Steven Schick: Ready for Anything

February 16, 2004—11:00 a.m.-noon at the American Music Center Videotaped and transcribed by Randy Nordschow Last November, I went down to the World Financial Center to hear Steven Schick play John Luther Adams’s The Mathematics of Resonant Bodies. In all honesty, I really wasn’t sure what to expect. I’m a big fan of JLA’s music… Read more »

Written By

Frank J. Oteri

Frank J. Oteri is an ASCAP-award winning composer and music journalist. Among his compositions are Already Yesterday or Still Tomorrow for orchestra, the "performance oratorio" MACHUNAS, the 1/4-tone sax quartet Fair and Balanced?, and the 1/6-tone rock band suite Imagined Overtures. His compositions are represented by Black Tea Music. Oteri is the Vice President of the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) and is Composer Advocate at New Music USA where he has been the Editor of its web magazine,, since its founding in 1999.

February 16, 2004—11:00 a.m.-noon at the American Music Center
Videotaped and transcribed by Randy Nordschow

Last November, I went down to the World Financial Center to hear Steven Schick play John Luther Adams’s The Mathematics of Resonant Bodies. In all honesty, I really wasn’t sure what to expect. I’m a big fan of JLA’s music and have followed Schick’s performances since he was the percussionist in the Bang On A Can All-Stars, but the thought of sitting through a more-than-an-hour-long solo percussion performance in an uncomfortable seat in the middle of the WFC’s mall-like atrium, which periodically gets transformed into a hip new music venue despite the endless chatter of shoppers and people going home from work, was less than 100 percent appealing to me.

But during the course of the hour, time stopped, the chatter was drowned out, the chair floated away, the lone person on the stage playing sonorities of indeterminate pitch became an orchestra of timbre, melody, AND harmony. Or, to put it more directly, I was transported. I had to find out more about the piece, the composition process and how the performer brought it to life. I rushed to look at a score but the alchemical secrets locked in there remained hidden to me. I thought about talking to JLA about how he was able to pull this off, but on further reflection thought it would be even more interesting to talk with Steven Schick about how he pulled it off. As both a composer and a writer about music, I talk with other composers all the time and JLA is someone I talk with a lot already. The performer’s perspective here seemed to be the skeleton key toward a greater understanding of the process.
What happened, ultimately, was a conversation about what it means to be a percussionist and how that has evolved in our lifetimes. Without the baggage of standard repertoire or teachers steering them away from things that are “outside the mainstream” (read “anything new”), percussionists, whose entire repertoire save transcriptions has to be contemporary, are the foot soldiers of new music. And, as someone dedicated to spawning a whole new solo repertoire for percussion, Steven Schick is something of a five-star general. Just as composers have yet to exhaust the possibilities of writing for percussion, soloists like Schick are constantly finding new ways to bring it to life, whether it’s extracting harmonic riches from an air raid siren or realizing that the unique triangular shape of a Glenfiddich bottle keeps it from rolling away.


Hundreds of Instruments

Frank J. Oteri: Percussionists are the most elusive instrumentalists in music. You wear more hats than just about anybody…

Steven Schick: I think we’re elusive because we actually don’t have an instrument. Everyone else has an instrument. We have no instrument by virtue of the fact that we have so many. There’s not a single kind of object that defines us or focuses our activities. I mean, a percussionist normally would have in any given program between 25 and 100 instruments to play. In my studio in San Diego I have 500 or 600 different kinds instruments. So in the way that the pianist, for example, is defined by the physical object of the piano and the way that the piano focuses the performance practice of pianists and provides a link to a shared past with other pianists, percussionists simply don’t have that. Unlike pianists, we don’t know what to put on our coffee cups—you know the pianos have those wonderful back and white keys. The instrumental object as a defining mechanism is really absent from our practice.

Frank J. Oteri: It’s a problem, but it’s also a blessing. You don’t have the baggage that comes with confronting a singular object with a long history. Playing the violin has so much weight in terms of its repertoire and past virtuosos, but it’s open-ended with percussion. It can be anything you want it to be.

Steven Schick: A violinist who plays Elliott Carter still poses the question: What would Beethoven have thought about what I’m doing now? We don’t have that historical weightiness of the tradition. Of course it’s a contradiction in a way, because at the same time percussion is the most recent and poorly defined instrument, it is the most ancient and commonly understood instrument that there is in the world. Percussion traditions date back thousand and thousands of years—when the violin was a glimmer in somebody’s eye percussion had been around for several thousand years—so we have to deal with that part of it, too. We’re not just newcomers. In fact, it’s Western arrogance to think that percussion was a child of the 20th century because it was very much a child of the 20th century BC in a way. So we have to deal with both the rootedness of the tradition in ancient practice and the newness of tradition in the common practice of the Western Hemisphere.

Frank J. Oteri: You bring up the non-Western world…certainly in African and Indian cultures there were percussionists that were specifically identified with a specific instrument. In India, tabla players play the tabla and that’s it.

