Encounter between Steven Schick and
Percussionist, conductor, and author Steven Schick, for more than forty years, has championed contemporary percussion by commissioning or premiering more than one hundred-fifty new works. He is artistic director of the La Jolla Symphony and Chorus and the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players. Steven Schick is Distinguished Professor of Music and holds the Reed Family Presidential Chair at the University of California San Diego. (see www.stevenschick.com)
The interview is about John Luther Adams’ Inuksuit (2007), which was performed under the direction of Steven Schick in January 2018, on the border between Mexico and the United States, with the musicians equally divided between the two sides of the border “wall”.
To begin with, it should be noted that John Luther Adams is not known at all in France. Could you give us an idea of who he is?
I know that he is not known, because when I gave a master class on “Manifeste” for the 70th anniversary of the Centre Pompidou in Paris, I proposed this Inuksuit piece, and they didn’t know it. So it is not a surprise that you say that. John Luther Adams is a composer who at an early age moved to Alaska instead of pursuing more traditional routs to success as a composer in the United States. And he lived there for – I do not know exactly – for about 25 years. And he still has his own studio in the Alaskan forest, but he does not live there anymore. He now lives in New York and often also in the desert in Chile. Even though he no longer lives in Alaska, I think this notion of space in his music is still completely part of his language. And he was early interested in establishing relationships between music and nature in a personal way, with some dramatic pieces: in his play Earth and the Great Weather, there are things that could actually be staged, and quite a number of shorter solo pieces, etc. About 7 or 8 years ago, he started writing much bigger forms, orchestra pieces and large ensembles and quite a lot now written for orchestra and very large choirs. This seems to be kind of a big change, first of all not only in his usual music, but also in his recognition, that brought him to the attention of a much bigger public. The critical moment that marked this change was probably the piece Become Ocean. I’ve worked with him for a very long time: he wrote a piece for percussion, Mathematics of the Resonating Body in 2002, and then I co-commissioned a piece for a chamber ensemble, Become River, and also a piece for the La Jolla Symphony, Sila, to be performed outdoors. (see www.johnlutheradams.net)
Looking at the video, it was difficult for me to imagine what this Inuksuit piece was all about.
No, I am sure, I think that’s a fairly short visit.
Could you describe how it works?
Inuksuit was written in 2007 and I think the premiere took place in 2009 at the Banff Center (Canada). It is written for 9 to 99 percussionists divided into three groups, so it is multiples of 3 in relation to the forces that can be solicited. In addition, there is a small group of piccolo players who can come and join at the end. The 3 groups of percussionists start from a central spot, then the first group leaves this place and starts to move outward in space, making some wind sounds – with megaphones, and different things like that, so breathing sounds. The second group has tubes that it spins in the air to make wind sounds and other kinds of things. The third group does something else. Gradually the three groups move to their spaces, and then the piece starts with a set of interactions between the groups. So group A would start with something that will trigger a response from group B and group C. Everybody plays their individual parts and so there is that kind of shifting overlay of these textures, which starts soft, and reaches very loud levels with drums, sirens and gongs, and things like that. And then, at the end of the piece, which is about one hour long, gradually all the percussionists come back to the center. The piece ends with again with wind sounds and bird songs. I think the New Yorker’s video shows a sequence that happens towards the beginning of the piece, which makes it seem like it’s just a bunch of scattered elements. But when you listen to the piece over the large scale, you’re going to hear these big waves of sounds and events that propagate out in space.
All the performers have independent parts?
They have independent parts and stopwatches.
So it is not conducted?
It is not conducted, and in fact you don’t really need a stopwatch, because you just need to know the sound signals that cue trigger events. One person from group A – that was often me – gives the starting cue to go ahead in it.
Is the composer’s intention to develop a situation in which amateur musicians coexist with professionals?
