FJO: You have a number of recordings out there, but they’re all on small labels. I know you’re self-published. How do you make a living as a composer?
SS: I teach, so I have a salary and I have a health plan. I teach nine months a year and have a three-month vacation in the summer. I had a conversation once with Peter Sculthorpe about that. He’s considered the most significant Australian composer of his generation and he teaches at the University of Sydney. He said, “Security is a great thing, knowing that you have a paycheck.” I’m very lucky in that I have a teaching gig where I can do a lot of composition and have this ensemble happening in the realm of that teaching environment and tour and make recordings. So I’m very fortunate. I probably have the best composer job there is.
FJO: Do you try to disseminate your music aside from the recordings?
SS: I generally resist sending out scores to people. Not for any reason that I’m concerned about copyright or being ripped off or anything like that, but just because I have standards for a performance that I would like to have achieved. There’s all this give and take and all this conversation and I usually say I’d be delighted if you’d play this piece, but you have to let me come and coach a couple of rehearsals, the last two or three at least. What they do get when I send a score is something that looks like an orchestral score, expanding and contracting as the medium gets more or less complicated.
FJO: So there’s no odd notation to convey some of the playing techniques?
SS: Well, there are words, phrases, abbreviations, etc., which indicate what the orchestration is, but you don’t see that at the left edge of the page as you would with a string sextet or an orchestra because it’s always changing. I’ll have a line that starts off with what I call soft bows—they’re nylon bows—and then maybe there’s a figure using the ridged bows that’s on the same line, played by different players. Or I’ll have a melody that requires several players. So I’ll put player numbers in there. They’re all labeled, 1-10.
FJO: So it will be on one line with different numbers.
SS: Exactly, but then there may be other layers and other instrumental choirs going on in the score against those. So I have evolved my own kind of specialized way of using standard notation.
FJO: Now, when the players play this stuff, they’re obviously not playing from a score. They can’t possibly.
SS: Absolutely. Except in those relatively small improvised sections that I was talking about. Yeah, the score is memorized.
FJO: But not from parts. They don’t have separate parts.
SS: No player has a continuous part from the start to the end of the piece. A few people have tried to do that and they usually give up because it’s not a good way to learn the piece. It would be like switching instruments—I play the clarinet, then I go to a triangle—it’s hard to put that in one coherent part. But if there is a repeating pattern or there’s a pattern that evolves and changes, if the meter changes and the pitches change, those are harder to memorize than other kinds of musical ideas. So I often just extract those out of the score and make them into a small part on a little index card. And they can use that inside the piano. But usually by the time that we get to performance, when we’ve done a lot of rehearsing, they don’t even use those. It’s just a learning aid. But it’s really not possible to do a lot of this stuff inside the piano while you’re looking over your should at a music stand. I haven’t figured out a good way to get the scores, you know, actually in or above the piano.
FJO: Most of the performances are by your group, but there was a performance of your music at Eastman by another group a few years ago.
SS: Yeah, but I had something to do with it. I helped coach the ensemble.
FJO: Has there ever been a performance of any of these pieces that you were not at all a part of?
SS: Rainbows was done at San Francisco State. Some of Dean Suzuki‘s students wrote me and said, “We want to do this piece; would you send us a score?” I sent little index cards for working inside the piano so you could see what your rhythm patterns are. And I sent them volumes of words and talked on the phone.
FJO: So you were still involved.
SS: I was, just not in person.
FJO: But it’s still not like sending a score of a string quartet off to a group in New Zealand with nothing else except maybe a brief composer’s note.
SS: There’s a crucial difference. And that is every member of that quartet in New Zealand knows how to play his or her instrument and plays it probably more or less in the same way that a quartet in Jersey City is going to play. Interpretation questions aside, the actual manipulation of the instrument, they know how to do that. Well, this group in San Francisco, even as much as I said and as much as I wrote, there were some things I forgot to say, or I thought were elementary, or I assumed that they would know that they didn’t. So it was a very interesting performance. I usually make the nylon about so long. They made it about this long. They almost had to stand on stools. I think one guy stood on a ladder. They added a whole theatrical element to it, which was probably really cool. I saw some photographs afterwards and got a recording. I was not unhappy about that but, had I been there, I would have corrected some things. Or I would have said, “Well, this is the way I think it should be done.”
FJO: The players who come to your ensemble are all students where you teach?
SS: Colorado College is a liberal arts college, undergraduate only. Some of them are music majors. Some are not. They’re all musicians. They all have training and background. They all read well and they all have ensemble experience of some sort. And I audition them for this. There’s quite a bit of cachet to being in this ensemble; it’s the showcase musical ensemble of the college. So I get a lot of people auditioning and I can be selective.
FJO: This is a wacky thing to be the showcase ensemble of the college.
SS: I know. It’s very weird.
FJO: It’s hard to imagine someone, unless you’re a new music fanatic who has the whole New Albion catalog, saying, “I want to go to Colorado College so I can be in the bowed piano ensemble.”