Steven Schick: Exactly. This is the fundamental difference actually when I think of what separates me from a tabla player. It is not so much the actions of playing, because the actions of playing a tabla—lifting the hand up and letting it strike the instrument—are not fundamentally different than the actions of playing a snare drum in a John Luther Adams piece, for example. But what is very different about our approach is that Western percussionists are by nature permeable. We are designed, as musical creatures, to absorb influences, to reconsider things, to come out with new solutions—no Western percussionists in the contemporary tradition would say, ‘You want me to play a garbage can? What? That’s impossible!’ No, this is what we do. But no set permeability exists, for example, in most Eastern percussion traditions. A tabla player would not dream of picking up a triangle because it might sound good at a given moment. No. It is a thing, the tabla, in a way that percussion in a Western mode of thinking has never been a thing.

Frank J. Oteri: How do you think it evolved that way in the West?

Steven Schick: I think it has a lot to do with the hierarchy and the construction of the orchestra. There is a kind of aristocracy in the orchestra. Timpanists, for example, have traditionally been vetted in that aristocracy and that’s why there is in percussion sections of orchestras still, especially in European orchestras, quite a clear demarcation when it comes to what timpanists do and may be asked to do and what percussionists do and may be asked to do. So percussion—now I mean percussion, not timpani—grew up in the 19th century orchestra in response to two parallel needs. One was to provide a series of noises that could serve to mark the major moments and important moments of tonal music. So a cymbal crash marks the arrival on tonic or a tambourine roll marks some sort of more exotic harmonic or textural moment. But as the orchestra grew, so grew the need for percussion, the arsenal of noises had to be larger and larger as the orchestra itself grew larger. We collected as a kind of lint around the back of the orchestra.

The other thing which percussion did in the 19th century was to stand for mental and emotional states, which were inappropriate for the other instruments. So if you’re Berlioz and you’re looking for something to describe a hallucinogenic moment in the Symphonie Fantastique, a beheading or something like that, whom do you turn to? Not the harp. You turn to the percussionists. So we gradually became associated with a kind of emotional periphery as well. When Mahler remembers his Alpine past he uses cowbells. When Berg wants to indicate Wozzeck being out of his mind with jealousy and homicidal rage, he uses a snare drum and gong roll. In addition to having a kind of stockpile of noises, we became associated with a kind of emotional otherness in the orchestra. So in the 20th century, those two things knitted together very, very neatly to produce a kind of willingness, first of all, to add, to be permeable to new ideas, and to expand the foundation of the art, as well as to engage in aggressive, or violent, or beautiful, or somehow, in one way or another, extreme emotional states of mind. This is what we grew up as.

Frank J. Oteri: The strange thing about the percussion sections of orchestras is that they sometimes even include instruments that are non-percussive. That is bizarre. It’s like Mikey and that breakfast cereal: “Okay, let’s give it to them. They’ll play anything.”

Steven Schick: Exactly. We’ll do anything. This is really the job description of a percussionist in the orchestra. Rather than list snare drum, triangle, and tambourine, you list everything but violin, viola, cello, etcetera. And this is what we do. If you play Satie’s Parade, you end up with a revolver shooting blanks, a typewriter, and a steamboat whistle, if I remember correctly. I mean, this is our job. A percussionist may not say no.

Frank J. Oteri: That steamboat whistle should really be in the woodwind section.

Steven Schick: You’d think, but give that to an oboist who has spent eight years at Curtis and you’ll find it quickly gets passed back to the percussionist.

Drummer or Percussionist?

Frank J. Oteri: What made you decide to be a percussionist?

Steven Schick: I just want to think about which story to tell you… they’re all true, I just calibrate them according to the moment. I’ll tell you all three of them really quickly. For one my mother, in her Iowa farmwife wisdom, saw fit to check the space next to drums on the sheet that was sent home from Wilson Elementary School when I was in the first grade because all the other instruments you had to buy, but next to the spot where it said drums there was a little asterisk that said you don’t actually have to buy a drum, just the sticks. She thought that this would be a financially prudent move to make for the eldest of five children. So there was that. When I was in the third or fourth grade there was a girl who lived next door who played drum set and she would practice in the early afternoon or late evening in full view of anyone who wanted to pass by. This is not very Iowan to begin with; it’s not very modest. But this combination of an awakening recognition of eroticism and this girl practicing the drum set next door was just a little too much for my 10-year-old circuits. That was absolutely riveting in a way. The final—and this actually happened—I grew up in a farming family in Iowa and I don’t think there was a lot of pressure to continue farming. I don’t think my father really liked to farm to begin with. But I remember this one day we were doing this utterly hideous job on the farm and it was hot, it was humid, and I fainted face first in the hog manure. It was all over. My dad came and rolled me over and as I came to I had a vision that I didn’t want to farm…and percussion was the only other thing that I could do. So I thought, well, I would be a drummer.

Frank J. Oteri: Now, this word “drummer” versus the word “percussionist.” Percussionists are somehow this classical music thing, separate and apart from drummers. Drummers play in rock bands and jazz groups. How is being a percussionist different from being a drummer?

