Getting crazy on the strings with Scott R. Looney

Scott Looney brings his implements and trio featuring bassist Lisa Mezzacappa and percussionist Kjell Nordeson to the California Jazz Conservatory on Tuesday as part of the Way Out West series. Photo: Alan Kimara Dixon

Scott Looney traces his love affair with the piano back to his 1970s childhood in Hong Kong, where he vividly remembers watching the instrument his mother procured being carried up nine flights of stairs to his family’s apartment. But he really got into the instrument decades later in the mid-90s while briefly living in New York City. He experienced a pianistic epiphany witnessing a performance by Denman Maroney, an innovative improviser whose “hyperpiano” practice often involves playing inside the instrument, striking, strumming and even bowing the piano’s strings with various objects.

“I always liked prepared piano, but I didn’t like all the time it takes to prepare it. With John Cage’s music, you prepare the piano and the objects stay in place,” says Looney, a longtime Berkeley resident who performs Tuesday at the California Jazz Conservatory with bassist Lisa Mezzacappa and percussionist Kjell Nordeson as part of the school’s weekly Way Out West series showcasing Bay Area composers. “Then I happened to hear Denman Maroney’s hyperpiano and I completely stole everything he did, the idea of putting things on the strings and taking them off quickly.”

Since moving to the East Bay in 1996 Looney has been a steady presence on the thrumming but often underground creative music scene, where his expansive sonic palette and textural resourcefulness has provided a welcome jolt of unpredictable sound to an array of settings. He’s equally at home performing compositions and in completely improvised contexts, and his aural arsenal also includes electronics, which he employs to create a wooly menagerie of buzzes, hums, tones, and squawks.

For most of his time in the Bay Area Looney hasn’t maintained a steady group. Rather, he’s often joined specific projects and performances, collaborating with major improvisers such as saxophonists Oliver Lake, Frank Gratkowski, Wolfgang Fuchs and Jon Raskin, bassist Joëlle Léandre, guitarists Henry Kaiser and Joe Morris, percussionist Gino Robair, and trumpeter Paul Smoker.


Most performances find him playing conventionally on the keys and inside, manipulating various implements, mostly made of brass and copper.

“Over the years it’s gotten down to a relatively small amount, a dozen or so things I carry around in a tote bag,” he says. “I use metal bowls, Chinese cymbals, and a couple of small plaques of Brahms and Haydn that were given to me as an odd birthday present when I was in New York. Brahms is a bit more abrasive, Haydn is smoother. I’ve got a copper bar I use to slide over the strings to create high pitches, something I lifted directly from Denman. Oh yeah, and vibrators, a cheap version of an Ebow.”

For the trio with Nordeson and Mezzacappa, an indefatigable creative force on the Bay Area scene, he’s brought in a variety of pieces. The group has performed twice before, exploring his mutable music that’s tuneful and clanky, puckish, ethereal, and oblique. “They’re super high-level musicians, and playing with them is incredibly fun,” says Looney, who also performs with the trio on Oct. 8 at Tom’s Place, a South Berkeley house concert series presented by programmer and composer Tom Duff.

Looney is probably better known in Europe than at home. He’s performed more in Germany than the United States, and he’s got an entry on German Wikipedia (while flying under the radar in the Anglosphere). For his day job, he co-founded The Game Audio Institute, which designs and presents curricula for teaching about creating audio for computer games.

Looney spent his early childhood in Tokyo and Hong Kong due to his father’s job. Returning to the States they settled in Kansas City, where he was already thinking about expanding the piano’s possibilities. “I remember back in Hong Kong my dad had a lot of records, mostly Broadway scores, but he had one by the piano duo Ferrante & Teicher where they were playing novelty tunes on prepared pianos, and I loved that. Even in Kansas City, I was putting things on the strings at 10 or 11 years old.”

He pursued the piano throughout his teens and fell under the sway of the great avant-garde trumpeter Paul Smoker while attending Coe University in Cedar Rapids. Smoker was equally engaged in 20th-century classical music and free jazz, a wide-open sensibility to passed on to Looney. “Studying with Paul I got inculcated into Stockhausen and Xenakis as much as Coltrane and Braxton.

He earned an MFA in composition at Cal Arts in Valencia, studying with seminal artists like Wadada Leo Smith, David Rosenboom, and Frederic Rzewski. Delving into the Los Angeles improvised music scene he worked with wind player Vinny Golia and vocal explorer Bonnie Barnett.

After moving to the Bay Area one of his most consequent musical relationships was with bassist Damon Smith, a player doggedly dedicated to free improvisation. Looney pursued hyperpiano techniques as a way to liberate the instrument from its tempered constraints. While horn players and string players could explore tones outside or in between Western scales, he felt limited by the naked piano.

“The other musicians would be doing all these between the cracks sounds,” he says. “All I can do is play the keys. I tended to approach it from the side of European improv school, matching timbres and tone colors. The only way I could think of to do it is to go inside the piano, while still being concerned about harmonic quality.”