Stephen Scott: The Deep Spaces
New Albion

The Deep Spaces, a fantasy song-cycle composed by Colorado College music professor Stephen Scott (b. 1944), captivates sonically for being a bowed piano composition but ultimately impresses most for the caliber of its writing. Performed by The Bowed Piano Ensemble and soprano Victoria Hansen and abetted by the writings of Mary Shelley, Wordsworth, Byron, Pablo Medina, among others, the eleven-part work celebrates the power and grandeur of Italy's Lake Como. Though Scott weaves themes by Liszt and Berlioz in amongst his own melodies and textures, The Deep Spaces is anything but a pastiche. If anything, it's traditional—refreshingly so—in its structural deployment of an instrumental prologue and epilogue. (Incidentally, this isn't the first time Scott has composed a work for bowed piano, as his The Tears of Niobe represented the United States at the 1991 International Rostrum of Composers in Paris.)

The opener “Primordium” provides a showcase of sorts for the plenitude of sounds the ensemble's ten members generate from the open grand piano using nylon filament, horsehair, hand-held piano hammers, guitar picks, etc. Following an abstract intro dominated by percussive flurries, the overture settles into a more conventional form and foreshadows the songs ahead by voicing their dreamily evocative and mournful themes, sometimes accompanied by soprano Victoria Hansen's wordless interjections. (The closing “Postludium” frames the work by re-introducing the opening setting's themes a final time.) At no time does it feel like the sonic palette is diminished by the group's reliance on a singular instrument. Clustered tightly around the piano, the group's members pluck and strum bright, shimmering tones that alternately resemble a glass orchestra, zither, harp, viola, and harpsichord. Predictably, the natural sonority of Hansen's vocals differs markedly from the magisterial exotica produced by the ensemble but the effect is hardly unpleasant.

The 45-minute work feels unified, especially when each piece seamlessly flows into the next, but Scott makes room for contrasts too. “The Old Hall” seems both ancient and modern, with its traditional folk character offset by a boldly meandering vocal line. In the stately waltz “Barcarola,” the melancholy theme re-emerges halfway through and again at the end, imbuing the song with meditative character. The theme re-appears in “The Face of Heaven” but slower and statelier; during Byron's line “The last still loveliest, till—‘tis gone—and all is grey,” the effortless ascent of Hansen's swooping voice proves memorable. The ponderous “O'er Vales That Teem With Fruits: Hector and Harold in Italy” not only spotlights her undulating vocal but includes a melodic leap in the coda that calls to mind David Del Tredici's In Memory of a Summer Day. Sometimes a drone-like pedal point persists throughout a piece, becoming a background anchor for the sonic flux swirling overtop. Here and elsewhere, what ultimately recommends Scott's affecting song-cycle The Deep Spaces most isn't the novelty of its instrumentation but the work's compositional quality.

May 2007