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American percussionist Steven Schick releases “Soundlines (On Language and the Land)”, the second CD in his “Weather Systems” trilogy.

American percussionist Steven Schick (Iowa, 1954) released Soundlines (On Language and the Land) at the end of 2023, the second CD in the Weather Systems series, which he began releasing in 2022 on the Islandia Music Records label, and which is scheduled to conclude in 2026 with Weather Systems III: It’s About Time.

The new recording, Weather Systems II: Soundlines (On Language and the Land), consists of eight contemporary percussion works –Psappha by Iannis Xenakis, The Ice is Talking by Vivian Fung, Soundlines (A Dreaming Track) by George Lewis, Trans by Lei Liang, To the Earth by Frederic Rzewski, Toucher by Vinko Globokar, Here and There by Roger Reynolds, and Thought Sectors by Sarah Hennies- and lasts almost three hours.

As can be read in the album’s liner notes, written by Schick and available on Islandia’s website, Soundlines (On Language and the Land) is an echo of Schick’s 2006 journey on foot along the 1,125 kilometres of the Californian coast between San Diego and San Francisco. The journey had, Schick explains, a sentimental motivation beyond sound and music. “Although my walk from San Diego to San Francisco began as an exploration of sound and sonic cultures, it soon shifted to a more important goal. I was in love and I wanted to marry my girlfriend Brenda, who was living then in the Bay Area…  I was full of music but also full of love—for her and for the land I was crossing to reach her. The California coast may not have been the wine-dark sea of Homer, but for me it was the pathway to a future where music served life and not the other way around. With this realization, I did not minimize the position of music in my life, but rather safeguarded it. For those who wonder how Brenda answered my proposal: We have been married for 16 years.”

Soundlines (A Dreaming Track), the thirty-minute title track of the album, was composed in 2019 by George Lewis, and is the story of Schick’s seven-week journey to propose to his now-wife. Lewis composed it as if it were a “radio monodrama”: Lewis used Schick as a percussionist-pianist in a kind of technological operetta, reciting and musically elaborating Schick’s own writings about the journey. The narrative is divided into short scenes punctuated by overlapping interactions between musical, sound and visual elements, also featuring saxophonist Erin Rodgers and the International Contemporary Ensemble. The scenes include recordings of gasping vocalisations, echoes of a choir, synthesiser and chamber ensemble sounds that mark the passage of time and distance. Field recordings and ensemble music echo the mental landscapes and spaces suggested by the spoken text, while Schick intervenes with an impressive array of instruments: tambourine, guiro, gourd, hand drums and mallet percussion. Schick explains that “George Lewis has told my story in his extraordinary Soundlines, a work for talking percussionist, ensemble and electronics, using a narrative I wrote as the basis of his libretto. From happy-go-lucky beginnings – the day I started walking north – through moments of crisis and the realisation of a dream, George created a radio play, a Hörspiel, which in the German tradition is both light and dark; family entertainment and high drama. It included details of conversations along the way, a list of the Native American tribes whose lands I traversed on foot, and my own ever-present inner monologue. Soundlines points not only to the mechanics of a long walk, but to the imperatives of a pilgrimage as a process of cleansing and reconciliation, marking the boundaries between how things had been and how they could be. George Lewis is one of the great creators of our time, as composer, author, advocate and teacher. No wonder that in Soundlines he captures the ecstasies and sorrows of a long walk more clearly than the walker himself.”

Psappha is one of two works for a single percussionist (the other is Rebonds) composed by Xenakis, whom Schick called “the father of modern percussion music” in his book The Percussionist’s Art: Same Bed, Different Dreams. It makes sense that Psappha is the opening piece on this disc, as Schick has performed it live more than a thousand times and recorded it on another occasion, in 2006, for a complete set of Xenakis’ percussion works, released on the Mode Records label.

The work was written in 1975 and premiered the following year. Xenakis left the choice of instruments to the performer, but subjected them to almost impossible challenges, such as performing up to 25 beats per second at the climax. Schick quotes the Japanese pianist and Xenakis specialist Aki Takahashi: “If Xenakis’ music were really ‘impossible’, why do so many of us play it?”

The Ice is Talking, by Canadian composer Vivian Fung (Edmonton, 1975), is a work for solo percussion and electronics that Fung composed in 2018, alarmed by the enormous changes she perceived in the Columbia Icefield, the largest glacier below the Arctic Circle in the Canadian Rockies, when she revisited it twenty years after her first visit. On his website, Fung explains that the work is a moving reaction to that experience: “At the start, it is a celebration of the elements, taking in the beauty of a blade gliding through ice, the taps and swishes of ice being shaped into virtuosic rhythmic patterns that speak through interjections by the performer. As the piece progresses, the piece becomes more and more violent, and the instruments reflect the rage and intensity of the protagonist, with a power drill, ice picks and stabbing motions reflecting the realization of human’s ill effects on the natural landscape. It ends with dramatic flair in the hope of raising awareness to the world around us.”

