It's not the keyboard of the piano that fascinates composer and musician Stephen Scott, so much as the piano's innards.
In 1977, the Colorado College music professor started the now-nationally renowned Bowed Piano Ensemble, a 10-person group known for both its unusual music source and choreographed performance.
Scott has hovered over the guts of a 9-foot grand in the basement of Packard Hall for almost four decades, but the jig is almost up: The 69-year old is retiring at the end of the school year. The fate of the ensemble is up in the air, although they will play one last concert on Sunday during a weekend symposium.
"Nobody has come forward," he said. "I think you have to be a composer in order to run this, and most musicians are not composers. But it's possible. Never say never, but I don't think it will continue."
The ensemble has received ink in The New York Times and Life magazine and airtime on National Public Radio. They've released six CDs and performed on stage at the Sydney Opera House in Australia and at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York City. They've toured nine times in Europe, three in Australia and all over the United States and Pacific and Atlantic islands.
"The haunting, powerful and very beautiful sound is that of an idealized ensemble of supercellos, intensely resonant and richly harmonized," writes Alan Rich in L.A. Weekly about the ensemble's 2007 album, "The Deep Spaces."
A peek inside Scott's piano reveals a canvas of strings and the scattered tools the student musicians use to play both the strings and other parts of the piano (like hinges), including piano hammers, nylon fishing line, guitar picks, tongue depressors and barricade tape.
"What we do is mostly directly on the strings, not the keyboard," Scott said. "You don't have to be a pianist to do this. You just have to be a musician. I've had singers who play, woodwind players, brass, percussionists, drummers, people from every sort of musical world you can think of."
They play Scott's original compositions, and yes, he's there, right next to his students - "It's too fun not to be in it."
Members of the group are selected through an audition process, and he estimates about 150 students have cycled in and out since the beginning.
Scott has taken the group around the world, which is appropriate. His creation is the only one of its kind in the world, though some groups have borrowed his techniques, he said.
He borrowed the idea himself, at first, when he heard a solo pianist play in Boulder. The musician mostly played on the keyboard, but occasionally reached inside the piano to pick up a piece of fish line and play the strings. It created a long tone that captured Scott's attention.
"He was the first one to realize if you take fish line and put rosin on it, which is the same as you put on a cello or violin, it causes friction against the strings to make them vibrate, creating a sustained note."
He knew immediately he'd hit on something special.
Thomas Wilson, music director of the Chamber Orchestra of Colorado Springs, has long appreciated Scott's work and the way he strikes out in new directions.
"It's (the ensemble) something that's been very unique to us," Wilson said. "It would be a huge loss to us. It's been a big part of the identity of the CC music department and a major avenue of exploration, so it'll be missed if it disappears."
Scott never planned to lead the Bowed Piano Ensemble for the rest of his life.
"But it kept on growing, especially when we started making professional recordings. The music gets around and that's what's most important to me - to have your work known all over the world. I'm happy to be the only one who does this."
Scott won't give up the bowed piano completely, he said. He's already got several tentative gigs lined up for him to travel and mentor other musicians in the technique, something he's done for years.
"I won't stop composing or being a musician," he said, "I just won't be in the classroom."
Contact Jennifer Mulson, 636-0270
Stephen Scott Retrospective
When: 3 p.m. Saturday, Symposium Session, with talks by alumni of the Bowed Piano Ensemble; 7:30 p.m. Saturday, "The Music of Stephen Scott: A Retrospective," work by Scott for solo piano and voice, featuring soprano Victoria Hansen, and full bowed piano performance of "Vikings of the Sunrise;" 2 p.m. Sunday, "The Music of Stephen Scott: A Retrospective," bowed-piano ensemble work titled "Double Variations," with Hansen and Terry Riley's "In C."
Where: Packard Hall, Colorado College, 5 W. Cache La Poudre St.
Tickets: Free; 389-6607, coloradocollege.edu