by Maggie Stapleton
ZOFO (shorthand for 20-finger orchestra… ZO=20 and FO=finger orchestra), is a fresh chamber ensemble with a vision to embrace exciting classics like Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring for piano four-hands and expand the repertoire by commissioning works by new composers including Pulitzer Prize winner William Bolcom, Gabriela Lena Frank, and Terry Riley. Pianists Eva-Maria Zimmermann and Keisuke Nakagoshi take the freshness a step further, aiming to commission works by composers who have never written for piano four hands, stretching composers to step into a new compositional realm.
ZOFORBIT is the duo’s most recent release on Sono Luminus (available also on iTunes or Amazon), with all pieces themed around outer space. The difficult part for ZOFO wasn’t finding piano four-hands music that fit into this category, it was choosing from a multitude of options! ZOFO’s own arrangement of Gustav Holst’s The Planets is the anchor of the album, as 2014 marks the centenary of this iconic composition. Urmas Sisask’s The Milky Way, George Crumb’s Celestial Mechanics, and David Lang’s Gravity round out the collection.
Gravity is full of descending, falling lines with a very distinct sense of gravity, almost as if there’s no escape. Composer David Lang says, “With ‘gravity’ I had the image in my head of how to make a kind of music that would always be falling. The material is in a state of slow perpetual motion, moving inexorably downwards and yet never really resting or landing.” Keisuke further describes Gravity as one of the saddest, yet most beautiful pieces he’s ever played.
Estonian composer Urmas Sisask makes great use of the inside of the piano in The Milky Way, calling for plucked and dampened strings and glissandi. The first movement is ethereal, atmospheric, and engaging. The opening motive of the piece gradually expands in dynamic and intensity, layering in more texture throughout. The plucked strings (both dampened and not) inside the piano add a great celestial, other-worldly effect. The second movement beings gently, with continuous ascending lines (a nice contrast to Gravity’s descending lines) giving way to a repeated single pitch with strummed strings, cresting to a simple, solo melody. ZOFO’s recording of George Crumb’s Alpha Centauri and Beta Cygni (from Celestial Mechanics) is a great aural experience, but the video below really showcases the effects in this piece. Both pianists must stand throughout most of the piece to achieve all of the inside piano effects. Eva-Maria explained that they have to actually HIT the strings, standing side-by-side, so much so that they must be careful not to hit each other. Alpha Centauri is very exciting and fiery, contrasted well by Beta Cygni which is much more introverted with hints of gamelan music. Many times in Beta Cygni, the strings are dampened right in the middle, producing a pitch which is an octave higher producing a gong-like effect.
This entire album is a great showcase of what two pianists can do not just at the keyboard, but also inside the keyboard. Huge applause for ZOFO’s effort to successfully pull off yet another cleverly themed album. To hear more conversation about the album, as well as the duo’s background and beginnings, listen below!