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classical music

Justin Davidson on Steven Schick’s Unbeatable Percussion

International Contemporary Ensemble performs an all-Pauline Oliveros program at the Clark Studio Theater as part of Mostly Mozart Festival on Tuesday night, August 20, 2013.

This image:
Steven Schick performing "Concerto for Bass Drum and Ensemble."

 (Photo by Hiroyuki Ito/Getty Images) Steven Schick at work.

Percussion music is surely as old as consciousness — born as soon as someone took pleasure from the sounds of pebbles clattering on rock or the thwack of flesh on flesh. The solo percussion recital, on the other hand, is only a handful of decades old. That meeting of timelessness and modernity has shaped the life of Steven Schick, a wizard of skin, wood, and metal. On Thursday, at Upper Manhattan's Miller Theater, Schick began a dazzling two-concert traversal of the entire history of solo percussion and quickly blew away any notions that it’s an expressively limited medium. (He performs part two, consisting of recent works, on Saturday.)

Most musicians listen to other musicians; percussionists train themselves to hear music in every noise. When Schick describes his peak sonic experiences, they include: listening to the wind on his family’s farm in Iowa; absorbing the soundtrack of Manhattan’s streets on a walk from Morningside Heights to Sullivan Street; and hiking from San Diego to San Francisco in order to listen to the coast.

Onstage, Schick is constantly forming landscapes in sound, and he covers an unimaginably varied terrain. Iannis Xenakis’s Rebonds is a savage mountaintop ritual; Morton Feldman’s The King of Denmark is a distant world of rustles and whispers. The highlight of the first half was Vinko Globokar’s Toucher. To perform it, Schick had to first select instruments that, when struck, produce sounds evoking spoken vowels. Then he recited from Brecht’s play The Life of Galileo (in French translation), accompanying each syllable with the corresponding tap of his fingers. That all sounds unbearably pretentious, but the piece is really a vehicle for Schick’s spectacular, and sometimes comic, dexterity. The objects spoke and the French devolved into funny percussive phonemes, so that the whole thing came off as eloquent gibberish.

Globokar’s music dominated the second half as well, with Corporel, a work that the percussionist plays on himself. Schick, a lean 60-year-old who moves with a deliberate, yogic grace, stripped to the waist and transformed his body into an orchestra of mouth clicks, rough caresses, slaps, knocks, and groans. Yes, the piece is sexually suggestive, and yes, it’s okay to laugh, but Globokar and Schick also take the medium back to its birth and remind us just how rich the music of the earliest percussionists must have been, even before they thought to beat on something other than themselves.

Schick’s concert series concludes on Saturday night at Miller Theatre.

Photo: Hiroyuki Ito/2013 Hiroyuki Ito