Steven Schick: Well to me this distinction is purely a technical one. There was a moment—and I think you bring up something very true—when I was studying and in my early professional life when I would not want to have been called a drummer because it meant something that was more base, less refined, less sophisticated than being a percussionist. But I’m over that. This is part of the process of maturing because actually I think being a drummer is an incredibly noble and great thing to be. It’s not accurate to say that I’m a drummer. I play the drums, but I play a lot of other things. It’s simply more accurate to say that I’m a percussionist rather than a drummer. Sometimes if I’m sitting next to someone on an airplane and that person asks me what I do—and “percussionist” doesn’t get a response, it hardly ever does—then sometimes I say I play drums and other things like that. That sometimes works.

Frank J. Oteri: And then the next question is about what rock band you’re with…

Steven Schick: Well, there’s that. But if you actually get into a conversation with someone like that you go through: ‘What band do you play with?’ to ‘Oh, you’re a soloist.’ There is this moment where they’re trying to make sense of how could this possibly be. In fact, I continue myself to try to make sense of how this could possibly be! But then I explain that it is something like Stomp. I’m very grateful for Stomp. It helps me explain to people I sit next to in airplanes and when the airport security opens my bags and they see, you know, steel pipes and all sorts of horrible looking things, I can say that I do something kind of like Stomp and then they get it and let me go. Back to the point, someone who has no association with music (and the farther they are from music, the more genuinely they actually understand and get it), is intrigued by the use of objects which are generally not thought of as music instruments in a musical context. They are fascinated by the flowerpots, for example, in Frederic Rzewski‘s solo, To The Earth. They think it’s unbelievable that I carry around with me mixing bowls, empty whiskey bottles, frying pans and things like that, because I know I can borrow bongos and gongs, but I can’t get the Glenfiddich bottle, the triangular one that sits flat and has a nice high sound, and I can’t get the mixing bowl that makes a little glissando. So when they say, “So you carry you’re instruments?” and I tell them what I’ve got in the belly of the plane, this opens up an amazing connection to the activities that people engage in, in ordinary life.

Frank J. Oteri: I just have to know, who wrote music for Glenfiddich bottle?

Steven Schick: [laughs] I keep thinking of sponsorship! I use a whiskey bottle in two pieces: in Kaija Saariaho’s Six Japanese Gardens because she calls for a stone instrument and I figured glass qualifies, and I use it as one of the instruments of free choice in Roger Reynolds’s Watershed. A number of people have written for bottles and whiskey bottles sound better because they’re generally better bottles.

Frank J. Oteri: How did you come across this? You were downing a bottle of Glenfiddich one night and…

Steven Schick: I used the Glenfiddich bottle first of all primarily because of the shape of the bottle. I mean we use bottles quite a bit, that’s not new. James Wood has a big bottle parts in many of his pieces. It’s not that unusual. The problem is that you have to build special little cradles for them because they roll. I was in fact, as you guessed, getting close to finishing a bottle of Glenfiddich and thought, you know, that will be fabulous because I could put it on the stand and it will stay.

Frank J. Oteri: You definitely have to get sponsorship!

Steven Schick: Exactly. [laughs]

Frank J. Oteri: Taking it back to this percussionist versus drummer thing… You say you’re a soloist and people are shocked, and you’re even shocked by that. There really are no role models in so-called classical music for percussion soloists. There’s no Paganini, or Heifetz, or Horowitz of percussion.

Steven Schick: This is both a good and a bad thing. If this conversation had taken place in, say, the mid-’80s or so, than this was an unassailable virtue. In fact I think that both percussion solo music and music for percussion ensemble through the ’70s and mid-’80s really went a good distance towards creating a new kind of musician that would engage with this new kind of material. So you find a piece like Xenakis‘s Psappha, for which there is no corollary, a piece of freely chosen instrumentation with a novel notational scheme, an unusual approach to structure. We can’t find that in the violin literature, not even in Xenakis’s violin literature.

Unfortunately with the growing profile of percussion and the ability to export this idea into mainstream musical thought, there has grown an imitation of the Paganini model. So many percussion solo pieces the
se days and many percussionists are now seeking to reprise Liszt, but on marimba. This is a big problem to me. Now—and I really want to say this for the record—this is in no way a criticism of those people who are making careers now playing concerti. There are some very well known ones. Evelyn Glennie is probably the best known, and I think about David Cossin who is my replacement with Bang on a Can All-Stars who does a lot of stuff with Tan Dun. I want to clarify that this is not a backhanded slight at all to those people, but it does create a pressure to reproduce a model of making music rather than to create one. I think that is an unfortunate thing. I’m pleased to accept those kinds of invitations myself, and I certainly wouldn’t begrudge it to anybody else, but we have to wonder at what costs these things come.

Frank J. Oteri: The thing that is weird about the Liszt model or the Paganini model for percussion is, as you said in the beginning, there is no specific instrument, so you could never spend that much time with any one particular instrument to get that depth of intimate knowledge that such a technique would require.

Steven Schick: Well, there are people who specialize, for example, in the marimba, or the frame drum, and they actually are kind of naturally in the tradition of Liszt and Paganini. I think of the marimbist Robert Van Sice, or Glen Velez as a frame drummer—they really do that, and that’s what they should be doing. But a percussionist—the kind of flypaper of instrumentalist to which everything sticks—we shouldn’t be doing that.

