to gestate for a very long time or are there many more pieces than there are recordings?
SS: Not many more, but there are a few.
FJO: There seem to be eight year stretches between them. Is this how long something usually takes to reach completion?
SS: On the first recording, there’s a span of maybe four years between the oldest and newest pieces. That was recorded in 1981. Recordings are fairly spread out. I was doing a new album every six to eight years. I think that’s partly that the pieces take me a very long time. I’m slow. But it’s also because I have other responsibilities. I teach.
FJO: You’ve also been creating big, ambitious pieces.
SS: They got bigger. There are a few pieces that aren’t available on recording. There’s one that I really hope could see the light of day, a collaborative piece we did with Terry Riley in 1990 with the ensemble essentially as accompanist to electric keyboard improvisations that Terry was doing in this just tuning that he developed.
FJO: Wow. So did you retune the bowed piano to the just intervals?
SS: We did. Terry did a piece around that time for the Kronos Quartet that was called Crow’s Rosary and did some other pieces with this tuning he called the Rosary Tuning. It’s a 13-limit just tuning, so you’ve got a lot of prime intervals in there. It’s really gorgeous. So we did a live performance and then we made a recording of it. And Tom Lazarus, a long-time New Albion engineer, edited the recording and it’s just kind of sitting there in limbo. But I’m hoping maybe during 2005, which is Terry’s 70th birthday year, we’ll either re-edit the piece, re-fashion it, or re-compose it, because neither of us was entirely happy with the way it ended up.
FJO: Now you say collaborative and improvised, but you can’t really improvise in real time with the bowed piano since it involves the interaction of so many people.
SS: We did a little bit of improvisation, but most of what we were doing is what I would call orchestral textures. I composed some of those and he composed some of those. Or he’d jot down some ideas or send me a tape and then I’d orchestrate it. And then we spent a week together with the ensemble in rehearsal but also Terry and I just imagined this thing together, how it was going to move and work. It was really a collaborative composition which I know raises the hackles of a lot of people
FJO: One man: one work.
SS: Yup, there you go. I generally don’t go in that route, either. But we just had something that was simpatico. I’d compose some texture, have the ensemble do a rough recording, send it to him and ask, “What do you think?” And he’d say: “I like this, I don’t like that, or I started improvising over this in my studio and I think this is going to work.”Sign up for our monthly NewMusicBox newsletter