Percussionist Steven Schick is a professor of music at the University of California San Diego and the artistic director of the La Jolla Symphony and Chorus and the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players. He was a founding member of the Bang On A Can All-Stars and is a major figure in contemporary classical percussion music, having commissioned or premiered more than 150 pieces during his career. He’s made numerous albums and written the book The Percussionist’s Art: Same Bed, Different Dreams. (Get it from Amazon.)
Schick’s latest album, Weather Systems I: A Hard Rain (get it from the label), inaugurates a series of recordings of percussion music that has been personally meaningful to him over the course of his career. This first set includes John Cage’s 27’10.554”, Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Zyklus, Morton Feldman’s The King of Denmark, Charles Wuorinen’s Janissary Music, Helmut Lachenmann’s Intérieur I, William Hibbard’s Parsons’ Piece, and Kurt Schwitters’s UrSonata, a collaboration with electronic composer and performer Shakrokh Yadegari.
I called Schick last week, and we talked about the recordings, about the nature of percussion music (classical and otherwise), and much more. Our conversation is below, slightly edited for clarity, as they say in the New Yorker.
These pieces are works for solo percussion, so if you set all the instruments up around you in a circle, say, can you play each one of them front to back? Or did they require a lot of overdubbing? Talk me through the process.
OK, if you exclude UrSonata, the piece for voice and electronic processing, which we do live but of course takes two people, all the pieces except for the Cage are just performed live and recorded almost in concert style. The John Cage piece is the exception to that, partly because of the way he composed the piece and the sort of aleatoric methods, which means that sometimes you get as many as 72 sounds per minute, and no one can really do that. So Cage, in the introduction to the score, says that the piece can be realized as a recording or with the assistance of a recording. So it’s kind of standard practice to do it as a set of overdubs, because it can’t actually be played by a single person at once. Otherwise, all of the pieces are just a solo performer playing them, as they would be in a concert.
How many different instruments did you play on this record, and are they all conventional instruments, or were some of them junkyard pieces or Harry Partch-style sculptures or anything like that?
Well, you know, I’ve done this so long that the notion of conventional instruments has really gotten kind of vague in my mind. So I would say that many of the instruments, especially on the Feldman and the Cage — those are the pieces in which I could choose my own instrumentation, my own set of instruments and sounds — many of those instruments would seem to people to be unusual. Found objects. I use…I mean, there are so many; the Cage has probably 200 or 250 instruments in it, and so there’s so many pieces of steel, and plates, and I use, you know, the glass dome to a cheese set, that you could put out for hors d’oeuvres, played and then lowered into water. A conch shell. Instruments played with superball mallets and things like that. So in those pieces, there would be a lot of things that the average person, even somebody who knows a fair amount about percussion music, might not necessarily think was an instrument per se.
I don’t know much about percussion music in the modern composition sense. I come more from the jazz world and the rock world, so I’m more familiar with the Art Ensemble of Chicago and Roscoe Mitchell’s piece The Maze, or the band Einstürzende Neubauten.
Those are extraordinarily adventurous pieces from the standpoint of sound, and you can’t comment with a broad brush about any of those things, especially with the Art Ensemble, but a lot of times what I see in sonically inventive improvisers is the unusual use of a usual instrument, where a lot of what — I hadn’t really thought about this, but let me say it and see if it’s true — you get the unusual use of usual instruments, and a lot of times in contemporary classical music you get the usual use of unusual instruments. People pick up the cheese bowl, but just play it normally. Whereas you listen to Gerry Hemingway play, or any number of improvising percussionists, and the kit looks the same but sounds that you just can’t believe are coming out of it. So that’s often done by new kinds of practices on traditional instruments. I know [Neubauten] quite well. In a lot of what I do, it comes from a different set of roots, but it feeds from the same aquifer as that. What they’re doing that I would have something in common with is the close miking of instruments, so you get in Einstürzende Neubauten pipes or something like that, but you’re hearing them almost from the inside of the pipe. So a lot of the sounds that you would hear in both of those pieces, but not exclusively those, would be sounds that an audience member sitting ten feet away wouldn’t necessarily be able to hear. So that’s the reason for the intervention of the recording studio in the first place.
How are percussion pieces scored, generally? Does it depend on the instrumentation? Like, a piece for marimbas would be written in conventional notation, but how does somebody score a piece that’s written for tuned gongs, or a bunch of hubcaps hanging on a rack?
