Steven Schick: Ready for Anything
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 these 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.