2015 Class #1: The Beat of the World

A Class in Ten Short Videos
Instructor: Steven Schick
Time: About 54 minutes

[Class #2 Physicality of Sound]
[Class #3 Stories in Sound]
[Class #4 Hitting Things: A Vocabulary]

The world runs on rhythm. From the movement of the planets, night and day, the tides, the seasons, the heartbeats of every living creature, the world runs on rhythm. It’s the fundamental unit of life. Music springs from the fundamental rhythms found all around us. The earliest music was organized around the rhythms from around us. Music took the pulses and sounds of the natural world and played with them, adapted them. This first class will explore our relationships with the sounds and rhythms around us and how the sounds of our world impact us.We’ll explore how rhythm is baked into the world around us and even in ourselves.

The class consists of the ten short videos below – six  lessons by percussionist and 2015 Ojai Music Festival director Steven Schick, and four examples of sounds and music. In all, they should take less than an hour to watch and you can view them one after the other or bookmark this page to come back later.

LESSON 1: An Introduction and Overview [1’43” long]

Percussionists hear the world differently from the rest of us. Unlike other musicians whose instruments present them with a prescribed set of possible sounds and the ways to make them, percussionists draw on sounds from the world around them and have to create the means to make those sounds. Music, for the percussionist, starts with the raw material of any sound one can imagine and figuring out a language that makes those sounds compelling music.

LESSON 2: “Rhythm is the Fuel of the World” [5’05”]

Is it any wonder that at its most basic, music usually begins with rhythm? Most of the natural world is ordered and propelled by regular pulse, and music grows out of innate understanding of that “beat”. The crash of waves, the predictability of night and day, of seasons. Internally we’re governed by our heartbeats, the need for sleep and wakefulness, the familiarity of day-to-day routines. So we respond instinctively and internally to beat and that pulse fuels our music.

But the world is also full of sounds that aren’t regular, that don’t repeat predictably, and as a musician – a percussionist – considers the sounds that will become a musical language, it is the tension and release, the juxtaposition and clash of sounds and rhythm and texture and color, and the unpredictability along with the predictability that makes music so compelling.

LESSON 3: Sound and how it Plays on Memory [4’36”]

We live in a visual world. “Seeing is believing” they say. On the other hand “hearsay” is untrustworthy, potentially gossip and unreliable. We believe our eyes – the visual evidence – but distrust our ears. Something heard vanishes in the next breathe and might be unreliable. Still, if you need to get someone’s attention urgently, sound is usually the most effective way. We respond immediately and instinctively when we hear something of a moment. Visual alerts can take more time to process.

Sound also gets vividly imprinted on our memories. We remember the music of our youth, and specific songs make us recall what we were doing when we heard them. We associate people with certain sounds. Places recollect sounds as sounds recollect places and things that happened. Because of the ability of sound to evoke, our musical languages give us the ability to tell stories with sound.

LESSON 4: Steven Takes a Walk (and his life is changed forever) [8’15”]

One day Steven Schick decided to take a walk. Five hundred miles later he was in San Francisco asking his girlfriend to marry him. Where most tourists document their travels with pictures, Steven listened for the sounds of California along the way. So what does California sound like? He was surprised at the constant interaction – the battle? the dance? – taking place between sounds of the natural and manmade worlds. How does the soundscape in which we choose to live impact our lives?

LESSON 5:A Challenge in Listening [5’13”]

Want to get better at listening? Learn to isolate the sounds around you. Hear “pieces” of the sounds in your environment. We tune out much of what we typically hear around us so as not to make ourselves go crazy. That dripping faucet will obsess you if you can’t learn to ignore it. But our learned defense mechanism sometimes makes it difficult to listen intentionally, to pick out and analyze what we’re hearing. Steve has some suggestions for how to turn on and tune up your ears. And he tells us about his own attempts to become a more present and expert listener.

