C. Curtis-Smith: Bows

A commission from the pianist David Burge inspired Curtis-Smith to search the interior of the piano for new sound possibilities. As he put it in an interview, “I wondered if there was anything that Henry Cowell, John Cage or George Crumb haven’t already thought of? I thought probably not.” 

Experiments with a deconstructed violin bow led ultimately to the invention of his bowing technique, in which a more durable bow is created by replacing the fragile horsehair with fishing line. The fishing line is woven through the strings and enables the piano to produce continually sustained tones. Different overtones and changing timbres can emerge according to the placement of the bow and manner of bowing. The piece commissioned by Burge was realized in 1973 in Curtis-Smith’s Rhapsodies.

Rhapsodies - Notes
Rhapsodies - Notes

In the explanatory notes to Rhapsodies the composer offers elaborate and detailed information about the material qualities, the number of strands, and length of the bows. He also gives instructions, with both text and images, on the construction, color-coding, and application of the bows inside the piano, as well as performance and practice tips for those who want to play the piece. The information is clear and leads to good results when followed precisely.


 Nevertheless, my personal experience with the piece has brought to light some issues:


First of all, it quickly becomes clear that the length specifications for some bows are impractical for smaller performers, and seem tailored to David Burge’s enormous arm length. Because Curtis-Smith allows some flexibility with bow changes, it is possible to make individual adjustments here – “but never in terms of the important structural designs of the piece – only in terms of bowing details.“


But particularly interesting to me, as someone with no fishing experience, was information I got from a local specialty shop: monofilament nylon fishing line is no longer very common, and in Europe, in contrast to the USA, there is a preference to manufacture the thinnest possible line at any given strength rating (Americans refer to the strength rating of fishing line as its „weight“). There are also slight differences in the relation between strength and diameter in the nylon fishing line available through the internet, and the actual thickness of a bow is therefore not uniformly defined—despite specific descriptions given by the composer.

It seems as though time and geographical distance have somewhat blurred strict outlines and created space for experimentation.


Video: Plaid Bow in Rhapsody Nr. IV 




Listen also to Rhapsodies played by David Burge