Not really. I think that the different instrumental parts require professional musicians, even in group A, which is the easiest with conk shells and triangles (groups B and C are actually difficult parts). I think that sometimes the piece is played by student percussionists and local amateurs. It’s something that will work for example in some Michael Pisaro’s pieces. But that doesn’t really work for John’s piece, which is really much harder to play. Even though I don’t think it’s very difficult for professional musicians, it’s certainly difficult for amateurs. That’s what the piece is all about, and so I had the idea of doing it on the border with half the musicians playing on the Mexican side, and the other half on the US side – normally the piece is played in one place – but in the meeting at the center where the piece starts and ends, then the border runs at the middle of the musicians. There were 35 percussionists on one side and about the same number on the other side, about 70 in all, and then you kind of radiated around in the space. On the Mexican side of the border, the park extends along the border but is reduced in width, so they could not move very far from the border, but they moved in length. On our side (United States) we could move farther from the border. So we were in the presence of a sort of strange shape, but despite everything we could hear each other, we could hear the cues very clearly crossing the border back and forth. But this concert almost didn’t take place…
Because of the border?
Because of a lot of things, but it has to be said that Border Patrol – I think it’s really important to say this – was very supportive. Not everybody, but there was a group of Border Patrol agents without whom the piece could never have been presented. Did you go to the Friendship Park, down the border (where the concert took place)?
I never been there, but I know about it.
When you go to visit it, it doesn’t look very friendly, especially on the US side it does not look friendly at all. But when I started thinking about doing this concert, someone from Border Patrol said to me, “If it rains, you wouldn’t be able to do the concert”. And I said, “OK, it makes sense.” But what he meant by that was that if it ever rained before the concert, the roads would be flooded and impassable. And so there was rain in the days before the concert and they said, “you can’t go, the roads are all closed”. I thought, “My God!” So we tried to consider all the solutions: we thought we could put the instruments on a pick-up truck and drive it along the beach. But the Border Patrol insisted that if we tried to do that, the pick-up truck would be stuck in the sand and it could catch fire, etc. I then thought that if we can get enough people, we would have everybody carry an instrument, we would be able to play the piece with a minimum of instruments. Now it was a two-miles walk, it was never going to work. But then at the last minute – and actually after we decided to cancel the concert – a Border Patrol agent with whom we had developed a good relationship said, “Look, this seems a nice idea: there’s an unofficial paved road that no one is allowed to use except Border Patrol; but if you come at 9 a.m., we will open it for 10 minutes, and you can drive your instruments in.” That’s what we did, so the audience had to walk the two miles on the beach. I think there were between 300 and 400 people on the US side, and about the same number on the Mexican side. And the great thing was at the end of this piece – the music fades out, so that you are really never sure when the performance is over, there’s a silence, and then there’s another little bird call, and then there’s more silence, and you wonder if that’s the last sound in the piece. So there’s a lot of stillness at the end of the piece – and then, when the applause started at a certain point on the U.S. side and not yet on the Mexican side, then they responded and we stopped, and it went back and forth for about five minutes, and that kind of ovation was so amazing. So this was that piece. It was good!
What was the origin of this project? Was it a collaboration with the San Diego Symphony Orchestra?
Yes, I mean they asked me to curate a percussion festival, and I told them that I didn’t want to do it, because a percussion festival didn’t seem really appealing to me. I suggested instead a festival about places, rhythm and time, and they thought it was a good idea. In addition to the concerts in the concert halls there were concerts all over the area. And so, yes, it was part of the festival and it was my idea. But the orchestra didn’t have very much to do with that particular concert. They certainly were part of the planning of it, but very few symphony players played in it. Then, there were concerts here, there were concerts in Tijuana, there were concerts all over the place. And we presented a new version of Stravinsky’s L’histoire du soldat using a text by a Mexican poet, Luis Urrea, instead of Ramuz text: a text called “The Tijuana Book of the Dead”, which is very beautiful.
And was John Luther Adams present?
He wasn’t here for that, no.
You had some contact with him?
Yes, quite often. Even while we were doing it. We sent him pictures.
I guess it wasn’t the first event or collaboration you organized between San Diego and Tijuana, or between California and Mexico?
Of course. We have done several projects: I had a long partnership with the Lux Boreal Dance Company in Tijuana, and with Mexican musicians, and the band Red Fish Blue Fish played there regularly. And in addition, as you know, there are the concerts that I personally give in Mexico. But in terms of organization, these are the most important projects. And I’m going to organize the festival again in 2021 and I think I’ll continue to organize collaborations with both sides of the border.
And you have a lot of students from Mexico?
