PROGRAM NOTES: An Evening With Steven Schick
by Steven Schick
…and what did you hear, my blue-eyed son? I heard one hundred drummers whose
hands were a-blazin’ - Bob Dylan from A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall
I have spent my life trying to understand geometry. When I was a boy the world seemed gridded, contained: One square mile of Iowa farmland, a section of 640 acres. My brother Ed and I walked long rows of soybeans on hot summer days, picking buttonweed. Back and forth, reversing direction when we reached the end, since the usable world lay only inside the limits of the field. A farmer squints at the horizon, but he would never try to go there.
Later when I heard violinists and cellists talk about “becoming one” with their instruments, I thought that they too were farmers, embracing a geometry that turned inward. But percussion was different. Contemporary percussionists don’t have an instrument; we have thousands of them. And though we might hold a special gong or drum close, the way a cellist would her cello, becoming one with a tuned saw blade or a suspended brake drum could be perilous. Indeed, much of what we play is junk: frying pans, steel pipes, hunks of wood—not the reassuring objects of the known musical world, but totems of an unmapped exterior.
As I walked those long rows of beans, I imagined continuing the line, breaking through the boundaries. By the end of summer I could be in Denver, maybe California by Christmas. This new geometry—the long straight line—became my model for percussion. Moving beyond the bounds of the known and cultivated, a percussionist plays gongs, cymbals, cowbells, and bongos and thinks nothing of laying hands on four distinct musical cultures. But a string quartet of violin, mandolin, sitar, and rebab flirts with culturally dangerous terrain. Percussionists think externally. We don’t expect the world to conform to music; we expect music to conform to the world.
Eventually the long straight line became more than a metaphor. One day, in the most purely Forrest Gump moment of my life, I simply began walking. I left my house in La Jolla and headed north. Along the way, I bought a backpack, decent walking shoes and a hat. I had two motivations. The first was to listen to the entrancing noises of the California coast, from the rush of wind and water to rat-a-tat irrigation systems and the droning of traffic. I walked through Camp Pendleton and heard the laughter of school children mingle with the booms of cannon-fire. I passed the Lotus Eaters of Orange County, walked through the multi-lingual cacophony of south Los Angeles, and hugged the shoulder of Highway 1 along the Big Sur coast to San Francisco. The other motivation was personal. The night I arrived I took my girlfriend Brenda to a restaurant (with valet parking) and proposed.
How permeable are the boundaries between music and life! As we waited for Brenda’s car I remembered a small post-concert dinner in June, 1988 at the Warsaw apartment of Józef Patkowski. Patkowski had been president of the Polish Composers Union in the darkest days of Soviet occupation and had fostered a lively musical avant-garde in spite of enormous resistance. Our conversation about the role of music in the stormy politics of that fateful summer was mirrored by flashes of lightning on the horizon. For a while we simply listened to the storm approach. Then Patkowski slapped the table. The food was ready, he said. Let’s talk about life now, not art. Then he threw his head back and laughed as though such distinctions were absurd. And the rains came.