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 choreography—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.