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Zofo's Zoforbit - Interview on New Classical Tracks

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"The piano four-hands is very unique and a very interesting form of chamber music. One that's very intimate compared to other forms of chamber music," says Keisuke Nakagoshi of the duo ZOFO.

It's really the best of both worlds, he adds, because when you're playing piano duets, you're both a solo pianist and a chamber musician at the same time. "And on top of those, there's an element of choreography." Keisuke says. "We have to figure out the movements of our arms, our fingers, not to bump each other. And that's very interesting." The duo ZOFO are Japanese pianist Keisuke Nakagoshi and Swiss-born pianist Eva Maria Zimmerman. Five years ago when they met in San Francisco, they formed ZOFO - a kind of abbreviation for "twenty-finger orchestra."

Their third release is ZOFORBIT: A Space Odyssey. The musical journey begins in our own galaxy with "The Milky Way." It's a piano suite by Estonian composer Urmas Sisask. To evoke images of outer space, the composer asks for muting and plucking of strings, making full use of the spatial resonances of the instrument. "I did most of that and Eva plays the same motif many times on the keys. And I get to mute the string and then play on the key. That creates almost like a gong sound," Keisuke says.

"And Keisuke is standing all the time so he can have better access to the inside of the piano," explains Eva.

So visually, this does not look like your typical piano duet.

"No, no. But I really enjoy this technique," Keisuke says, "and I know some presenters are not very happy having pianists who deal with the inside of the piano, but we like to push the boundaries."

One of the most memorable moments for Eva during the making of this recording was when they finally figured out how to mark the strings on the inside of the piano to allow them to play a piece titled "Celestial Mechanics" by American composer George Crumb. "The thing is that we need to put our fingertips exactly in the middle of those strings, and we played a key and the pitch is actually an octave higher and it sounds like a gong rather than like a piano," Eva explains. "And in order to find the middle of the string - I think it was your idea, Keisuke - we ended up putting a piece of thread below the piano strings. And the shape of the thread was following the harmonics of the strings. So we had something to hold on to visually, to find those harmonics. So that moment, when we found that, that was such a relief."

The centerpiece of "A Space Odyssey" is a one-piano-four-hands arrangement by ZOFO of Gustav Holst's seven-movement suite, "The Planets." "There are actually three versions of this piece out there," Keisuke explains. "The one is the famous orchestral version. And Holst himself made an arrangement for two pianos. And his close friend also made a version for piano four-hands, which we started with. He actually took two years writing the whole suite The Planets. In 2015, it is going to be 100 years since he wrote the piece, so that was the perfect timing for putting it on our album."

One thing that sets this new arrangement apart from the three previous arrangements, according to Keisuke, is that this one is a lot harder. "Well, we put back the missing lines to make it more three-dimensional," he says. "Also I think there are a lot of elements cut out to make it more playable but we took the challenge to put those back. And visually, we changed who plays what, so we get more choreographed actions on the keyboard."

Eva says their arrangement of The Planets offers a fresh perspective on this suite. "A lot of audience members come to us after the concerts and say that they heard different things than in the orchestra version, new things," she says. "And it was almost easier to listen to it, to hear the structure of the piece … hearing it boiled down to just piano duet."

"I also like the aspect of introducing the audience to new music," Keisuke adds. "And just like this, something they already know … but never heard the piano version … is something I really enjoy to do."

On their latest recording of piano duets, the piano duo ZOFO take you out of this world … at least for a little while.

New Classical Tracks can be heard on American Public Media's Classical 24 and statewide on Minnesota Public Radio.