Steven Schick on New Noise and Old Friends

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A founding member of the Bang on a Can All-Stars and the adventurous percussion ensemble red fish blue fish, percussionist and conductor Steven Schick has been a major player in the contemporary music world for over three decades. His recent releases include albums of percussion music by Xenakis and Stockhausen, and the 2012 publication of a book on solo percussion music. Schick is a professor of music at the University of California, San Diego, and is currently artist in residence with the International Contemporary Ensemble.

Steven Schick writes the following of his Mixtape:

A listening list is a kind of autobiography.  It is a journal of one’s intimate relationships with music. Just like with people a relationship with music might be a momentary, in response to an opportunity, or a more intense rapport as the result of a critical moment in life, or if you’re lucky, a life-long affair of the heart. It was this last criterion – simple and rare – that steered my choices.

I heard Ionisation for the first time in the summer of 1974 while I was in the midst of a grueling tour with a pretty good regional rock band. Like so many pieces I eventually fell deeply in love with, my first experience was pretty rocky; the deluge of noise and what I thought at the time was “disorganized sound” nearly drove me away. Fortunately as a modest Iowa farm boy I presumed (mostly correctly) that if I found a piece of music too forbidding, dense, or complex to understand the fault was probably lay with me and not it.

If Varèse introduced me to sound, Xenakis introduced me to noise. The first pieces of his that I heard – from roughly the same time – were pretty raucous: Persephassa, Bohor, and soon thereafter, Psappha, a work I have subsequently performed nearly 800 times. I chose Thallein, here because I think it is the most catholic of the mature Xenakis pieces – there is nearly every kind of texture on offer here.  It is also close to my heart because of the many times I have conducted the piece with the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE).

Michael Gordon’s Industry is there for the same reasons:  it is a mixture of fresh noise and old friends. When Michael, Julia Wolfe and David Lang asked me to be the founding percussionist of the Bang on a Can All-Stars, a group that later seemed as much like family as professional collaborators, he set me on a path of discovery of new musical relationships. Industry was a concert staple in those early years, and if you ever heard Maya Beiser play it live, you’ll never forget it.

Finally in the world of old and dear friends, George Lewis has been a consistent if changeable element.  By changeable, I mean that our friendship has morphed several times over the years. At first George was my colleague at UC San Diego, then we worked together in a few improvising performance situations; he wrote a percussion solo for me called Northstar Boogaloo and I have written about his music. Finally, more recently, I have conducted and much of his work with ICE and with the San Francisco Contemporary Music players, of which I am Artistic Director. 

New noise and old friends.  It’s not a bad way to choose music.


Edgard Varèse - Ionisation (Asko Ensemble)
Iannis Xenakis - Thallein (Ensemble InterContemporain)
Michael Gordon - Industry (Maya Beiser, cello)
George Lewis - The Will to Adorn