Frank J. Oteri: As a young musician coming into this and having role models, who were your role models? Who were your heroes?

Steven Schick: It’s important to note that—and we’re just talking about solo percussionists for the moment—solo repertoire for other instruments grew up philosophically and aesthetically aligned with heroic images. So the piano as concerto soloist came of age with Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, where a heroic figure was central to people’s view of the world and people’s view of art; same thing with the violin, cello, and with everything. But percussion’s role model is very different. It grew up essentially in the 1960s. The very earliest solos are from the end of the ’50s. So most of the repertoire was a response to aesthetic and cultural issues raised in the ’60s, which is a very different kind of thing—suspicion of authority. A heroic view was antithetical to the aesthetic as opposed to central to the aesthetic. I think we have to understand that.

Now as a percussionist not yet elderly—I’m turning 50 in a couple of months—I, at relatively tender age for a musician, am about the oldest solo percussionist playing. In fact, I’m pretty sure that I am the oldest one that’s still touring. Many, many people are still playing concerts, but in terms of people—and I should be cautious since I’m on camera that I haven’t forgotten anybody—but in general, I’m kind of on the older edge of the percussionists.

Frank J. Oteri: Wow.

Steven Schick: So I grew up not having a role model. I mean there are people, Jan Williams, Raymond Des Roches in the United States, Michael Udow to some extent, Allen Otte to some extent. But Al is just a few years older than me so he was a role model as a sort of recent graduate at the time when I was an undergraduate. Those were my role models. Jan Williams was a young player when I was coming of age. We had to look elsewhere. To some extent to the Paganinis of other instruments. There was of course a very established tradition of playing percussion in popular music, so you could think about Max Roach, Jack De Johnette, and people like that or Ringo Starr. Those were people who had profiles. At the very early stages I thought about Max Roach and Ringo Starr, but I also realized that they were doing something really very different from what I wanted to do. I aligned myself much more closely with composers than I did with other players. I thought a lot about those people.

Frank J. Oteri: Well what’s so interesting about Max Roach, and by extension Art Blakey and Jack De Johnette, whom you mentioned, is that they are drummers who were bandleaders and composers, and from a European classical music point of view, you might have a violinist or, in early jazz groups, the pianist or trumpeter who would be the leader, but to let the drummer be the leader and composer, is atypical in Western music…

Steven Schick: I haven’t really thought about that, I think you’re absolutely right. I was really attracted to people who had a creative profile and not just a technical profile. I never ever wanted to be a part of an orchestra. I never wanted to be in a section anywhere. So it was always a question of what you could do that you hadn’t done before.

Training and Repertoire

Steven Schick: I remember when I was at the University of Iowa I used to walk around the hallways and I’d hear people practicing the Hammerklavier or the Bach Cello Suites or something like that and I envied this contact with greatness. I really envied this contact with something that was much bigger than we were. I would rue going back into my practice room and then bowing a brake drum or playing a mixing bowl underwater; it seemed pitiful. You’d have these little etudes and it was all about technique, a kind of physical level of accomplishment. It’s only a gradually growing realization that there is much more to playing percussion than simply negotiating the technical problems.

Frank J. Oteri: So what is the training for percussionists?

Steven Schick: It has changed, of course, since I was an undergraduate student in the mid-1970s, but largely it is a technical approach, which now has much better music to serve as a platform. In general I think the percussion education establishment both here and in Europe and Australia—those are the places that I know the best—is interested in good music and I don’t think that was the case when I was a student. But a place like University of California, San Diego, where I teach, is still very much an exception where we simply expect of percussionists nothing really different than we expect from graduate composers for example. You must create something that hasn’t existed. You’ve got to make something. That I think is pretty much a radical departure from the norm.

Frank J. Oteri: So composition is part of the process?

Steven Schick: Composition is not necessarily part of the process, although it is certainly an invited part of the process if somebody wants to do that. But I consider it from the standpoint of a performer: the act of commissioning, or the act of creating an environment in which new work can be born as a creative process as well. This is an absolute expectation of every student.

But other creative ideas could manifest. One student of mine, for example, just completely redid the Philippe Boesmans marimba piece Daydreams, which had an absolutely unwieldy and unworkable technological component. He remade it for his laptop and now everybody can play it. That’s as much as composing the piece because no one could have ever played it again, and now people can. People create and build instruments, they create video interactive systems—that’s really what the expectation is. No one really comes to me, at least in San Diego, to play the solo repertoire. I don’t want them to do that. It’s not new.

Frank J. Oteri: You talk about repertoire being a blessing and curse…Every pianist has to learn Beethoven’s sonatas, every cellist has to confront the Bach cello suites, but are there these must-do pieces for percussionists?

Steven Schick: Well, I think everyone would have a different idea as to what they may be or whether or not there is a sort of obligatory repertoire. I mean for me it was always “Wipeout” as a kid. It’s true if you’ve played drums in a band in the late 1960s being able to play the solo from “Wipeout” established your credentials as a kind of ‘Okay, you’re a player.’