I think that there are two ways of looking at the scoring. One is on the basis of the material, the sonic material, and that’s what you’ve mentioned. But there’s another kind of axis to explore, which is on the basis of, what kind of rhetoric does the piece have? Is it one in which the traditional values of classical music — in other words, play this right note at this right time — are holding? In that case, you’ll get a sort of standard-looking notation no matter what the sound source is. “Play this now, and play it this loud.” On the other hand, a lot of those pieces from the ’50s and ’60s, which are the ones recorded in this first recording, are asking the player to do something else. To invent a language from the materials given, almost as though you’re given a catalog of possibilities, or to… there’s no improvisation per se in any of the pieces, but there are a lot of moments in which the performer’s asked to compose part of the piece. And those pieces, because of their different stance relative to how much control a composer would have, a lot of those pieces will have different notational schemes and won’t look anything like traditionally notated music. So if you look, a simple Google image search on Stockhausen’s Zyklus will show that score and it’s wild-looking. It doesn’t look like a musical score at all. But that’s more because of how Stockhausen wants you to engage the process than the instruments themselves. Sometimes you get a score that needs to represent what an instrument can do. Usually it’s a mixture of what is the sound source, and what is the rhetoric — what is the nature of the encounter between composer and performer and piece?
And at the outer limits of that you have Fluxus-y scores where it just says, “Hit this and keep hitting it until you’re the last person in the room,” or something.
Yeah, for example. Or even, you know, Stockhausen was — I think this has got a lot of historical significance, but in the early Fifties, he was a complete control freak relative to notation, but by 1968 in his piece Aus den Sieben Tagen, he was completely intuitive; the score says, Imagine a tone, then produce it. I mean, that’s completely different from the amount of specificity you would have found fifteen years earlier in his music.
OK, so given the artists we’re talking about — Morton Feldman, John Cage, Roscoe Mitchell — can you explain to me the difference between indeterminacy and improvisation? Is it just rhetorical?
No, but that’s an amazing question, and it’s one that occupies a lot of people and has for a long time. In indeterminacy, this is my view, some aspect of the composition is not fully realized by the composer. Something is left undone, and with that comes an invitation to a performer to complete it in the way that that performer wishes to. An example would be The King of Denmark. All of the numbers of notes are there, you have to play seven high notes and you have a half second to do it. There’s nothing improvisational about that at all. But he doesn’t tell you what those instruments are. You, the player, have to [decide] that. So the indeterminacy is some aspect of an otherwise fully realized score. And when I think of improvisation, it feels to me, and of course these are terms that have so much nuance in them and so many different practitioners doing different things that we have to stand so far back that maybe this is a meaningless comment, but that improvisation is spontaneous composition where, especially if you’re talking about the people that we’re talking about, Cecil Taylor and people like that, where you are really making the composition in real time and fully realizing it at the moment, what I would get for example in the Feldman piece is a score which is just not complete in that way, which leaves some aspects not determined by the composer. I don’t know if that’s a distinction without a difference or…
I’m not sure either. Because to me, jazz improvisation is, I’ve written this much of the piece, you take it from here.
Yeah, that’s right.
Whereas the indeterminacy thing you’re talking about is, I’ve written this piece, but how you execute it is up to you.
And of course every single piece, just like every single improvising context, will have its own particular qualities. So the indeterminacy, for example, in the Cage piece is that he gives you four instrument groups — metal sounds, skin sounds, wood sounds, and everything else — and then he gives you a very explicit timeline, and you will know for example that at 47.5 seconds into the piece, you need a loud wooden sound. And then it’s up to you to construct that, to make that happen. So that does feel a lot like the kind of thing where you’re playing the head of a tune and you have to take it from there. It controls different kinds of things, and there are obviously really kind of deep cultural — there’s deep cultural significance to where those different roots tap, but I think you’re right, there is a lot of common ground there.
After I listened to your record, I went through my collection, and I have the Max Neuhaus album from 1968 where he performs Zyklus and The King of Denmark, and both of those are very different from your versions. I also have a version of Zyklus performed by Christoph Caskel from, I think, the 1950s. Can you talk me through the differences in a way that a regular person can understand?
Yeah. So, I know both of those recordings, but I will confess that it’s been a really long time since I’ve heard either of them. So I think what’s interesting about Zyklus is that the score is bound on a spiral. And so when you get it — I remember being just totally befuddled when I got this score, because there weren’t page numbers. I couldn’t tell what the first page was. And it turns out — I thought, I should read the directions — that you can choose any starting point in that, and you just play the piece from that point, and when you return to the point where you started, you play that note and you close the circle and you’re done. So every performer could play that piece starting in a different spot. And the score works both upside down and right side up. If you had it in your hand, you could probably see how this could work, and it’s a circular set of instruments, so if you hold it one way you move around the circle counterclockwise and if you flip it upside down you move around the circle clockwise. So from the very basic point of departure, there’s such an amount of performer choice that it’s unlikely [you’ll] get two performances that are even really very close to one another. Now I’ve played Zyklus for almost 50 years, so when I was a puppy starting out, I didn’t trust myself, so I’m pretty sure I started in the same place and going in the same direction as Caskel, just thinking, well, here’s an enduring performance, so I know I can’t go wrong if I do it this way. And I am not 100 percent sure that this is true, but I believe that it is. So probably my performance would sound to you more like the Caskel than the Neuhaus, which starts someplace else and goes in the other direction. So that’s the first big thing. And then, within the score itself, [it’s] almost like playing a game where you can choose a different pathway. Or maybe a better metaphor is like a mountain climber, you know you’re going from here to there and you’re offered three or four different pathways to get there. So every climber might choose a slightly different path to get to the same result.
