FJO: You have a piano that you work on, but when you travel around, you don’t travel with that piano.
FJO: So you’re provided with a piano. That becomes a tricky issue because every piano is a little bit different I would imagine.
SS: That’s right. Different manufacturers create a different geography, so to speak, inside the piano. That doesn’t matter so much to a performer who sticks to the keyboard, although the voicings and the sound is, of course, important. But traditional piano literature stops at the keyboard and it doesn’t matter where the bracing is inside.
FJO: But for you, it makes quite a bit of difference.
SS: Yes. So we try to know as much about the pianos we’re going to play when we tour as we can in advance. If it’s an instrument I’m not familiar with—like a Petrof, which I first heard of ten years ago—then we’ll ask for photographs of what it looks like inside. Some pianos have huge sound holes inside, big rectangular things. Bösendorfer has a little bit of that kind of structure. The bigger the sound holes are, the harder it is for us to deal with because those are traps for things to fall into and just get lost.
FJO: So are there certain pianos that just don’t work for this music?
SS: I’ve never found one. As long as it’s nine feet or close to it.
FJO: So these techniques wouldn’t work on an upright?
SS: No. You can make some sounds but it’s extremely awkward.
FJO: Does what you do ever damage a piano?
SS: No, and I have been very careful not to do that. In fact, I have some testimonial letters that I like to send to technicians at some venues who might be a little leery of this. I have a rule that we only use material coming into contact with the piano that’s softer than what it’s going to touch. So nylon on a steel string is not going to do anything. We use the frame of the piano sometimes with the hammers, but we use the felt side so it’s very soft. It would be like using a yarn mallet on a percussion instrument. We try not to use the wood on the piano. I’ve never had a complaint after the fact so far. The only possible problem can be from the rosin that we use, but my long-term technician says all you have to do is wipe it off. We often leave the piano cleaner and in better shape than it was before. Not in better shape as far as regulation and tuning and that sort of stuff. We don’t repair or overhaul these pianos, but we do clean them up. We often find them pretty dirty when we get there and we leave them clean because we want to be good citizens and we want to be invited back.
FJO: In terms of tuning, does doing what you do knock the piano out of tune?
SS: No, certainly not as much as you would if you were hitting the keys really hard.
FJO: You mentioned using alternate tunings in the piece you did with Terry Riley. Were there other times you’ve explored those possibilities?
SS: No. People who work with those tunings including Terry will say that it has its practical limits because it’s hard to travel with those tunings. You have to travel with a tuner, which Terry does when he tours with those tunings, and which La Monte Young always does. And you have to retune the piano for several days.
FJO: Or if you’re Michael Harrison, then you are the tuner yourself.
SS: Yes, exactly. Then you have it all right there.
FJO: Is your music always done without any amplification?
SS: Almost always, and I prefer to do it that way.
FJO: It is, after all, Adigital.
SS: Yes, exactly [laughs]. But we have all of those digital recordings now. Sometimes you want it both ways. I prefer not to amplify. There are some situations. For example, we played once in a volcanic cave in the Canary Islands where there is this visual music festival. It’s a beautiful place. It’s a huge lava tube into which they built the concert hall with a great big beautiful stage and great seating. But it was so dry that they have to amplify everything they do. We had to amplify or we wouldn’t be heard.
FJO: Now with all those people huddled over the piano, where would you put the mic?
SS: Good question. Sometimes underneath the piano. There are these things called PZMs that you can attach to the soundboard underneath. When we record we have mikes over the piano. They just have to be high enough so that we don’t hit them and run into them and cause interference, but a good engineer like Tom Lazarus can do anything with a microphone.
FJO: I know your music only from CDs and LPs. I’ve never heard it live, which I imagine is how many people know your music because you tour here and there but you haven’t toured everywhere. Considering how it’s made, how important is the visual component to this music to you?
SS: It depends who you ask.
FJO: I’m asking you. [laughs]
SS: [laughs] I know. It depends who I talk to then. It adds a significant dimension, I think, partly because I don’t choreograph the performances in the sense that I’m imposing any sort of movement on the music—what a dance choreographer might do. I don’t mean impose in a bad sense—superimpose let’s say. Rather, I try to shape the movements that are necessary to perform the music: moving from one part of the piano to the other; placing your hand under this person’s arm rather than over this person’s arm; getting two sets of arms interlocked so they can both play in the same area and not have a collision. All of those, and all of what goes on with fingers and wrists, that’s all pretty carefully choreographed before we get to a performance. Just so it looks good. So it doesn’t distract, I hope, from the experience of the performance. It’s organic, I guess—maybe that’s too grandiose a word—but it comes out of what we have to do to play the music. Just the way a string quartet is playing: the motion of the bow, the elbows, and leaning in to hear each other better. It’s just part of what you have to do to play the piece. But the reason I say it depends on who you talk to is because I’ve had the experience of hearing from a first time live listener—someone who has heard the recordings and comes to a concert—who says, “Oh, I see now. I get it. I figured out how all of this is happening.” And there is that curiosity that a lot of people have if they just hear a recording. “How are they doing that anyway?” For some people that’s not a negative thing, but for other people it is. Not knowing how something is produced maybe can effect their enjoyment of it.
FJO: The very first part of Rainbows is wonderfully energetic, and had I not known from the LP title, New Music for Bowed Piano, how the sounds were produced, I might have thought it was a slightly-odd sounding string ensemble of some sort, maybe viola da gambas. If a group of viola da gambas could play this, would that be a legit representation of Rainbows, or is Rainbows something else?
SS: I think it’s something else because at least in the not very mature way I was working with it then, I was working with this medium. As you say, it’s sort of an etude, though maybe less in Rainbows than earlier pieces. It’s more developed compositionally. I still feel that the details and the form of the piece come out of the material and the material suggests, in a way, what to do with it. I’d certainly enjoy hearing a concert with viola da gamba. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it probably wouldn’t have the essence of the piece in it, in a sense.
FJO: The first time I heard Rainbows, before fully processing in my mind that this was made by bowing a piano, I was moved by the harmonies, the melodies, and the rhythms. How it was played was an added bonus. In a way, it’s what makes your body of work so unique, how focused it is on timbres. But for most listeners and most composers, historically music has been about the tunes and the harmonies and the rhythms. Timbre is mostly an afterthought, except in music since the last century. It’s the icing on the cake rather than the cake itself.
SS: Well, I think that’s the argument in favor of something like Switched on Bach, for example. Great stuff, but it’s just another way of realizing Bach. But it also follows what I understand as the Baroque attitude, or part of the Baroque attitude: that a piece of music was there to be performed on, transcribed for anything and everything, just the way Bach transcribed things of other composers and changed the medium entirely. It’s still the same music.
FJO: Yeah, but once I heard Bach’s keyboard music on a harpsichord, I never wanted to go back.
SS: You didn’t want to listen to Glenn Gould playing it?
FJO: No. He’s interesting, but I think he’s interesting for other reasons that are not necessarily about Bach. I don’t know. I do think Bach’s performance practice makes a difference in his music as it does in yours. Of course, your performance practice is unique to you.Sign up for our monthly NewMusicBox newsletter