As for Trans, by the Chinese composer (naturalised American citizen) Lei Liang (Tianjin, 1972), it is a work commissioned in 2013 by Steven Schick himself, which Liang gave him the following year, dedicating it to him on the occasion of his sixtieth birthday. Trans would mean “transience”, “transmute”, “transcribe”, “transfigure”, “transform” and “trance”. The soloist performs the work from three staves, each of which reflects a state of mind: the “outer space” (outwardly expressive), the “inner space” (inwardly contemplative) and the “still space” (at the same time totally engaged and detached). The difference and contrast between the three spaces are to be articulated by choice of instrumentation, interpretation and performance presence.

To the Earth is a 1985 work composed by the American minimalist composer and pianist Frederic Rzewski (Westfield, Massachusetts, 1938-Montiano, Italy, 2021). The work is for percussion on four tuned pots, in which the percussionist must simultaneously perform a poem based on a Homeric text in praise of Mother Earth. This is also a regular piece in Schick’s repertoire, and he performs it as a musical offering in which he strikes patterns, sometimes simple, sometimes complex, that accompany or embellish the text.

Toucher, by the French-Slovenian composer and trombonist Vinko Globokar (Anderny, 1934), one of the leading representatives of aleatoric music, indeterminacy and free improvisation, asks the musicians who perform his work to “think about the score before beginning to play”, because, from the mental process, they must develop gestures that produce the sound. These gestures can be very complex and require a great deal of speed, dexterity and sensitivity. However, the resulting virtuosity is purified of purely mechanical elements through the filter of the intellect. His pieces employ a variety of extended techniques. In Toucher, composed in 1973, the performer narrates a story while simultaneously playing syllabic patterns on a percussion ensemble. The nine-and-a-half-minute work is quite spare, with a relatively sparse range of percussive strokes alternating with the speaking voice, and takes its title from a French translation of a dialogue from Bertolt Brecht’s play Life of Galileo. The syllables are translated into sounds that can be played on a set of seven unspecified instruments, while the performer recites the words. Tempo – a vital structural component in percussion music – is governed by the rhythms of language.

Here and There, by the American Roger Reynolds (Detroit, 1934), is also a work for speaking percussionist, composed, in this case, in 2018. Schick and Reynolds are friends; the percussionist proposed to him in 2017 that he compose an extended work for “speaking percussionist”. Here and There is half an hour long, and Reynolds looked for the spoken part to a Beckett book, Texts for Nothing, from which he chose number IX, out of thirteen, to provide an intriguing base, taking the voice beyond “speech”, fusing it with the sounds of percussion. In the text there is someone indeterminate who hopes to find “a way out, somewhere”. In the piece, the “here”, as Reynolds explains, identifies “a local positioning that challenged and contained”, while the “there” offered “a liberating alternative”. “Here” is represented by a bass drum, a tam tam, a large güiro and three small metal objects of the performer’s choice. “There” is performed with a vibraphone.

“The soloist,” as Reynolds explains, “is asked to respond to three kinds of challenges: delivering the text with only occasional colorations by unusual vocalizations of percussive events, performing simply as a percussionist, and (these are called Arias), sections that closely blend text delivery and percussion.”

Here and There was written in close collaboration between Reynolds and Schick, who urged the composer to pursue whatever he was imagining rather than limiting in any way the nature of this work. The piece is, of course, dedicated to Schick, who premiered it on 27 February 2019 at the Conrad Prebys Concert Hall at the University of California, San Diego.

Finally, Thought Sectors, by American Sarah Hennies (Louisville, Kentucky, 1979), is the last work on the album, and is by far the most recent – it was composed in 2020 – and the longest: almost 58 minutes in length. Schick says of this work that it features “details normally too small to be distinguishable in the cascade of faster moving music begin to come alive.”

Composed for solo percussionist, Thought Sectors explores the constant tension of ‘divided consciousness’ – a term coined by psychologist Ernest Hilgard who theorised that the human brain is divided into distinct components rather than a single unified consciousness – challenging the listener’s experience of comfort and familiarity through altering one’s sense of space and time, accentuating the extremes of audible and inaudible listening. Hennies has explained that she had begun composing the piece before the covid-19 pandemic began. Having faced serious mental health problems, Hennies has claimed not to know how she made the artistic decisions for his composition: “I truly don’t remember and perhaps this is analogous to the vast portions of our brains to which we have no direct access,” she said in the programme handout for its premiere, which took place on 18 May 2022 also at the Conrad Prebys Concert Hall at the University of California, San Diego.

Thought Sectors relies on distressingly slow and static repetitions of moving materials, woven between microtonal passages of vibraphones and bells, while pivoting towards the melancholic sonorities of a stapler, a sieve for sifting flour or a water jug.