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Percussionist searches high and low for inspiration

| Thursday, July 17, 2008

Percussionist Steven Schick embraces the wide world of sound, finding inspiration in unexpected places to explore the potential of the instruments he plays.

Schick and sound designer Sharokh Yadegari will have the City Theatre stage to themselves Friday and Saturday nights, when they are presented as the fourth weekend of Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble -- Theatre of Music concerts. The ensemble is taking two weeks to prepare for the world premiere on July 25 and 26 of the highly theatrical "Just Out of Reach," which will be taken on tour in August to the Fringe Festival in Edinburgh, Scotland.

The percussionist branched out this season, his first season as music director of the La Jolla Symphony and Chorus in California. "I'm a neophyte conductor but learning fast," he says. "I've had contemporary music on every concert" including the U.S. premiere of the Cello Concerto by Philip Glass, as well as the more traditional sounds of Ludwig van Beethoven and other standard-repertoire composers.

Schick, who teaches at the University of California, San Diego, says he's almost completely project-oriented as a percussionist and does almost no freelance work. He recently participated in a video documentary performance of John Luther Adams' percussion quartet "Strange and Sacred Noise" in the Alaskan tundra.

"Noise is the pejorative term for random sounds," he says. "But the sound of wind rustling through leaves is fabulous noise, which has an evocative and visceral connection to the outside world. When we recorded John's (percussion quartet), with bells and gongs on a summit, all of a sudden noise of the outside embraced it. It sounded like the piece had come home."

People not used to percussion music might find Schick's program is filled with much more contrast than they expect. Helmut Lachenmann's "Interiur I" calls for a very large setup of instruments, while Alvin Lucier's "Silver Streetcar for the Orchestra" is a triangle solo.

Schick says "Psappho" by Iannis Xenakis, written in 1975, is the most influential composition piece on the program. "This piece is like what (Jorge Luis) Borges said about (Franz) Kafka -- so important, he influenced people who came before him. It's a hallmark for Xenakis and a hallmark for percussion."

The Greek composer worked from the metric structure of poetry by the ancient Greek Sappho to create music that is big, complex and dauntingly difficult to play. Curious readers can check out Schick's performance of "Psappho" on YouTube.

But Schick also says everything on his program originates from the "Ursonate" of Kurt Schwitters, a German 20th-century visual artist. "Ursonate" is an early example of sound poetry, in which the sound of phrases, and whole and fragmented words, are used independently of their semantic meaning.

The percussionist didn't know that the "Ursonate" was performed in Pittsburgh earlier this season. It doesn't matter.

"Even if you heard it last week, this version will be quite different," Schick says. The word sounds he will say will become a "multimedia look at the idea of utterance. The text is a given," but computer processing by Yadegari will be "largely improvisational."

Additional Information:

Steve Schick and Sharokh Yadegari

Presented by: Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble -- Theatre of Music

When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday

Admission: $20; $10 for seniors; free for people seeing the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble for the first time

Where: City Theatre, South Side

Details: 412-431-2489

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