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The ‘Philosopher King’ of Percussion Starts His Next Chapter

SAN DIEGO — Since its first performance, in 1976, Iannis Xenakis’s “Psappha” has been at the core of the solo percussion repertory.

Not that it really had competition: When it premiered, a repertory for solo percussion barely existed. But “Psappha” shook the nascent field with its tension between flexible instrumentation and rigorous beat, between stark rhythms and kaleidoscopic colors. The 14-minute piece, in which the player presides over a sprawling array, came across as a strikingly modern abstraction of an ancient ritual, teetering between sober and ecstatic.

Steven Schick managed the precarious balance between those two qualities as he recorded the pounding final minute on a recent afternoon in a studio at the University of California campus here, where he has taught since 1991.

“Not even my 20-year-old self could have done that,” said a smiling Schick, 68, over the control room speakers when he was done. “That was pretty good.”

Renowned for the ease and lucidity with which he handles the piece’s polyphonic intensity, Schick had already recorded it for a Xenakis collection released in 2006. But this new take will become part of “Weather Systems,” a multialbum project setting down his latest thoughts on a body of work he has commanded for nearly half a century. The opening installment, “A Hard Rain,” which compiles some of the foundational pieces he learned when he was starting out as a musician, was released on Friday.

The series might seem, at first glance, like a nostalgic farewell to these works. After all, as his sweat and heavy breathing when he finished the recording session made clear, percussion is, more than most instrumental music-making, a young person’s game.

But after a foray into conducting — his tenure leading the La Jolla Symphony and Chorus, which began as something of a lark and lasted 15 years, is ending in June — Schick is focusing anew on solo performance.

“My percussion playing was saved by starting to conduct,” he said in an interview on the patio of his home in La Jolla. “The repertory is not that large. ‘Psappha’ I’ve played a thousand times. So I was really on the verge of burning out.”

It was a renewal cemented during the pandemic.

“I didn’t miss conducting,” he said. “And I actually didn’t really even miss teaching in person. I certainly didn’t miss playing concerts. But it was like an itch to practice. It felt like being 19 or 20: not learning these pieces because I had a concert, just doing it because I wanted to.”

“Weather Systems,” then, is part textbook, part scrapbook, part lockdown diary, part communion with his younger self, part accumulation of new works. Looking to his past and sketching his future, it is intended as the magnum opus of a figure the composer Michael Gordon has called “the philosopher king of percussion music.”

Schick was born in Iowa, growing up first on his family’s farm, then in a small town nearby. (“A Hard Rain” alludes to the precipitation that obsesses every farmer, as well as to the deluge of the pandemic.)

“The elementary school band teacher sent home an instrument list for the parents to decide what their kids would play,” he said. “And at the top were the ones I wanted: violin, and French horn sounded kind of exotic. But down at the very bottom was drums, with an asterisk that the parents didn’t have to buy the drums, just the sticks. And my mother was frugal; I was the eldest of five.”

So a drummer he became, playing in marching band and some rock ’n’ roll groups. What classical music he knew was from his mother, a talented amateur pianist. She took him to see the New York Philharmonic on tour — Seiji Ozawa conducting Debussy’s “La Mer.”

“And I thought, Whoa,” Schick recalled. “I just knew that wasn’t the marching band.”

Planning to become a medical doctor (his father’s aspiration before farming), Schick soon transferred to the University of Iowa, where an influx of money from the Rockefeller Foundation had established an unlikely hotbed of contemporary music. When he was asked by the pianist James Avery, a faculty member, to work with him on Stockhausen’s “Kontakte” — a long, raucous electroacoustic classic created in the late 1950s — Schick was thrust into the heart of experimental music.

“It was the moment there was no turning back,” he said.

With a talent and work ethic that allowed him to memorize huge amounts of complex music, Schick swiftly stood out for his magnetic, theatrical performances, notable as much for the movement, almost choreographic in its fluid elegance, as for the sound.

