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Schick is the founder, artistic director and performer for the group red fish blue fish that in 2007, produced a stunning three-CD set of the complete percussion works of Iannis Xenakis, a revolutionary figure in modernist music. After Schick took over as music director of the La Jolla Symphony and Chorus in 2007, he continued the commitment of his predecessor [Tom Nee, who died a month ago]. Imaginative programs combine traditional and new music; living composers show up regularly for performances. Schick opened the season with music from John Luther Adams and the American premiere of Philip Glass’s cello concerto, a performance that Glass attended. Schick featured Adams again in May of this year, with the composer present. A week later, Alex Ross, arguably the nation’s best music writer, profiled Adams in The New Yorker, describing him as ‘one of the most original musical thinkers of the new century.” Schick had recorded Adams’s songs in “The Mathematics of Resonant Bodies” in 2006. In June, Schick collaborated with Adams for a film about the composer’s music, work that will continue this summer.
Schick’s performance creds are prolific. He was the percussionist of the Bang on a Can All-Stars of New York City, which specializes in risk-taking new music, from 1992-2002 and from 2000 to 2004 served as Artistic Director of the Centre International de Percussion de Genève. He has premiered more than 100 compositions in major series at Lincoln Center and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Schick has recorded many of those works for both large and independent labels like SONY Classical and Mode.
Schick is also a teacher: Distinguished Professor of Music (the only percussion professor) at UCSD and Consulting Artist at the Manhattan School of Music. This summer he is teaching at Sundance and in Barcelona. He has been a regular guest lecturer at the Rotterdam Conservatory, and the Royal College of Music in London. Schick’s book, ‘The Percussionist’s Art: Same Bed, Different Dreams,” was published by the University of Rochester Press in 2006.
This summer, you can catch Schick at La Jolla Music Society’s SummerFest. Schick and red fish blue fish will perform works by Christopher Rouse, on Aug. 8 at the Birch North Park Theatre. On Aug. 14, he’ll lead the La Jolla Symphony Orchestra in a free outdoor concert at La Jolla Cove.
Schick’s office at UCSD is jammed with cool stuff. A couple of vibraphones dominate a collection of bells, chimes, drums, and striking sticks and blocks from around the world. For an interview, Schick commandeered a nearby conference room that looked like a Staples showroom — except for a piano, which, he reminded a visitor, is a ‘hammerklavier” in German, a percussion instrument.
For most people, ‘percussion” means drums, noise. When you fell in love with drums, how did your parents respond?
I started playing in the school band so I did most drumming out of the house. When I was in high school, my parents bought a drum set for me. Then my mother, God bless her, let me practice in the living room. I thought I was going to be a doctor, and I spent a year as a pre-med student. I did a lot more practicing of percussion than studying biology. After my first year, the decision was made by a C- minus in biology; I switched to music.
At SummerFest, you’ll be performing on a program that ranges from the ethereal music of Huang Ruo, to the somewhat romantic sounds of Kaija Saariaho and the richly textured works of Christopher Rouse and Steven Mackey. What 20th and 21st century sounds are we listening to here?
I don’t think the sounds at SummerFest themselves are much different from the sounds of the 19th century orchestra. No theremins or lap-top musicians. The contemporariness of them will be heard mostly in the harmonic language. I haven’t heard the pieces. I imagine if Brahms is mother’s milk for some listeners, there will be more dissonance.
Steve Mackey is a tonal composer to a large extent. A piece by Steve Mackey sounds like music; you’re not looking at Martians or people who eat their young. Contemporary music is changing. Music of the 50s and 60s had a harsher sonic and harmonic landscape than that of today. A lot of that comes from pop music. Some comes from a less adversarial relationship between contemporary music and music of the past.
Rouse’s pieces are older works, from the 1970s, and global influences are up front.