What that consists of now it a little hard to say. In Europe very often, especially in Germany I’ve noticed, you still have to play Bach. Bach on the marimba is kind of a requirement. I think that’s a little unfortunate, I mean both for the marimba and Bach, but that’s my point of view. In San Diego we’ve had one piece which everyone has played—it certainly has not been an obligation but I’ve persuaded people to do it—?Corporel of Vinko Globokar, the piece for the body. Percussionists don’t have instruments, yet we have an enormous number of objects to hide behind. To me it was important to be able to study a piece that had no instruments except the body, to really see in fact that the true state of the percussionist is that physical action. Corporeal sensibility is essentially the most definitive instrument. I don’t insist on anything, but I try to persuade people to do it.

Frank J. Oteri: What are some of your favorite pieces separate and beyond what you would have students look at?

Steven Schick: Well, the repertoire is still very small. I did my first solo percussion recital—my undergraduate recital—in 1975. Between that and my first master’s recital a couple of years later, I played 75 perent of the repertoire for percussion solo. Psappha wasn’t written yet when I did my first solo recital. [laughs] It’s hard to believe now, but there was Charles Wuorinen‘s piece, Janissary Music, there was Stockhausen‘s Zyklus, there was King of Denmark by Morton Feldman—there were just a handful of pieces, probably 5 or 6, and I played almost all of them in the first two concerts that I did. Even now, some 30 years after that, the number is still pretty small, which just parenthetically puts us in a very weird equation: we have the thousands of instruments that we began this interview discussing, the performance practice for these thousands and thousands of instruments is still at this moment rooted in probably no more than 3 or 4 hours of solo music, period. It is an inverted pyramid in terms of how much material, how many sonic possibilities are available, and how much the language of percussion has been established by pieces.

Frank J. Oteri: There seems to be a certain mindset to the composer who would write for percussion. It’s so interesting to compare the granddaddies of piano music—Mozart and Beethoven, let’s say—to the granddaddy of percussion music, John Cage.

Steven Schick: Right, exactly. And we knew most of these people, you know, these were our friends. We were working with our friends to do this. So I think it’s a fascinating issue—why would a composer be interested in writing for percussion? I think there are two principal reasons. One is that by having a relatively small repertoire a composer has the option of making an enormous change and contribution to an important part of music. When Xenakis wrote Psappha he increased the size of the repertoire by 25 percent and it was such an important piece that essentially we haven’t recovered from it. I love Psappha, but it had its downside in that it put such a strong spin on the repertoire because of its relative smallness and the strength of that piece. The other thing—because a composer has to engage on very basic levels of sound, and notation, and architecture, and chor
eography—is that a percussion piece is not a given in the way that a cello piece is going to be a given for the cello. A percussion piece can be for two woodblocks or it could be for gamelan, we don’t know. The necessity to engage decision-making on such an amazingly basic level means that the personality of the composer is etched into the fine print of the music in a way that could not be the case with other instruments.

Nurturing New Work

Frank J. Oteri: Since there is so little repertoire, it really is about working with composers and creating new work. I was really eager to talk with you after hearing you play that amazing CD-length solo percussion piece that John Luther Adams wrote for you. It felt like a Well-Tempered Clavier of timbre.

Steven Schick: Yes, exactly right… through all the keys.

Frank J. Oteri: You went from instrument to instrument, with each timbre having a whole piece constructed around it. I imagine that’s unique in the repertoire…

Steven Schick: Yes it is… I want to take a little bit of a running start on this issue of commissioning because I want to make sure to say that I don’t think that it’s self-evident that the way to make new work is via commissioning. In fact, I think most creative percussionists end up creating some kind of improvisational or performer/composer apparatus for creating new work. I think I’m relatively an exception but I firmly believe, at least in my small position in the universe, my path is by commissioning. I’m not interested in composing. I did a little bit of it. I was really bad. I’ll save the world from having to listen to my music. So for me it’s commissioning. That’s a personal choice. I know a lot of people who are working in other kinds of areas and still doing very interesting things. For me the decision for how to commission or whether to commission was made by virtue of the fact that there was not enough music to play.

The John Luther Adams piece is a result of a kind of a midlife correction of direction. Five years ago, here in New York, I presented what was for all intents and purposes the complete repertoire for solo percussion on three consecutive nights of concerts. I played 22 pieces, everything that I thought was worth hearing. It was a very interesting experience because it allowed you, in just three concerts, to see what was there. And what was there was astonishing, but what wasn’t there was also astonishing. As a result of that and some sort of profound changes in my personal life, I began to think of what I was going to do with the 15 or 20 years remaining to me that I could really devote to the solicitation of new work and performance. I made several really quick decisions. One is that I was not going to be happy just playing a bunch of concerts. So that essentially led to my leaving Bang on a Can, which was a very, very difficult decision to make because I loved playing with them; I still regret it in some way, but it was taking so much time that I really couldn’t do the work that I wanted to do. I left Bang on a Can to make some time and then used that time to think about what it was that I was going to do. I realized that partly what I wanted to do was fill in the gaps or the repertoire that I had noticed as a result of the three nights of solo music that I had done. I think of the percussion repertoire as sort of a gapped tooth smile. The things that are there are fabulous, but there are things that weren’t there. At about that time I had gone to Alaska to play a solo concert at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks. I had known John Luther Adams for a while. We hadn’t been close, but I liked his music and I thought, ‘I’ll commission John.’ We went up to talk about a 9 or 10-minute piece and we ended up sitting in his studio for several days drinking some absolutely extraordinary whiskey—although that wasn’t entirely responsible for the decision. A decision came as a result of that three day conversation with John, that what I really wanted to do was to lay down the gauntlet by commissioning four evening-length pieces that would address what I perceived as the shortcomings of the repertoire from an emotional and aesthetic standpoint. In other words not just to have pieces to tour with, because I could continue to tour with the pieces I was playing, but to look at what wasn’t there and find out if it could be filled in such a way that would really have an impact on people.

