Steven Schick: Ready for Anything

Percussion and Pitch

Frank J. Oteri: You talked about beauty in the Czernowin, which raises the whole specter of melody. People tend to think of percussion as either pitched or non-pitched, having a precise pitch versus an imprecise pitch. We assume there are things you can do with percussion and things you can’t do with percussion. Do you feel that the imprecise pitch aspect of percussion has been something that has kept composers from thinking about writing for it?

Steven Schick: This is a distinction that we try somehow to find words for. I think we can agree to the issue of pitched and non-pitched percussion is an old-fashioned way of looking at things because percussion instruments have pitch. A tin can has a pitch. Now imprecise pitch is not a bad way of looking at it because sometimes those pitches are not very focused. Sometimes there seems to be a spread of pitch, but mostly I think the pitches are relatively focused even on instruments which you wouldn’t expect. A mixing bowl has a real pitch. The problem is that the pitches do not fall easily in a matrix of established language, so they can’t be treated.

So what do we do? The traditional way has been to say those instrument whose pitch has no utility on the staff are non-pitched and we use them as noises, which makes them automatically separate in individual cases. The great thing about pitched instruments like the flute, the oboe, the clarinet, and things like that is that they relate to each other on pitch. There is an enormous equivalency and correspondence, so that if A=B and B=C, then A can equal C. Just by virtue of speaking this common language you can get equivalencies across a broad range of timbre. Those equivalencies don’t exist in percussion, or they don’t naturally exist. I’ve really started thinking about all percussion as pitched. Sometimes those pitches have utility and other times they don’t.

An interesting thing, for example, is to take a piece like Ionisation, which is much debated because Ionisation is essentially a piece for noise and in the very end you have pitched material: you have the piano, you have the glockenspiel, you have the chimes. Why did Varèse do that? I bring this up because a lot of people thought Varèse did that to show by association that percussion is no longer this instrument of brute force. It wasn’t a blunt instrument anymore. It could correspond. It could exist in the same group as the piano, which is the kind of icon of respectability. So I asked Chou Wen-Chung what he thought about those pitched instruments at the end of Ionisation. He said immediately, ‘Look, they’re not pitched instruments, they’re just other kinds of noises.’ I thought it was fascinating, but then I began to think about it and I thought, ‘Well, no.’ I really feel in a way it was the opposite, that the snare drum was never a non-pitched instrument—that it acted as pitch in the context of all those other kinds of things. I think it’s really that their measurability, memorability, and utility don’t fall into the matrix of the staff.

Frank J. Oteri: What’s so interesting is that as you’re saying this, I’m hearing Ionisation in my head—and I’m hearing tunes! It does have melodies, throughout. What Chou Wen-Chung said about the end of it is interesting, because in a way there is less pitch content from the so-called pitched instruments. When the piano finally comes in, it’s playing chromatic clusters, but the snare drum in the beginning is a featured soloist with a clear line that is for all intents and purposes a bona fide melody.

Steven Schick: There’s the glock and the chimes to deal with, but I think you’re completely right. The piano at the end of Ionisation fulfills the function of the Hamburger Helper. It is the noise that binds everything together. It is the mushroom soup of the casserole so to speak.

Frank J. Oteri: To reference somebody else you brought up earlier: Harry Partch. When you look at the range of percussion pitches and then you have a piano locked into 12-tone equal temperament, you only have 12 notes to choose from, which really shows its limitations.

Steven Schick: Exactly.

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