We were asked to play these pieces. We’ve never played them. They’re well-known pieces and I’m grateful for the opportunity to play them. They show the influences of non-western music at an early date. That’s where all the earliest percussion writing comes from — fusing cultures. But this is not emblematic of issues I’m daily concerned about.
Then where are you putting your energies?
The world of contemporary percussion playing is so recent that one of my concerns is a responsible curatorship of it. I’m older than the oldest solo percussion piece, which was written in the 1950s. So we’re a very new art form. That’s what leads me to teaching, writing and recording.
I’m interested in making music, finding alternatives, outside the commercial pathways of classical music. We recently made a film of John Luther Adams’ music in the tundra. We played it in the middle of the night for four people. To my deathbed it will be the greatest musical experience of my life: just sitting in the dark, watching the sun set and listening to John’s music being played for no one.
I’m also interested in community music-making. We don’t live in the world, we live in a place, and we need to nurture it. My interest in the La Jolla Symphony is to work with musicians who come from here and make it a locus for my creative work.
At SummerFest, the new music is segregated into a single concert rather being distributed among the other concerts. That’s true for jazz, too, and the series has Russian, French, Brahms and Messiaen evenings.
This is my 10th, 12th time with SummerFest, and I’m glad to be there. I don’t find any value in segregation. It’s marketing. But it’s an indicator to people: we’ve done our thing with contemporary music but you don’t have to come. Also, it’s at North Park, miles from La Jolla. You can’t avoid contemporary music. You can’t understand Beethoven if you don’t hear the new music.
Recently, Gustavo Romero played Beethoven’s ‘Waldstein” sonata in his Athenaeum series. It’s from the 19th century but certainly not of the 19th century. The audience went wild. What is new music telling us about composers like Beethoven?
The ‘Waldstein” is edgy, propulsive, full of information. Beethoven lived in a time of uncertainty, war, technological advance, a time of change. You’ll hear these qualities in Steve Mackey’s music. Maybe people are using Beethoven as a soma — an anesthetic — that makes them believe the world is not changing as fast as they think it is. People think of classical music as the thing you hear when you go to Peet’s. It’s non-confrontational, the token of being educated or respectable.
Like all contemporary music, Beethoven’s music was part of the intellectual language of its time. By refusing to deal with contemporary music, there’s a certain intellectual cowardice, because we’re refusing to deal with the issues of our time. They’re frightening, yeah. They always are. In the world of music we cut contemporary music off and set it adrift. No other art does it. Music seems to be some precious thing we don’t want to disturb. I don’t get it.
Across all genres, percussion has become a dominant element for modern music, whether it’s rock, hip hop, or fine art music. How has this expansion happened? Did it start with rock?
Art music — including jazz — really led the way with drum set playing and musically coherent performances in a chamber concept. In terms of contemporary music, I date it from ‘Ionisation,” by Edgar Varese in 1931. Then there was a kind of explosion in the 30s and 40s. Early rock music didn’t have much percussion. It really happened in the 60s. The growth of percussion in rock music was much later than the growth of percussion elsewhere.
Under Tom Nee, the La Jolla Symphony and Chorus grew into a showcase for ‘uncommon music.” A few other orchestras are following suit. Is that the formula now, for getting audiences to listen to new works?
Yes, orchestras — Los Angeles and Minnesota are conventional symphony orchestras — are turning to contemporary music as a path to commercial success. [That’s aside] from niche orchestras like the American Chamber Orchestra [which feature new music]. As for the kind of contemporary music, I’m not dogmatic. There’s contemporary music that sounds modern, and there’s contemporary music that sounds beautiful, open and tonal. You can have contemporary music that’s not just a test of whether you can take it. It’s not our job to give litmus tests of contemporary music purity.
SummerFest runs Aug. 1-24 at Sherwood Auditorium and other venues. For full performance and ticket information, call 858.459.3728 or go to http://www.ljms.org. La Jolla Symphony and Chorus opens its season at UCSD’s Mandeville Auditorium on Nov. 1.