Frank J. Oteri: So what are those gaps and how are these pieces filling them?

Steven Schick: There are two pieces so far. John’s is the second of the series. The first piece in the series was La coupure by James Dillon, which was an IRCAM commission. It’s also about a 65-minute piece, which directly deals with the issue of memory because percussion is essentially memory-less. We grew up in such the recent past that we cannot look back for any kind of comfort or weightiness, depending on what you want to perceive it as, to 18th and 19th century performance practice. So we have a real problem with memory. Not with memorizing so much, but what memory means with percussion. What kinds of evocations are there when one plays a certain kind of instrument or another? How does the memory of the percussionist in performance differ from the memory of a violinist or pianist? So La coupure was about this issue of memory.

With John I wanted to follow-up on what I think of as the great American tradition of the terrifying event. We think of the music of Cage and Varèse especially—I think of it as having quasi-environmental characteristics. There are structures, constructions, environments in which the percussionist or the player feels small. You feel at the mercy of forces, which generally I think is a good thing. With Varèse it was at the mercy of these enormous and formidable noise constructions. With Cage it was at the mercy of a future that you could not adequately, nor could anyone, predict at any given moment in performance. So I thought there was this lineage—which James Tenney and many other people have continued—that needed to be explored in the context of solo percussion music. I thought John Luther Adams was perhaps the best person I could think of to do that. Could he create a terrain in which a percussionist could be lost, where the forces engendered and provoked by a given work of music were powerful enough to create its own weather system essentially? And I just knew that John would understand that kind of rationale and that was the genesis of The Mathematics of Resonant Bodies.

Frank J. Oteri: The remaining two?

Steven Schick: I’ve been talking to David Lang about writing an opera because I think that percussion has a close relationship with theater, with dramatic and choreographic concerns, but it has explored these things in very haphazard and certainly nonsystematic ways. We had talked for a long time about doing this, and we’re still talking about it.

Frank J. Oteri: So it would be an opera accompanied by a percussionist.

Steven Schick: No, a one-person opera for me as percussion soloist.

Frank J. Oteri: You would sing as well?

Steven Schick: Si
ng, or speak, or vocalize, and certainly move—sort of in the Partch tradition more than anything else. We’ve talked about a number of themes. We’re narrowing in on that. And then I’ve asked Chaya Czernowin to write a piece, which is the least well defined in my mind, but percussion music activates in an emotional sphere certain kinds of things much more readily than it activates other kinds of things. Percussion is capable of great beauty, but everyone shies away from that as provocation. So I asked her to write something that had strong metaphorical content. I don’t know what she will come up with. So that’s what I saw: memory, environment, theater, and emotional metaphor as the things that were the most missing.

Frank J. Oteri: The pieces that you’ve commissioned obviously can go on and have a life of their own.

Steven Schick: With any luck, yes. That’s the idea.

Frank J. Oteri: Is that happening at all with some of them?

Steven Schick: Yeah, I think with most of them. In fact I think all of them either have been or will have been played by someone else in the very near future, even the most personalized ones like Antiphony VIII that Kenneth Gaburo wrote for me. The way he composed the piece and the way he fine-tuned it in rehearsal with me made me think no one else would ever be able to play it but I think some other people have. The one that has gotten the most mileage is David Lang’s The Anvil Chorus. I’m sure that 500 other percussionists have played that. I’m constantly in receipt of questions about setup. Every week practically somebody will write me about that. I think there are probably 10 or 12 people who have played Bone Alphabet, which no longer surprises me. It’s such a hard piece I didn’t think that anyone could play it, including me. [laughs] I was always pretty sure that I couldn’t play it. But now it’s routinely played. That’s the idea; I never commissioned those pieces to have a career vehicle anyway.

Frank J. Oteri: I’m going to turn this question upside-down in a way. In your experience do you feel most composers understand how to use percussion?

