Steven Schick drums up sonic adventure on double album ‘A Hard Rain’

Steven Schick, a 2014 Percussion Hall of Fame inductee, performs on nearly 200 instruments on his new double album.
Steven Schick, a 2014 percussion Hall of Fame inductee, performs on nearly 200 instruments on his new double album.
(Hiroyuki Ito / Getty Images)

What do Stevie Wonder, Paul McCartney and Todd Rundgren have in common with acclaimed percussion master, orchestral conductor and UC San Diego music professor Steven Schick, a 2014 percussion Hall of Fame inductee?

Stylistically speaking, very little. But Schick’s new double album, “Weather Systems I: A Hard Rain,” places him alongside them in at least one way.

Each of the three pop music legends has recorded landmark albums on which they perform all or nearly all of their instrumental and vocal parts singlehandedly.

Schick does the same on “A Hard Rain,” which will be released Friday, May 20, though he goes them one better — or to be more accurate, many times better.

Wonder, McCartney and Rundgren have performed on as many as a dozen instruments on some of their one-man albums. On “A Hard Rain,” a dozen instruments is the fewest Schick plays on any single selection. He plays nearly 200 instruments on one of them.

Steven Schick's new double album, "Weather Systems I: A Hard Rain," will be released Friday, May 20.
(Courtesy of Islandia Music Records)

“A Hard Rain” will be available digitally and in physical form through New York-based boutique label Islandia Music Records, founded by cellist and producer Maya Beiser, who met Schick decades ago. She gave him the freedom to make his latest solo release exactly as he wanted.

A highlight is Schick’s reinvention of Kurt Schwitters’ nearly 32-minute opus, “Ursonata,” which features interactive technology designed and performed by UCSD music professor Shahrokh Yadegari. The instrumentation by Schick is entirely generated by his voice, as words, vowels and consonants are elongated, compressed and reconfigured with a finely calibrated mixture of exacting accuracy and improvisational fire.

Percussionist Steven Schick
Percussionist Steven Schick performs last year during the Fresh Sound concert series.
(Christian Hertzog)

For those thinking “A Hard Rain’s” title is an homage to Bob Dylan, think again. The title stems from Schick’s experiences growing up on an Iowa farm, not from Dylan’s classic song “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall.”

The double album also features percussion compositions by esteemed composers such as Karlheinz Stockhausen, Morton Feldman, Charles Wuorinen and Helmut Lachenmann. Each was pivotal for Schick as a young musician, and they remain so today for him at age 68.

The COVID-19 pandemic shutdown in 2020 provided unplanned time for Schick to woodshed on the exotic array of percussion instruments he keeps close at hand in his garage studio.

He decided to revisit some of the pieces he first studied and played decades ago as a rising solo percussionist. Schick performs them anew on “A Hard Rain.”

“In the lockdown, I quickly found that what I missed most was not the excitement of the stage but the rituals of the practice room,” he writes in “A Hard Rain’s” liner notes. “Perhaps the exactitude of practicing was a necessary antidote to the chaos of the historical moment. So, in a version of the Hindustani chilla katna, which prizes solitude and reflection over execution and accomplishment, I relearned the art of practicing, tentatively at first and later more probingly.

“With no concert to prepare for, practicing was released from practicality. ... My goal was simple: to strengthen what served the emotional and physical language of my art and to discard what did not. The preparations for this recording of the foundational works for solo percussion, many of which I have played for nearly 50 years, ignited an intense dialogue with my much younger self, the percussionist in his early 20s who had learned this music in the first place.

“I was curious: How did that young percussionist make essential decisions? Why as a near beginner did he choose to play the thorniest and most difficult works of the modernist repertoire? How did he decode unconventional notation? Why did he take this approach, at that tempo, with those mallets? And what did he imagine his future to be?”

Steven Schick
Steven Schick interacts with Daniel Rozin’s “Wooden Mirror” at a 2021 La Jolla Music Society SummerFest concert in the Baker-Baum Concert Hall.
(Courtesy of La Jolla Music Society)

The album was recorded between January and April 2020 in UCSD’s Studio A. It represents the start of the next chapter for Schick, who at the end of June will end his 15-year tenure as music director of the La Jolla Symphony & Chorus.

To mark the occasion, the symphony is creating a fund to establish a $10,000 annual prize in his name.

May 18, 2022

Between Wednesday, May 18, and Saturday, May 21, he will host, perform and give the opening address at the Transplanted Roots Percussion Research Symposium at UCSD.

Schick has already nearly completed his next album, which is set for release in 2023. It will feature music composed by Iannis Xenakis, George Lewis, Pamela Z, Vivian Fung, Sarah Hennies and UCSD professor Roger Reynolds, who won the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for music. ◆