The Schick Machine: One Man, Two Sticks, Tons of Percussion


If you go

What: ArtPower! presents Paul Dresher Ensemble: Schick Machine

When: 8 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 27

Where: Mandeville Auditorium, UC San Diego (Directions:

Tickets: $12-$46

Box Office: (858) 534-8497


By Lonnie Burstein Hewitt

To paraphrase an old commercial: How do you spell percussion? S-C-H-I-C-K.

That’s Steven Schick, distinguished professor of music at UC San Diego; founder and artistic director of redfishbluefish (the percussion ensemble that started life as a graduate course in new music performance); music director and conductor of the La Jolla Symphony & Chorus; artistic director of the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players; newly-appointed music director of the 2015 Ojai Festival; and master percussionist, who has appeared, sticks in hand, all over the world.

Schick has mastered all kinds of percussion, including gongs, cowbells, trashcans and brake drums — anything that makes a sound when struck, scraped or shaken. But the tops in unusual sound-makers has got to be the Schick Machine, which will be appearing — along with Schick, of course — Thursday, Feb. 27 at UCSD’s Mandeville Auditorium as an ArtPower! Special Event.

The Schick Machine is a mass of supersized instruments and sound sculptures like the Hurdy Grande, a grandiose version of the old European hurdy-gurdy, and the Peacock, a deconstructed pipe organ (originally found in a Sonoma community center) merged with a sunburst keyboard. All are the inventions of Bay Area composer Paul Dresher and his ingenious collaborators, Daniel Schmidt and Matt Heckert.

Dresher, born in Los Angeles and based in Berkeley, has an M.A. in music composition from UCSD. Strongly influenced by the musical traditions of Indonesia, Africa and India, he uses them as springboards for experimental operas and music theater performances, created in connection with his Paul Dresher Ensemble.

“A dream is a machine made out of different elements of experience,” says a disembodied voice at the beginning of “Schick Machine.”

As (fictitious) sonic inventor Laszlo Klangfarben, Schick moves around the instrument-filled stage like a dancer, striking, stroking and coaxing weird sounds from every object, a curious and graceful experimentalist happily exploring the riches of a mad, musical scientist’s workshop.

How did this dream machine begin? Schick said he first met Dresher about 10 years ago.

“I’d seen Paul’s work, and I had the idea for a full-length theatrical piece that wouldn’t involve ordinary percussion instruments. The whole process started in 2005, and for several years, I went up to the Bay Area to improvise and brainstorm with Paul and his group.”

Creating the piece was an adventure in itself. “Paul would bring in all kinds of instruments and we’d improvise with them and see what happened,” Schick said. “One day, Dan Schmidt brought in three circular garment racks, like metal hula hoops, and we discovered that when they spin, they make a sound that gets louder as they accelerate. We played with them for days; we had a competition. I’m quite sure I won, though the others might not agree.”

“Schick Machine,” commissioned by Stanford Lively Arts, had its premiere at Stanford University in 2009.

It was subsequently performed in Illinois and Hong Kong, had a three-week run in San Francisco and will go straight from here to UCLA.

The truth is, Schick can no longer be classified as “just” a percussion virtuoso. In “Schick Machine,” he is also an actor, and not for the first time: he did two acting-and-playing tours with a French circus company in 2003 and 2005, and recently commissioned a piece by a German playwright that he plans to perform in 2016.

Meanwhile, he is maintaining his busy conducting/performing schedule, and looking forward to being back with the Schick Machine. “If you’re not having fun when you’re doing this, you must be doing something wrong,” he said. “It’s really a fantastic show, and I mean that in a literal sense. After one of the San Francisco performances, a 7-year-old girl dragged her parents down to the front and said, all excited: ‘Behold the greatest instrument in the world!’ It’s a show that will appeal to the 7-year-old in all of us.”

A final enticement: at the end of each performance, the audience is invited onstage to interact with the instruments. Who could resist?