Steven Schick: The answer to that is no. Most composers do not understand how to use percussion and that is precisely their advantage. When I commissioned Bone Alphabet from Brain Ferneyhough, his initial response was that he didn’t want to write a percussion for solo for me. I joined the faculty at UCSD, Brian was my new collegue and I had known him for many years, in Germany especially, and he didn’t want to write for percussion two reasons. The one that he said was that percussion had become a kind of calcified tradition: you know, there was Xenakis and son of Xenakis. He wasn’t interested in engaging that, but I respected that because I thought he was really right. The other thing that he alluded to was that he really didn’t know what to do. He didn’t really know what sounds to use and his music had been so specific on the level of sound. He said something to the effect of he needed to make instrumental music idiomatic so that it was unthinkable that this part could be played by any other instrument. So percussion, which has that sort of marshiness of definition, didn’t appeal to him. Yeah, the attacks were there but the sort of definition of sound wasn’t there. He was completely out of his league, and admittedly so when it came to deciding which percussion sounds to use. I think many composers are like that. So Brian, because he’s such a smart guy and such an interesting musician, came up with a way that would leave the instrumentation open to some extent, allow me to fill that in, in correspondence with what he was interested in doing. So by understanding his limitations he actually made something which was really fascinating and unexpected. I think most composers I really enjoyed working with have done that. John Luther Adams is a little bit the exception because as a former percussionist and as someone who has worked extensively with percussion sonorities, he knows what he’s going to get.

Frank J. Oteri: Do you have any specific advice for aspiring composers writing for percussion?

Steven Schick: It’s really hard to say, of course. I think it’s much more of a kind of a calibration of expectation than advice. There is a necessity to engage issues of sound which are givens in other areas. Issues of choreography, which are given in other areas, one must engage as needing composition, input, and structure. So the most satisfying relationships that I’ve had with composers have been actually where we really talk about what kind of stand a certain instrument will go on. How high would it be? Would you be able to see over it? What kind of profile would you give from the stage? Could you change a stick here or there? I steadfastly refuse to give a kind of checklist. I actually know many percussionists who do that—’My left hand can reach a minor ninth on the marimba,’ you know, ‘[I can] do this and do that.’ That’s an assurance that you’re going to get a certain kind of piece each and every time. I’d actually really like to be surprised.

Percussion and Pitch

Frank J. Oteri: You talked about beauty in the Czernowin, which raises the whole specter of melody. People tend to think of percussion as either pitched or non-pitched, having a precise pitch versus an imprecise pitch. We assume there are things you can do with percussion and things you can’t do with percussion. Do you feel that the imprecise pitch aspect of percussion has been something that has kept composers from thinking about writing for it?

Steven Schick: This is a distinction that we try somehow to find words for. I think we can agree to the issue of pitched and non-pitched percussion is an old-fashioned way of looking at things because percussion instruments have pitch. A tin can has a pitch. Now imprecise pitch is not a bad way of looking at it because sometimes those pitches are not very focused. Sometimes there seems to be a spread of pitch, but mostly I think the pitches are relatively focused even on instruments which you wouldn’t expect. A mixing bowl has a real pitch. The problem is that the pitches do not fall easily in a matrix of established language, so they can’t be treated.

So what do we do? The traditional way has been to say those instrument whose pitch has no utility on the staff are non-pitched and we use them as noises, which makes them automatically separate in individual cases. The great thing about pitched instruments like the flute, the oboe, the clarinet, and things like that is that they relate to each other on pitch. There is an enormous equivalency and correspondence, so that if A=B and B=C, then A can equal C. Just by virtue of speaking this common language you can get equivalencies across a broad range of timbre. Those equivalencies don’t exist in percussion, or they don’t naturally exist. I’ve really started thinking about all percussion as pitched. Sometimes those pitches have utility and other times they don’t.

An interesting thing, for example, is to take a piece like Ionisation, which is much debated because Ionisation is essentially a piece for noise and in the very end you have pitched material: you have the piano, you have the glockenspiel, you have the chimes. Why did Varèse do that? I bring this up because a lot of people thought Varèse did that to show by association that percussion is no longer this instrument of brute force. It wasn’t a blunt instrument anymore. It could correspond. It could exist in the same group as the piano, which is the kind of icon of respectability. So I asked Chou Wen-Chung what he thought about those pitched instruments at the end of Ionisation. He said immediately, ‘Look, they’re not pitched instruments, they’re just other kinds of noises.’ I thought it was fascinating, but then I began to think about it and I thought, ‘Well, no.’ I really feel in a way it was the opposite, that the snare drum was never a non-pitched instrument—that it acted as pitch in the context of all those other kinds of things. I think it’s really that their measurability, memorability, and utility don’t fall into the matrix of the staff.

Frank J. Oteri: What’s so interesting is that as you’re saying this, I’m hearing Ionisation in my head—and I’m hearing tunes! It does have melodies, throughout. What Chou Wen-Chung said about the end of it is interesting, because in a way there is less pitch content from the so-called pitched instruments. When the piano finally comes in, it’s playing chromatic clusters, but the snare drum in the beginning is a featured soloist with a clear line that is for all intents and purposes a bona fide melody.

Steven Schick: There’s the glock and the chimes to deal with, but I think you’re completely right. The piano at the end of Ionisation fulfills the function of the Hamburger Helper. It is the noise that binds everything together. It is the mushroom soup of the casserole so to speak.

Frank J. Oteri: To reference somebody else you brought up earlier: Harry Partch. When you look at the range of percussion pitches and then you have a piano locked into 12-tone equal temperament, you only have 12 notes to choose from, which really shows its limitations.

