September 20, 2011

Steven Schick on George Lewis’s “North Star Boogaloo”

Steven SchickSteven Schick has been performing often with ICE recently—perhaps you caught him last week, conducting & playing in Nine Rivers at Miller Theatre—and we're looking forward to further collaborations with the master percussionist in the season ahead. It's always a treat to work with Steve, but we're especially anticipating his solo performance of George Lewis's North Star Boogaloo in November, also at Miller Theatre.

digitICE is pleased to present an excerpt from Schick's book, The Percussionist's Art, about the genesis and performance of this incredible piece, written for him by Lewis.

The Percussionist's Art, Steven SchickExcerpted from The Percussionist's Art, by Steven Schick

"A Question of Belonging: North Star Boogaloo (1996)"

To say that I pestered George Lewis for the piece that eventually became North Star Boogaloo is not much of an exaggeration. Lewis, the brilliant composer, trombonist, improviser, music scholar, and technologist, was in demand. By 1996 our interactions together as faculty members at the University of California, San Diego, along with numerous performances together in various contexts, had led us to the point where the next logical step in our collaboration with each other was for George to write me a new percussion piece. There were the usual initial considerations—it was important to decide upon an instrumentation that was both rich enough to enable variety and limited enough to provide focus. There was also the issue of music technology. From the outset George wanted to combine a small percussion set-up—thus establishing a limited range of percussion sounds to be played live—with a technological system activated in real time that would radically multiply the number of available sounds including many nonpercussion sources. The idea was that sound files would be available for playback via pedal-activated triggers, or in our more elaborate discussions, through more interactive means like a computer with score-following capabilities. For a variety of reasons George opted for a straightforward arrangement of live performer and prerecorded tape. This decision obviously alleviated many practical difficulties of performances on tour. Beyond that it also answered the pressing question present in any piece of music for live performer and electronics: who is following whom?

Early works for instruments and electronics were almost invariably compositions for tape. (Exceptions include a small number of works for amplified and/or filtered instrumental sounds such as Stockhausen's Mikrophonie.) Tape was necessary because computer technology was simply not sophisticated enough to allow a flexible engagement between instrumentalist and electronics in real time. Electronic sounds that are fixed on prerecorded tape provided (and still provide) some undeniable advantages for the composer. He or she can work with tape as a sculptor might work with clay, actually shaping and constructing a sonic object that will be heard directly by a listener without the need for an interpreter. More than one composer has noted that by eliminating interpreters one also eliminates poorly prepared or shoddily executed interpretations. Using tape inevitably poses a trade-off though: composers gain control but lose flexibility. The best works in the tradition of percussion and tape—and I would include Stockhausen's masterful Kontakte as the first and still foremost of these—are coloristically rich, temporally precise, and formally provocative. But they are often rigid and unforgiving in performance—horrible duo partners in essence. The tape "plays" its part exactly the same way in each performance, no matter what the acoustical qualities of a given hall or the emotional perspectives of a given performance may be. The performer must always follow the tape (although in good performances, players find a way to suggest that the tape is following the live playing).

Creating a more flexible interface between electronics and performers through real-time music technology allows the electronic part to "listen to" and engage with the live performer as a real duo partner. However, there are still limitations. Real-time electronics operate on the paradigm of transformation: a sound must first be played in order for it to be modified. In essence the electronics then necessarily follow the performer (although in good performances the performer can find ways to signal shifting fore- and background relationships so that it sounds as if the electronics are leading the live performer[s]). In many recent works a combination of preconstructed sound files and real-time modifications of performed sounds can combine leading and following roles.

The use of tape in North Star Boogaloo ensures that the performer will follow the electronics. But here the question of who follows whom becomes not just a practical detail of performance with electronics, b ut a critical component of the expressive axis of the piece as well. North Star Boogaloo is based on Quincy Troupe's poem by the same name, and unlikely as this may first seem to be, it examines the relationship between the North Star and basketball. The North Star has played a central role in celestial navigation in this hemisphere literally for ages. And more to the point of George's piece, the North Star was the singular guiding light that led slaves to freedom as they escaped the plantations of the South and headed north. Basketball as a modern-day North Star beckons to many, especially to young African Americans, who have seen it as a beacon to the kind of freedom that comes from fame and affluence.

So in North Star Boogaloo the player follows the tape. This must be the case. The electronic sounds would no more react to the actions of a performer than the sky would reconfigure itself according to the needs of a navigator. Fur the rmore the percussionist, as follower, has only a few sonic opt ions at his or her disposition. These include five basic skin instruments ranging in size from tambourine to timpano, as well as a small bell and a rain stick. To the contrary, the tape part, as sonic template and spiritual map of the piece, is packed full of possibilities. There are hip-hop beats, quotations from basketball players and commentators, sound effects and, at center court, Quincy Troupe reading his poem. Against the rich variety of the prerecorded sounds, expanded into multilayered complexity through looping, multitrack recording, and lightning-fast edits, the live percussion can sound simple and quotidian. The player can seem like a small point lost somewhere on a giant map. But herein lies the beauty of North Star Boogaloo: ordinary people can locate themselves in the giant map of the universe. We can navigate vast spaces and effect dramatic transformations in life if the simple tools available to all of us can be wielded with skill and steadfastness. It's all a question of sharpening the tools and learning to use them.

