Steven Schick: Ready for Anything

Specific Techniques

Frank J. Oteri: We spoke a little bit in the beginning about timpani versus other percussion. Do you play timpani? Is that part of your arsenal?

Steven Schick: Yeah. I play exclusively whatever is available. [laughs] I play anything that you can hit. But I don’t play timpani and timpani per se. It’s been some 30 years since I played timpani in an orchestra when I was a student. I was recently asked to play the Carter timpani pieces. Well, it was a couple of years ago. At first I said, ‘No, no, no, no.’ I was asked to play them in Europe which is even worse because the timpani tradition and the way timpani is understood is much more rarified there, especially where I was about to play. I said, ‘No, you really don’t want to hear me do that.’ [laughs] They said, ‘No, no, no. We do.’ So I relearned—I played them when I was a student—a couple of them to play and I really, really tried to play them as I thought a timpanist would play. I was not trying to reinvent the timpani. I was not trying to lay some kind of new spin on the timpani. I was really doing my best. Yet the responses were almost uniformly, ‘Wow! Who ever thought you could do that with timpani?’ And I was really actually trying to play the timpani as timpani. So it was an experience that made me realize that first of all I’ve moved quite far from at least a kind of pure approach to timpani, but I really loved playing it.

Frank J. Oteri: So, do you have favorite instruments?

Steven Schick: No… It’s really a little bit like asking which is your favorite kidney. I can’t, not even under the umbrella of just a guess that I wouldn’t be held to.

Frank J. Oteri: Well, to tie it all back to the beginning, the thing that is so amazing is not just that there are all these different instruments in your arsenal, but each one has very different techniques. So getting something right on a snare versus playing a four-mallet passage on the marimba, versus that devastating thing that you did with a siren in John Luther Adams’ piece, those are such different techniques. They’re not related at all.

Steven Schick: But I treat them all in the same way. I mean the siren is a great example. I went to Alaska to record all of the source material and we rented a siren from Carroll Music. Every time I’ve played that piece I’ve used the same siren. The source material produced this wonderful halo of electronic sounds, but because it was the same instrument, I could find the same pitches. So the problem in that piece, and it’s really quite difficult to play, is to be in tune with the computerized sounds because if you’re not really on these long arches precisely, it loses its sense of being centered. That’s a technique which was refined and demanding but which no one ever studies. I didn’t take a week out of my undergraduate percussion education to deal with a siren. It’s just something you have to learn. But that’s actually how I approach all of those instruments. I know the snare drum because I grew up as a drummer. I play Georges Aperghis‘s Le Corps Á Corps with a hand drum—I don’t know how to play the hand drum. I just learned how to play that piece. I play Javier Alvarez‘s piece for maracas—I never learned how to play the maracas. It’s just that you learn how to use those tools in that environment. I don’t play the maracas as an instrument. I couldn’t sit in with a salsa band, but I can use them as a tool for that particular piece.

Frank J. Oteri: Now, we’re at a crossroads in our musical history—it’s not even a question of classical versus pop because ultimately that’s a meaningless division—but in terms of mainstream music, something that gets spread across the board, to something that is so marginalized it exists only within its own niche. It seems that with CDs disappearing and with everybody downloading music to their iPods, soon people are only going to hear what they want to hear and may never be exposed to something that is outside of that box. Whether what they are listening to is Morton Feldman, Haydn string quartets, or Metallica, it’s equally frightening. I want to put you back on that airplane where somebody asks you what you do. How do we reach out to people? The kind of things that you and other percussionists are doing have an immediate tactile appeal. If somebody talks to you about it, they’re automatically fascinated. “Wow, you play the Glenfiddich bottle?” That’s interesting. That connects to other aspects of life that you would not normally associate with music.

Steven Schick: I don’t have a ready and glib response except that I do think that is something inherent in the percussive tradition—perhaps in other instruments as well, I just don’t feel qualified to speak to them—something that communalizes the experience. You see a mixing bowl on stage and suddenly you think, ‘Oh, I can do that, too.’ Chances are you could. Most percussion music is pretty straightforward with sometimes even easy ways of playing it. Flowerpots. You know, all these kinds of things that connect to other parts of life. There is the metaphorical element of percussion. The fact that on an oboe you finger and blow through a double reed, but a percussionist hits, strikes, mutes, slaps, brushes, whisks things—these are motions that have meaning outside of music. We have a huge access to world traditions, which people understand in one way or another. The thing I loved about percussion and that I think is its most potent tool is its sense of opening up a range of experiences to a community’s desire for interface. We have that as a possibility. You are right. I think the iPod phenomenon is a kind of insularising. One understands why that might be desirable. As an active practitioner of percussion, I decided in this moment of midlife-correction that it was not my goal or my job to be a missionary to make sure that everybody heard percussion music. I think that a lot of people probably don’t want to and that’s fine. But I did realize that I wanted to offer a maximally complex and rich experience on one side, and accessible and interactive on the other side. That’s really what I’m after. I think from that standpoint percussion is really practically the ideal tool.

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