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.