In North Star Boogaloo a principal tool of performance lies in the intimate correlation of the rhythms of language and the rhythms of drumming. The need for drumming to follow language and to engage the consequential linkage of, in Troupe's words, a "poet's word dribble" and "a drummer's paradiddle," is a major guiding force in the piece. In order to push the ordinary percussion sounds towards the sonic complexity of the voice, I expanded the vocabulary of the drums to include colorful, almost noisy, versions of the consonants, fricatives, and labials found in speech. A normal note on a drum that in Elliott Carter would mean "a not e" might be represented in the music of George Lewis by the click of a stick, a buzzing overpressured stroke, or a bent pitch produced by elbow or stick pressure on de-tuned tom-toms. Of course this was hardly my idea. Great jazz drumme rs have been doing this for generations. Players like Tony Williams and Roy Haynes seemed always to have unde r s tood that great jazz drumming was more about an incantatory than a purely rhythmic experience. An "incantatory experience," that is to say an encounter with performed rather than written or casually spoken language, relies on the use of inflection to create meaning. That is to say that sense and expression devolve not j u st from the meanings of the words per se b ut from the contour of vocal phrases, the sonic qualities of the voice, and even the sense of the proximity of the speaker. The jazz crooner who seems to whisper in our ears and the shouting rapper both maximize the incantatory qualities of language and communicate effectively wi th the voice far beyond the mere meaning of words. In North Star Boogaloo word and drum stroke, as expressive equivalencies, must be interchangeable. In purely technical terms the percussionist must mirror the inflections of the spoken language on the tape by creating a supple and fluid fore- and background sense in performance. On the smallest scale the percussionist must be able to represent the attack and proximity of consonants as well as the indistinct and swallowed sounds of diphthongs. But fluidity of inflection applies to rhetoric on a larger scale as well. In North Star Boogaloo there is vigorous assertion and whispered aside. Any percussionist who wants to play it has got to be able to mumble as well as shout.

Information management poses another challenge for a performer of North Star Boogaloo. There is so much happening at any given moment—percussion playing, Quincy Troupe reading his poem, hiphop beats in both 4/4 and 3/4 meter, Michael Jordan saying "I feel like an artist when I create" (with Charles Barkley in rebuttal, "I don't want to be like Mike"). Inevitably a certain amount of chaos is built into the piece, but desensitization is a bigger problem than messiness. The piece is nearly fifteen minutes long, and there is a real danger that the initial burst of energy—the saturation of colors, rhythms, and effects—cannot be sustained and might eventually lead to exhaustion and numbness. This means that the percussionist must use "effects" sparingly. A decelerating double-stroke roll on tambourine that accompanies broadcaster's voice announcing, "there's the finger roll and the foul" happens twice. To prevent this gesture from losing its effectiveness it must not be repeated verbatim. My solution was to play down the second instance of the tambourine roll in order to recreate it as a brief recollection of the first. Likewise, the moment of greatest density of materials—a beautiful passage with a drum-machine track and live drumming that amplifies a description of a Roy Haynes drum solo—must be played for all it is worth. But this inevitably means that no other section should be rendered so vividly. Interpretative strategies in North Star Boogaloo require spending a performer's capital of passion and engagement slowly and carefully.

The flood of musical and cultural information in North Star Boogaloo is both appealing and challenging. It pushes the percussionist towards a multifaceted interpretation in order to bridge the large number of disparate elements in the piece. As a performer of North Star Boogaloo you are the link between words, rhythms, sound effects, and the poignant metaphor of the piece as a search for liberty and communality. Can any single performer be all of these things? I found that I could not. On one hand I was very comfortable with the tasks of the piece. I liked the challenge of imitating speech sounds on the drums, and I was also well prepared to tackle the work's more difficult polyrhythmic passages. Pieces like To the Earth, Toucher, and Le Corps a Corps had prepared me for mixing language and percussion sounds. And frankly, ever since I learned Bone Alphabet, even difficult polyrhythms have not posed serious problems. On the other hand I felt uncomfortable playing along with the hip-hop rhythms on the tape, which, at least in the cultural context of 1996, had been almost the exclusive province of African American musicians. (A bigger problem yet was how to look and act during pauses in the playing while the taped hiphop music went on alone. How should I act when there are no tasks?) Likewise my passing acquaintance with the drum set left me insecure with the imitations of jazz drum solos in the piece. What was I doing up there playing this music? In one sense I took comfort and confidence from the fact that George Lewis had written the piece for me, and if he had thought it was inappropriate for me to play this music he certainly would not have given it to me to play. I must confess, however, that in my first few performances I concentrated on the aspects of North Star Boogaloo I felt most comfortable with. In their essence my first performances were strong on defensibility. I didn't try to do anything that I wasn't expert at. But what constitutes expertise in a piece about searching? You can be expert only if you have already found whatever you are looking for (or know how to find it). So the aspects of North Star Boogaloo that were about searching, aspects of the piece in which I could never be expert, slowly began to beckon. In an early performance of the piece at Lincoln Center as a part of the Bang on a Can Marathon, I had a sudden flash of the image I was presenting: a white middle-aged, classically trained percussionist intently focused on accurately rendering hip-hop rhythms to a mostly white, mostly middle-aged audience. I was Ward Cleaver in a pick-up game of basketball on a Harlem playground. That sudden feeling of not belonging, of never being able to belong, made me feel momentarily ridiculous and, later, profoundly sad. You see, after my performance was over I went back to being an expert percussionist playing music I was expert at. 1 knew where I was, where I was going, and exactly how I was going to get there. I had only momentarily dipped my toe into the waters of not belonging, of never belonging. I didn't actually have to live there. But in my moment of cultural vertigo, which came from feeling like an outsider, I felt the fear of being lost and glimpsed the pull of the North Star. For this reason George taught me an important lesson on a personal level. On a musical level North Star Boogaloo made me realize more strongly than ever that exploration and comfort would never be conveniently mated. I also began to wonder about the nature of expertise. Could the desire to be expert ever be compatible with the search for new forms of musical and personal expression?

For those of you in Chicago, be sure to catch Schick with ICE in just two weeks, when he conducts Chance Encounters concert on the MCA Stage!