SS: There are a few of those people. I had a very fine student from Maine who was into new music in high school and listened to a lot and had heard one or more of my recordings. He came more or less specifically to the college because of that. Fortunately, he passed the audition and got in. But most of the kids who end up in my group haven’t heard of it before, or [only] when they come for a campus visit with their parents doing their college search. Then, the music department shows off what it can do. The lady who gives the tours of the music department always brings them down to the bowed piano room if they express any interest in music at all. Whether they are in an a capella group or they’ve played in a concert band, she’ll take them down there and show them this stuff and our recordings and say, “If you’ve got time, go look at this film in the library.” She’s our recruiter, in effect. She recruits for the whole department but we get a lot of attention.
FJO: Now what’s really amazing is that this university music department is behind the whole thing. How did you land such a great gig?
SS: Well, I made it. I mean, I invented it. [laughs]
FJO: Is that all you do there, or do you teach other courses?
SS: I do other stuff. I teach an experimental music course in which we spend almost no time on this stuff. We do the American experimental tradition from Ives and before. And I actually teach jazz history, too—listener courses.
FJO: Do you teach composition at all?
SS: Well, I teach composition as experimental music. It’s a composition class, but it also involves some history and literature and so forth. It’s a combination. They all do composition projects and I have them invent their own instruments and/or work with extended techniques in some sort of new way.
FJO: Now, in terms of the bowed piano thing happening at the college, did it evolve there? It’s very unconventional for an academic thing.
SS: When I got there in 1969 it was an academic department. The chair of the department, Albert Seay, was a fairly noted musicologist. The Middle Ages was his specialty.
FJO: He wrote a book for the Prentice-Hall series.
SS: Yup, sure. He was very well regarded as a scholar of Medieval music. He had a great performance background. He was a bassoonist. He had composed when he was young. He wanted to go out and study with Roy Harris who happened to be out at Colorado College at that time. But he had created a department whose emphasis was on theory, composition, and music history, not on performance. There was performance happening, but there was very little going on. So another young colleague of mine at that time and I wanted to do some performances. We had free reign. He started an early music ensemble and I started a new music ensemble, and it evolved out of that. That’s one of the reasons I’ve stayed there so long—I’ve had such moral and financial support. Especially when we started getting a little bit of a reputation. It was good public relations for our music program.
FJO: Since you’re a new music ensemble, do you ever do compositions by anybody else? Does anybody else write for bowed piano?
SS: That a very good question. Yes, in a limited way. My friend Vincent Plush wrote a piece for us. We toured it in Australia with some of my stuff on the same program. One or two other people. A couple of my students have done music for the ensemble. A guy named Jason Reinier, a sound art guy in San Francisco who’s part of 23five. A few other people have done some pieces but I’m pretty stingy with the ensemble’s time. I mean, I’m possessive of it because I always have these pieces that I want to do so it’s just pure self interest that I do my stuff.
FJO: What is the auditioning process to get into the bowed piano ensemble?
SS: Well, I’m looking for musicality probably more than anything else.
FJO: Do you test them on the piano?
SS: No, I don’t, unless their instrument is the piano and then we test them playing, you know, a sonata on the keys.
FJO: You don’t test them inside to see if they can bow?
FJO: Aren’t there people who can’t do it, a great trumpeter who just has no physical facility with a bow and can’t get a good sound from it? Is that possible?
SS: To a degree it’s possible, and some people are quicker studies than other people. But I think just about everybody can learn these techniques: people that have good overall musicianship, people who know how to turn a phrase on their own particular instrument or voice, for example, and who have rhythmic accuracy. I do make them sight read rhythms. Also, general presence and attitude and enthusiasm. I pay attention to personality factors that might cause some issues. Sometimes I will shy away from a particular player even though he or she may be very good and very musical. We’re in such close quarters; all those things get amplified.
FJO: People really have to get along with each other. And, not to be silly about it, but I think that personal hygiene is probably even an issue when choosing someone for your group since you’re all so close to each other.
SS: Absolutely. Sure. That’s true. And I do pay attention to those things. I can predict those things from other experiences I’ve had with that person. Maybe he or she has been a student in a course of mine and I’ve seen that maybe that person doesn’t get along terribly well with classmates.
FJO: So, in a way, it sounds like a perfect scenario. You compose and you teach to earn a living and the college where you teach also helps support your work by giving you the space to create your work, allowing you to tour it and providing you with a steady stream of students who take part in your ensemble. But ultimately, it means you can only spend part of your time composing. You’ve written these monumental pieces but sometimes there are many years in between each one. Wouldn’t you want to spend 100 percent of your time composing?
SS: No, I like to do other things. I have a classic car I like to tinker with. And I love boats and sailing and all that kind of stuff. I’m an outdoor person. I like to write too. I wouldn’t want to do nothing but compose.Sign up for our monthly NewMusicBox newsletter