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: Sing, 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.