Steven Schick: Exactly.

Specific Techniques

Frank J. Oteri: We spoke a little bit in the beginning about timpani versus other percussion. Do you play timpani? Is that part of your arsenal?

Steven Schick: Yeah. I play exclusively whatever is available. [laughs] I play anything that you can hit. But I don’t play timpani and timpani per se. It’s been some 30 years since I played timpani in an orchestra when I was a student. I was recently asked to play the Carter timpani pieces. Well, it was a couple of years ago. At first I said, ‘No, no, no, no.’ I was asked to play them in Europe which is even worse because the timpani tradition and the way timpani is understood is much more rarified there, especially where I was about to play. I said, ‘No, you really don’t want to hear me do that.’ [laughs] They said, ‘No, no, no. We do.’ So I relearned—I played them when I was a student—a couple of them to play and I really, really tried to play them as I thought a timpanist would play. I was not trying to reinvent the timpani. I was not trying to lay some kind of new spin on the timpani. I was really doing my best. Yet the responses were almost uniformly, ‘Wow! Who ever thought you could do that with timpani?’ And I was really actually trying to play the timpani as timpani. So it was an experience that made me realize that first of all I’ve moved quite far from at least a kind of pure approach to timpani, but I really loved playing it.

Frank J. Oteri: So, do you have favorite instruments?

Steven Schick: No… It’s really a little bit like asking which is your favorite kidney. I can’t, not even under the umbrella of just a guess that I wouldn’t be held to.

Frank J. Oteri: Well, to tie it all back to the beginning, the thing that is so amazing is not just that there are all these different instruments in your arsenal, but each one has very different techniques. So getting something right on a snare versus playing a four-mallet passage on the marimba, versus that devastating thing that you did with a siren in John Luther Adams’ piece, those are such different techniques. They’re not related at all.

Steven Schick: But I treat them all in the same way. I mean the siren is a great example. I went to Alaska to record all of the source material and we rented a siren from Carroll Music. Every time I’ve played that piece I’ve used the same siren. The source material produced this wonderful halo of electronic sounds, but because it was the same instrument, I could find the same pitches. So the problem in that piece, and it’s really quite difficult to play, is to be in tune with the computerized sounds because if you’re not really on these long arches precisely, it loses its sense of being centered. That’s a technique which was refined and demanding but which no one ever studies. I didn’t take a week out of my undergraduate percussion education to deal with a siren. It’s just something you have to learn. But that’s actually how I approach all of those instruments. I know the snare drum because I grew up as a drummer. I play Georges Aperghis‘s Le Corps Á Corps with a hand drum—I don’t know how to play the hand drum. I just learned how to play that piece. I play Javier Alvarez‘s piece for maracas—I never learned how to play the maracas. It’s just that you learn how to use those tools in that environment. I don’t play the maracas as an instrument. I couldn’t sit in with a salsa band, but I can use them as a tool for that particular piece.

Frank J. Oteri: Now, we’re at a crossroads in our musical history—it’s not even a question of classical versus pop because ultimately that’s a meaningless division—but in terms of mainstream music, something that gets spread across the board, to something that is so marginalized it exists only within its own niche. It seems that with CDs disappearing and with everybody downloading music to their iPods, soon people are only going to hear what they want to hear and may never be exposed to something that is outside of that box. Whether what they are listening to is Morton Feldman, Haydn string quartets, or Metallica, it’s equally frightening. I want to put you back on that airplane where somebody asks you what you do. How do we reach out to people? The kind of things that you and other percussionists are doing have an immediate tactile appeal. If somebody talks to you about it, they’re automatically fascinated. “Wow, you play the Glenfiddich bottle?” That’s interesting. That connects to other aspects of life that you would not normally associate with music.

Steven Schick: I don’t have a ready and glib response except that I do think that is something inherent in the percussive tradition—perhaps in other instruments as well, I just don’t feel qualified to speak to them—something that communalizes the experience. You see a mixing bowl on stage and suddenly you think, ‘Oh, I can do that, too.’ Chances are you could. Most percussion music is pretty straightforward with sometimes even easy ways of playing it. Flowerpots. You know, all these kinds of things that connect to other parts of life. There is the metaphorical element of percussion. The fact that on an oboe you finger and blow through a double reed, but a percussionist hits, strikes, mutes, slaps, brushes, whisks things—these are motions that have meaning outside of music. We have a huge access to world traditions, which people understand in one way or another. The thing I loved about percussion and that I think is its most potent tool is its sense of opening up a range of experiences to a community’s desire for interface. We have that as a possibility. You are right. I think the iPod phenomenon is a kind of insularising. One understands why that might be desirable. As an active practitioner of percussion, I decided in this moment of midlife-correction that it was not my goal or my job to be a missionary to make sure that everybody heard percussion music. I think that a lot of people probably don’t want to and that’s fine. But I did realize that I wanted to offer a maximally complex and rich experience on one side, and accessible and interactive on the other side. That’s really what I’m after. I think from that standpoint percussion is really practically the ideal tool.