LESSON 6:How Movies Use Sound to Tell Stories [44″]

Storytelling is shaped and enhanced by sound and by music and no more so than in movies. There are sounds we expect, of course – the door should sound as if it’s closing when we see it close up on the screen. But directors are acutely aware of the role of ambient sounds and their acoustical properties to define a scene. An austere visual, for example, might be rich in ambient sonic detail – crickets chirping or the crunch of gravel underfoot or a streetlight hum – that helps set or enhance the way the filmmaker wants a viewer to feel.

Example #1: “The Matrix” – Neo Tries To Escape [4’05”]
The movie’s musical language likewise contributes to its storytelling. A big lush orchestral accompaniment suggests a particular way of telling a story. Oddly enough, while many people resist atonal music in the concert hall, they’re completely comfortable with it in their movies. Notice in the example below how the sparse ambient sound reinforces the danger Neo is in. Notice also how the music accompanies and punctuates the slashes of action and heightens the urgency of the situation.

Example #2: An Industrial Machine [2’50”]
This machine, which makes clamps, produces a complex, layered array of sounds. The machine’s regularity sets the beat, but listen inside that beat. It’s not a simple tap-tap-tap but the combination of several sounds. As the video continues, the camera and microphone travel around the equipment and you can isolate the different sounds that make up the whole. Notice how your perception of the beat changes depending on where the microphone is.

Example #3: “Everything Is Rhythm” [10’20”]
Brothers Thomas Roebers and Floris Leeuwenberg traveled for a month in Baro, Guinea in Africa and explored the culture of the Malinke tribes. Their word for rhythm is FOLI and they listen for it everywhere. “Everything is rhythm,” they say. It is a word that encompasses so much more than drumming, dancing or sound. It’s found in every part of daily life and you not only hear and feel it but see it as well.

Example #4: A Conversation Between Man and Technology [10’22”]
UrSonate, by Kurt Schwitters, is a collaboration between Steven, sound designer Shahrokh Yadegari, and video artist/percussionist Ross Karre. Steven recites a memorized performance of Kurt Schwitters dada poem from the 20s/30s. Shahrokh Yadegari manipulates the sound and it diffuses into surround sound speakers. Ross Karre captured the performance on HD video and edited the piece. What are the instruments here? What is the musical language? Just words? Finally: what is the relationship between the visual, the sound, and the technology?

Discuss/Participate/Next Class
Want to discuss this week’s class? Take a look below in the comments section and make an observation or ask a question. If you subscribe to the comments feed, you’ll be notified when someone weighs in. Want to invite your friends in? Tweet @OjaiFestivals and use the hashtag #OjaiU2015. Next week’s class – The Physicality of Sound will go live Monday at noon.

[Class #2 Physicality of Sound]
[Class #3 Stories in Sound]
[Class #4 Hitting Things: A Vocabulary]


  1. Thank you for creating this class Steve and all else responsible. It is great to mine the depths of what is possible in the music, and especially percussive world. I appreciate being reminded how to listen as deeply conscious as possible…

  2. Thanks for this very nicely produced and thoughtful class. Your 500 mile hike from SD to SF sounds amazing, although I would worry about physical safety from vehicles a lot more than you let on.

    Especially appreciated was your definition of ‘rhythm is the way in which time is identified and articulated by events’. I have always been acutely aware of extraneous sounds, amazed by how difficult it is to find true quiet, from the requisite sirens of any town to the pile drivers that start before 8am not far from where I live.

    Just one more example, California seems to have more than it’s share of non-muffler-code compliant Harley Davidson motorcycles. Your mockingbird recording session illustrated this problem perfectly; it is amazingly difficult to find a time without ambient ‘noise’. I am slightly optimistic that this class has helped me transition much of the sound around me from “noise” (unwanted sound) to observation of the rhythms of life.

    You mentioned the impact on birds, I might add that even sea mammals are being assaulted by mechanical noise (including large ship propeller cavitation and navy sonar) and I can only imagine the effects in a liquid medium that transmits sound for great distances. The whales are crying.

    Your Example #2, Industrial Machine, reminded me of a memorable dance scene from Dancer in the Dark (Bjork). I could not find the actual video clip online, but there are short audio excerpts at about time 0:40 and 2:20 in this official trailer YouTube clip:
    (powerfully haunting movie by the way)

  3. Yesss.

    I can reassure you that manual typewriters can still be found, I use them teaching zine workshops (and have to teach kids how to smack the keys), and we’ll bring them to zine picnics, so folks strolling by are serenaded by their clackety-smack sound driven by ideas.