The Kurt Schwitters piece, UrSonata, seems to have required a lot of work in the studio. How many layers of vocals are there? Plus there’s the electronics. But I don’t see how it’s a work for percussion, unless beatboxing counts. So tell me how and why it’s on this album.
Two really interesting things about that. First of all, that is a live performance, so there was no post-production electronic work done on that at all. My colleague, Shahrokh Yadegari, designed an electronic instrument that would allow us to — we have a couple of pre-existing sound files that can be played at different points. Like in the second movement, there’s a sort of vocal drone that we recorded separately and constructed beforehand, but when we play this together it sounds just like that in live performance. So just so you know, that’s all kind of front-loaded; none of that was done in post-production.
There are parts where he’s playing your vocals back to you, like looping a phrase and throwing it back at you.
Exactly. He can control when the loop comes back, and it’s actually a slightly more off-kilter algorithm than a straight loop. It comes back at different points and through different speakers and stuff like that. But that’s all within his control, and it can change from performance to performance. He plays that, he performs that part as I do. He composes the electronic aspect and performs it live in a way that you just heard. The question about why it belongs on a percussion CD is that to me, Dada and that piece in particular is the progenitor of all the found object stuff. Those are found vocal objects. They’re kind of discarded syllables and phonemes and there are some real words in it, but not very many, so it feels like what he was doing with voice is the same thing that Cage was doing contemporaneously, and Lou Harrison and composers like that, with percussion, where instead of syllables Cage was using tin cans and Harrison was using brake drums from cars and washtubs and things like that, but it comes from the same place of repurposing what society would declare to be useless musical objects. But that’s kind of the impoverished — in Italian you’d say the musica povera, the poor music of percussion. In other words, it doesn’t come out of the classical music aristocracy, it’s people picking up whatever they can and playing it in the way that steel drums arose out of discarded oil barrels, and the way American experimentalism came by walking through junk shops. To me it’s the real godfather of percussion.
This is the first of three releases, right? Have you already recorded all three, and what pieces are on the others?
Yeah, there may be more than three, but we’re sort of just going one after another. I am about 80 percent done with the second release, and the remaining releases, whether it’s three or more, will be oriented around themes rather than chronology. There are a couple of reasons that I wanted to do [these] early pieces [first]. Some of them have to do with the pandemic, but I [also] thought that the first recording would set the stage by presenting the kind of foundational works for contemporary solo percussion music of at least the kind that I’ve always played. Now the next ones will be really mixed chronologically and a much more diverse set of composers. So the second one is about language and land, so [it’ll be] pieces with speaking and percussion playing, and pieces inspired by relationships to the natural world. That’s the theme of the second one, and we’ll do one with electronics, and there may be more releases after that. but we’ll play this one at a time after that.
I’m gonna ask you to respond to something. There was a story on NPR’s website, a review of a new album by Third Coast Percussion, and there was an outcry because of the last paragraph of the piece, so it has nothing to do with the group or their music, but the writer and the editor allowed this sentence to go to print, and I just want to get your reaction. “The concept of percussionists playing as an ensemble, outside a symphony orchestra, is less than 100 years old.”
Ah. Yeah, you have to add a framing comment to that. Because of course… first of all, let me say I admire Third Coast greatly, I think they’re really brilliant percussionists of a younger generation, and what we often do, and we need to be careful of this, is presume that percussion begins and ends with the 20th century contemporary classical music, but of course as you know, ensemble percussion playing has been going on in West Africa for centuries, and likewise in Bali. Those are also percussion ensembles. And in many places, actually. Now, I know Rob [Dillon] and David [Skidmore] well, they would never claim that percussion music began and ended with Europe and North America. I know them well enough to know that. But we sometimes forget that when you play percussion you’re tapping into, again, a kind of aquifer of music that really stretches around the world, and the behavior of percussionists is remarkably similar, even if the cultural traditions are very different. In other words, the act of playing, of raising your arm and lowering it with a stick or with your hand, of creating sound in a particular way. So there is a lot more that connects us than separates us in that way, in my opinion. So if you simply add to that sentence “in the European context,” then the sentence is true. And it’s, by the way, barely true anymore, because the earliest percussion pieces are now almost a hundred years old. So I know that’s an enormous thing to have overlooked, but I suspect it came from an unreflective context that I don’t think is shared by the percussionists.