Saturday, September 24, 2016

Paul Dresher’s “Schick Machine” Begins its Run at Z Space

Last night Z Space hosted the first of four performances of Schick Machine, a music theater production that, while only about an hour in duration, is awe-inspiring in both its concept and the realization of that concept. A synthesis of monodrama and recital, the piece was created for percussion virtuoso Steven Schick under commissions from Stanford Lively Arts and Meyer Sound Labs. The creative team involved Schick collaborating with composer and artistic director Paul Dresher, writer and stage director Rinde Eckert, instrument inventor Daniel Schmidt, mechanical sound artist Matt Heckert, and lighting and visual designer Tom Ontiveros.

Eckert’s note for the program book suggests that the narrative behind the monodrama was inspired by Labyrinths, the New Directions anthology of both stories and poems by Jorge Luis Borges. The stories have uncanny brevity. In a few pages Borges could summon up a logical paradox or absurdity, play with it, and then pull the rug out from under the reader, often through a self-mocking conclusion. New Directions probably chose the title because Borges could pack innumerable twists and turns into even his shortest tales.

Such twists and turns became an inspiration for Eckert. As he put it, reading Borges was “when Lazlo Klangfarben came to mind, or rather Steve Schick as a man unable to remember Steve Schick who has named himself Lazlo Klangfarben, but still has all of Steve Schick’s memories. Klangfarben, as opposed to Steve Schick, is an inventor. His latest brainchild is something he calls the Schick Machine, after a percussionist whose name he dimly recalls.”

Over many years of collaboration with Dresher, Eckert has created a variety of characters with fragile, and often frightening, mental states. Schick Machine is probably his most convoluted creation to date. The “machine” is not so much a moving device created for some work process. Rather, it is an entire environment that fills the Z Space stage with a panoply of objects capable of producing sounds when struck, rubbed, pushed, or simply allowed to resonate. Indeed, to go back to Eckert’s inspiration, the stage itself is a labyrinth of such objects within which Schick, the percussionist dimly recalled by Klangfarben, engages his music-making practices, probably involving a combination of “scored” activities and improvised ones. Off to the side of this environment, Dresher sits at a table with a laptop running Max/MSP software, primarily to capture samples of Schick’s performances and direct them to the Meyer speakers mounted above the stage, thus creating an environment in which Schick is playing with the accompaniment of his own memories.

The visual impact of the stage is as stunning as the percussion performance. Size matters, whether in the form of an enormous colored circle of organ pipes (orange for C natural, yellow for the “white keys,” and brown for the “black keys”), a koto whose length takes half the stage, or a four-foot spinning disc mounted off-center and looking as if it will fly off its axle at any moment. There are also many metallic and wood ranks of organ pipes, provided courtesy of the Sonoma Community Center; they are played by a rotating metal cylinder with bolts sticking out of it, a latter-day version of how the mechanical organs of Mozart's day were programmed. Then, there are the more familiar objects, such as hoops and a tea kettle that whistles when the water boils. Finally, there are a variety of metal and wood items that look as if they would not be out of place in an orchestral percussion setting.

Steven Schick in performance (image courtesy of the Paul Dresher Ensemble)

Within this rich environment Schick ambles around, occasionally checking blueprints and frequently looking as if he is haunted by some sense of foreboding or malaise. At least that is the way he appears until he starts being a percussionist. Then everything converges into a highly focused personality whose sharp sense of rhythm enables intricate exercise of the dual semantics of “play,” both musical and ludic. The “message” (scare quotes added for caution) seems to be that, however plagued a mental state may be, identity may still be found in the act of making music.

Schick Machine will be given three more performances at Z Space. They will take place today both in the afternoon and the evening and tomorrow (Sunday) in the afternoon. Following each performance the audience is invited to the stage for closer inspection of the instruments. Tickets may be purchased online from an OvationTix event page.

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