5 Questions to Steven Schick (2015 Ojai Music Director)

Keeping up with 2015 Ojai Festival Music Director Steven Schick is no easy task. Schick leads a multi-faceted career as an acclaimed percussionist; Distinguished Professor of Music at University of California, San Diego; Music Director of the La Jolla Symphony and Chorus; Artistic Director of the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players; Artist in Residence with the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE); and more. He brings all these interests to bear on the 2015 Ojai Music Festival program he has organized. We caught him between gigs to get the lowdown. 

Ojai will begin this year with a Pierre Boulez 90th birthday tribute; how has your relationship to his music evolved?

I came to the music of Pierre Boulez relatively late in life. My early passions leaned more towards the Germans (Beethoven and Stockhausen) and American experimentalists like Varèse and Muddy Waters. Boulez didn’t compose much music for percussion. But when I began to conduct, I found myself attracted to the complexities of his treatment of time. Nearly the first piece I conducted was his Le Marteau sans Maître, a work that has more conducting and rhythmic problems in each dense page than in an entire orchestral concert of standard repertoire. I realized in Marteau, and later in the Improvisations sur Mallarmé, that Boulez thought of time in two ways simultaneously: the first was exacting and vertical (concerned with when precisely a given note happened) and the other, fluid and horizontal (more concerned with how a given note related to what comes before and after it). I thought that maybe the former expressed his modernity and the latter his “French-ness.” How wonderful that musical time can describe both when you live and where you come from.

Your Ojai program has such variety, much of it involving you directly; how can there be so many Steven Schicks?

When I was a music student in the mid-1970s everyone told me I had to choose. The question for all of us was what kind of musician you were going to be—a classical or jazz player; a composer or an ethnomusicologist. But somewhere along the line we musicians realized that we didn’t need to choose. You get to be more than one kind of artist, if you want. With that freedom in mind, my interests have diversified. Now I play percussion, conduct, experiment with theatrical forms, and write. The beauty of the Ojai festival is that it affords me a platform for everything. I’ll perform around thirty pieces of music in four days from solo percussion music I have commissioned, to a theatrical recitation of Kurt Schwitters’ Ursonata, to conducting works from Boulez to Julia Wolfe. Oh, and not to mention For Philip Guston, a 4½ hour meditation for flutes, piano, celeste and percussion by Morton Feldman. Only at Ojai!

Which composers have had the greatest influence on your career?

Oh, I can never choose which composers are most important to me. The living ones are friends, and the pieces we make together are the totems of evolving friendship. The music is like amber: it captures the particles of life as it hardens into concert works. When I play John’s (Luther Adams) music, part of the experience for me is how sound and memory collude to create art. With the composers I didn’t know, maybe the question is even harder. But I can say that a life without Varèse or Xenakis would be unimaginable for me.

How does it feel to bring so many of your friends together to make music at Ojai this year?

The greatest joy of Ojai is to be able to share it with my friends. My oldest and dearest friends, from Maya Beiser to Roland Auzet, to Rand Steiger to John Luther Adams, to my Bang on a Can friends, are the bedrock of my personal life. More recently, but no less intensely, there’s ICE and Claire Chase, flutist extraordinaire and force of nature. New work with Kate Hatmaker and Renga is there along side older friends Lei Liang and Wu Man. I just know I am forgetting someone! Then there are people who may not know how important they are to me, personally as well as musically: Pauline Oliveros, Julio Estrada, George Lewis. I guess if you do it right the difference between art and friendship ceases to exist.

Steven Schick (photo: Bill Dean)

Steven Schick (photo: Bill Dean)

Roots and Rhizomes is a recurring theme in how you approach your work; how does this metaphor resonate for you?

As I have interpreted the ideas of Deleuze and Guattari and applied them to my work, roots are forces of tradition, of anchoring, of continuity. I think of the thousands-of-year-old traditions from Northern India or West Africa and the grounding effect that has had on my practice. Rhizome is a stand-in for rupture in the socio-historical field, the sidelong trajectory that seeks unconventional connections—just as a real rhizome in a plant like grass or bamboo does—shooting off in directions never foreseen by the roots. These two ideas, one that helps us link to our pasts, and the other that shows us how connected we are to places and ideas we never imagined, have become a talisman for me. Gustavo Aguilar suggested Roots and Rhizomes as the name for the percussion course I direct at the Banff Center for the Arts. It’s a great name for a course, but more importantly, these ideas are present in my daily life and practice.

Ongoing and Upcoming: 

Ojai 2015: The Beat of The World – The Art of Percussion; 4-part online video course starting May 11, 2015

69th Annual Ojai Music Festival, June 10-14, 2015, in Ojai, California

Ojai at Berkeley, June 18-20, 2015, University of California at Berkeley