“You have to imagine the 1980s,” said Gordon, one of the trio of composers who founded the collective Bang on a Can. “People came onstage to play contemporary music with the music pasted on huge pieces of cardboard. It was: ‘I’m doing very serious work; this is very hard; this music is very complicated.’ And Steve, from the beginning, what really shocked everyone is that he decided he’s not playing anything unless he plays it by memory. And once he was freed from having to have the music, he’s an incredibly dynamic performer.”

Bang on a Can brought him on as a founding member of its All-Stars chamber ensemble, a new challenge for a solo specialist. Establishing himself in San Diego, where he turned his class of graduate students into the touring ensemble Red Fish Blue Fish, he continued to be the rare artist equally interested in the complex tangles of Brian Ferneyhough and Charles Wuorinen; the open-ended spareness of Morton Feldman and John Cage; and the Post-Minimalist rock inflections of Gordon and his cohort.

All these styles come together in “The Percussionist’s Art,” his 2006 book that is a kind of memoir in music: poetic and thoughtful, but without stinting on detailed measure-by-measure advice for his fellow performers.

“He wrote about these pieces in the same way I would hear pianists talk about the classic pieces in their repertoire,” said Ian Rosenbaum, a member of the quartet Sandbox Percussion. “He wasn’t talking about them in terms of sticks and the technical things; he was talking about them in terms of feelings and emotions. It was a dimension of interpretation that I had never really considered before.”

Schick developed a reputation as a player whose technique could handle any obstacle. “Any reasonable composer would think: This is Steve Schick; he can play anything; I’m just going to write a virtuoso showpiece, and every impossible thing I can think of,” said John Luther Adams, a close friend and collaborator, who wrote the suite “The Mathematics of Resonant Bodies” for Schick in 2002.

“I did exactly the opposite,” Adams went on. “I gave him this piece which requires a kind of Butoh virtuosity, this nearly frozen slow-motion virtuosity.”

Schick, of course, took it in stride and made it his own, as he does with almost every musical dare. Lacking enough hands for an old Bang on a Can piece, he figured out that he could attach sleigh bells to his ankles and dance the part.

He has filmed performances without audience in the Arctic tundra and in misty Canadian mountains, and, four years ago, led the San Diego Symphony in a stirring interpretation of Adams’s “Inuksuit” at the U.S.-Mexico border, with musicians on both sides. He will play in Tyshawn Sorey’s epic, glacial “Monochromatic Light (Afterlife)” this fall at the Park Avenue Armory, having participated in the premiere at the Rothko Chapel in Houston in February.

“Weather Systems” is being released on the Islandia Music Records label, founded by the cellist Maya Beiser, another close friend and a fellow founding member of the Bang on a Can All-Stars. “I knew I wanted to do a big project with Steve,” she said. “It worked out perfectly that he was in this moment in his career when he wanted to refocus on his solo work.”

A collaboration with the audio engineer Andrew Munsey, “A Hard Rain” is a meditative two hours of music, with the dark resonance of a cave — and, in Kurt Schwitters’s “Ursonate,” a flood of Dada babble. Next up will be an installment of radio-play-type pieces for speaking percussionist by George Lewis, Vivian Fung, Pamela Z and Roger Reynolds.

And, further in the future, an album including “Psappha.” Schick’s new recording recreates the situation of his practice studio on campus during the pandemic, when limited space meant that hanging gongs surrounded his setup for the Xenakis. The result is a barely audible but palpable shimmer around the beats that bleeds into the pauses — a subtle heightening of the ritualistic nature of the piece, and an indelible record of Schick’s life over the past couple of years.

“Steve is really the god of a certain kind of percussion playing,” said Sarah Hennies, a player and composer who studied with him in San Diego. “The music of ‘Psappha’ is ecstatic and transporting and powerful. But the way Steve plays it, it doesn’t feel like he’s showing off, which is what a lot of people want to do.”

And Schick has grown only more economical in his gestures, the distribution of his energy.

“All these percussion solos from that period of time were written for young, acrobatic people,” he said of the “Hard Rain” collection. “So the question is, what does an aging body, but a more experienced body, have to offer? And it turns out I’m a better player than I was. I don’t waste any time.”

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