ALBUM REVIEW: ZOFO Plays Terry Riley

by Maggie Molloy

Riley_CD_front_cover_ZOFOWith piano, the musical possibilities are so vast that sometimes your biggest limitation is the fact you only have two hands—which is why internationally acclaimed solo pianists Eva-Maria Zimmermann and Keisuke Nakagoshi teamed up to create ZOFO, a four-hand piano duo committed to performing contemporary classical music.

ZOFO, which is shorthand for 20-finger orchestra (ZO=20 and FO=finger orchestra), is one of only a handful of duos worldwide devoted exclusively to piano duets, and they are paving the way for other four-hand duos by focusing on 20th and 21st century repertoire and commissioning new works from celebrated contemporary composers.

Their latest musical project was in collaboration with one of the biggest names in contemporary classical: Terry Riley. Riley, who turns 80 years old this Wednesday, was one of the pioneers of minimalist music, alongside other influential American composers like La Monte Young, Steve Reich, and Philip Glass.

Minimalism began in the 1960s as a new musical approach which focused on observing the internal processes of the music rather than striving to reach a thematic or harmonic goal. Some of the prominent features of minimalism were consonant harmony, steady pulse, repetition, phasing, and gradual transformation.

But as all musicians know, minimalism is far from simple—as is evidenced by Riley’s beautifully complex piano music. For ZOFO’s latest project, they devoted an entire album to exploring Riley’s music for four-hand piano.

The album, titled “ZOFO Plays Terry Riley,” features the five pieces from Riley’s four-hand piano suite “The Heaven Ladder, Book 5,” a handful of four-hand piano arrangements of other Riley works, and one newly commissioned work written specifically for ZOFO.

The album is framed by the five pieces in “The Heaven Ladder, Book 5,” and ZOFO dances through the complex choreography of each with effortless grace and precision. First is “Etude from the Old Country,” a vibrant and adventurous four-handed braid of circling melodic motives.

Next is “Jaztine,” which was written for Riley’s foster child. The piece is full of childlike joy and curiosity—and it also illustrates a heightened sense of imagination; in his composer’s note, Riley described the piece as being “interrupted suddenly at one point by a heavily trodding march of elephants ceremoniously dressed in Thai raiments.” The piece is followed by “Tango Doble Ladiado,” a short, sweet, and spirited Latin American tango.

ZOFO completes the four-hand suite with “Waltz for Charismas” and “Cinco de Mayo” at the end of the album. Inspired by Schoenberg’s piano music, “Waltz for Charismas” explores a number of time signatures outside the typical waltz pattern of three beats per measure, creating a lively and multihued musical texture. ZOFO finishes the suite with “Cinco de Mayo,” dancing through the swirling Latin melodies with freedom and flair, exploring the keyboard’s full range of pitches, colors, and characters.

The album also features three four-hand arrangements of Riley’s other instrumental works, which Zimmermann and Nakagoshi arranged in collaboration with Riley. Nakagoshi created four-hand piano versions of two Riley string quartets. His arrangement of “Half-Wolf Dances Mad in Moonlight” is pure passion and poetry, while his arrangement of “G Song” captures all the warmth and lyricism of a string quartet with just a single piano keyboard. The four hands weave in and out of each other so seamlessly that it’s difficult to tell where one player’s hands end and the other’s begin.

“The challenge of playing piano-four-hands is that the space you have for yourself is limited,” Zimmermann said. “But if you work around each other in a graceful way, it actually does not need to be something negative. When we rehearse really well and intensively, I still feel free—completely free with my movements.”

Zimmermann’s arrangement of “Simone’s Lullaby” from Terry’s “The Heaven Ladder, Book 7” (originally written for solo piano) is a soft and delicate beauty, exploring the piano’s full range through twinkling melodies above a rich, warm bass accompaniment.

The final piece featured on the album is “Praying Mantis Rag,” a dazzling, jazz-infused four-hand piece commissioned by ZOFO. The piece highlights the duo’s playful charm and vibrant virtuosity through its lively ragtime rhythms and its glitzy, glamorous, and unapologetically jazzy character.

“ZOFO Plays Terry Riley” proves that the musical magic of piano extends far beyond a pianist’s 10 fingers. Through their exploration of Riley’s works, Zimmermann and Nakagoshi paint a vivid and colorful picture of the immense textural, timbral, and stylistic possibilities of piano duets. After all, it’s amazing what a pianist can do with an extra hand or two.


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!