    Ambient sound is why, right now in Spring ,I’m longing for New Hampshire. Our cabin in the woods isn’t nearly as quiet as it used to be, but it’s monastic compared to our Leucadia home. In Leucadia the freeway gets louder not only because there are more cars, but because there are more buildings to bounce the sound (a hand clap in my yard bounces off McMansion across the street, confusing my dog on occasion if she’s facing away from me and toward the new stucco surfaces where a dirt hill used to be).

    In New Hampshire we can hear but not see new neighbors. The sounds were of clearing and building, now they are of riding mowers as gardeners come to tidy up and sing along to the music in their headphones. The occasional car is now the regular car and truck going by. But late at night it’s divine. The wind singing the trees is my soundtrack as the moon rises. Sometimes it’s the rain percussing the leaves. The thump of the my footsteps on the ground as the packed dirt resonates against the granite below. The famous sound of loons on the lakes is harder to hear because there are more speed boats drowning them out and scaring them off (and sometimes killing them outright).

    When I return to Leucadia from New Hampshire the sounds of the freeway disturb my sleep, I have to re-acclimate in total to the different speed of sound.

    • PS: The Guinean drummers – it was swell to see the family of drums being played. My teacher, Willie Anku, described the djembe as now an American drum… everyone wants to be the soloist in America, the drum circles are filled with djembes. That is why I cannot abide drum circles, the lack of relationship in the drumming.

  4. Petra Verkerk says

    When I moved from a large city to a small place in the country, it took me a while to walk the rhythm of my new hometown. I had to slow down quite a lot. Now I use rhythm to understand organizational cultures and structures. This course gives me the opportunity to feel, hear and understand the beat of the world better. Thank you for this nicely produced course.

  5. Cecilia Ka says

    Wonderful and delightful!!!…
    I am reminded of the deep roots of our American jazz music coming for the world cultures, especially Africa. Fascinating to be reminded how rhythm adds to the enrichment or helps with the toil of every day work. Other things that come to mind….
    Rhythm and song come from the natural world which has influenced man’s sound and rhythm of language and rhythm of our life. The influences of spiritual and mythology (story of creation) also provide rich references to our world of rhythm such as “In the beginning there was the Word.” And the word is a vibration! Lastly, we are able to hear and discern sound due to the background of Silence, both in the outer world and the inner world. When I chose my residence, my top qualifier was based on sound and silence requirements. (I live next to a botanic garden with lots of trees, birds, wind, silence.)
    I am looking forward to the next lesson…thank you!

  6. Doug McLennan says

    Here’s a cool story from a writer of movies about how music is used in movies. She says:

    “Music is a powerful force in film. Film-makers are always navigating that fine balance of wanting the audience to feel something, but not wanting to tell them what that feeling is – and music is their holy grail. For me, a writer of romantic comedies, it’s something I think about all the time. When I write, I am always thinking about how I can use music. I write songs into the script; I have an ongoing playlist for every project I am working on; I write to music; I make up choreographed dance routines around my office to music. It’s fair to say, I spend a little bit too much time thinking about music.”

    More here: http://www.theguardian.com/music/musicblog/2015/may/14/songs-in-movies-when-harry-met-sally-man-up-it-had-to-be-you-whitesnake

  7. Part I is superb, and I have recommended it to many others. The Schwitters UrSonate is virtuosic and from memory is simply unbelievable.

  8. I thought I was living in a very silent place, because it’s in the suburbs and is surrounded by forests and lakes. Until i decided to sit down and listen to the music of nature a month ago… It turned out there is no way I don’t hear the cars from the highway… 🙁

  9. Thanks for these insights. As someone who probably spends far too much time listening to what is formally defined as “music” (from all ages and all over the world) but too little time just listening to what’s happening around me it’s been ear-opening. Perhaps if I listen more carefully to life it might work its way into my music.