Yes, that’s true, but saying “a lot” is probably not true. The most important one was Ivan Manzanilla – did you know him?
Yes, I met him in Switzerland.
Now I see him quite frequently. He came from Mexico with six of his students to perform John Luther Adams’ piece. He wrote me a text the night before, he said, “My students have never been on an airplane!”
So, do you think the wall will fall?
What was interesting about the whole thing is that I was very sensitive to the impression that it was a protest demonstration. Because if we had taken that approach, we would never have gotten the permission to do it. There has been a lot of things that were organized around this issue: there was a German chamber orchestra that wanted to get permission, and it was clearly a protest movement against the Trump administration, and obviously nothing like that would be allowed. I wanted to be very respectful to the customs services because they treated us very well. Of course, there is a political element in this project and you cannot help but think of the fact that human connections and sounds pass easily through space and that there are walls that can never prevent that. You don’t have to unpack all the poetry that goes with this idea of a wall. But you should know that Al Jazeera was there to report on this event, too, and they really wanted it to be a protest. And so there was a little friction around that, and even the San Diego papers wanted to know if that was part of the resistance to Trump. We were probably like-minded about the Trump administration, but at the same time I had another idea about what to do about that, and I think that resistance is not how I think of it. In any event, it was evident that it had political value, and certainly there was no one who was there who was not thinking about that. But it had other components to it as well.
And – may be it would be the last question – are there also walls to break down in the world of music and the arts?
Well, one of the biggest wall is the one that encloses a concert hall. We rarely think consciously about the existence of walls. For example, several people have asked approached me to do the piece based as a sort of healing mechanism, to go to a given place, which has a wound, and to play that piece as a sort of way to addressing that. The fires north of Los Angeles in Ojai were the first proposal in this direction: it was to play John Luther Adams’ piece in the fire zone. And I talked to John about it, and I was a bit resistant to do that, because I wanted to avoid the piece becoming this sort of shapeless happening in a situation that adopts whatever political value is put into. I didn’t immediately leap on that idea. Like, for example, taking this piece and performing it in other parts of the wall on the border with Mexico or in Jerusalem, or in other parts of the world. The most beautiful part about that piece, I think, which makes it suitable to this kind of experience, is that at the very end, after listening to an hour of this music, where in order to make sense, everyone has to focus intensely on sound production, the piece fades out and there are still five hundred people, or whatever, listening really, really intensely, and all you hear are the sounds of nature. There is something really extraordinary about that, you can actually hear yourself, you hear your neighbors, and you hear the wind. It is therefore a tool that makes it possible to hear what is happening in a place. And as long as we keep this aspect as one of the main values of the piece, it could be exported to other places.
But my question was also about all kinds of walls.
You mean, not simply the physical walls, but also other kinds of things?
Yes, the example that can be given in our context concerns popular music versus the avant-garde of Western classical music. My question is outside of John Luther Adams’ piece and its performance.
Thank you for clarifying. This is exactly what we seek to do in the proposal made at the Banff Center: try to make the cloture disappear, which seems more than a handcuff than a tool these days. I mean people use these words, which don’t have any meaning any more. So, if someone asks me: are you a classical musician? I wouldn’t know what to say. It’s really a very important kind of thing, but I think the mechanism to address these questions has got to be really very sophisticated, because the problem is complex. I think it’s about going beyond a simple “feel good” moment in which everybody would recognize that: “All right, we have a problem, there’s a wall here.” But if you actually want to do something about this problem, I don’t have to tell you how difficult and complex the task will be, when you realize how many people’s minds you have to change, and how much prejudices and biases you have to encounter. That’s the work we did in Banff – I don’t think it is happening here in San Diego in the music department so much, although there’s a little bit of that. It is critical to be able to do that, so the answer of course is “yes” and you have to find a suitable mechanisms for each case.
Transcription of the recorded encounter (in English) and French translation: Jean-Charles François.
1. John Luther Adams is not to be confused with the more famous composer John Adams.
2. The New Yorker published an article by Alex Ross, on the performance of Inuksuit presented between Tijuana et San Diego, with a short video. See https://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/making-the-wall-disappear-a-stunning-live-performance-at-the-us-mexico-border