2015 Class #3: Stories in Sound

A Class in Ten Short Videos
Instructor: Steven Schick
Time: About 58 minutes

Class #1 – Beat of the World]
[Class #2 Physicality of Sound]
[Class #4 Hitting Things: A Vocabulary]

Percussion is story-telling – physical story-telling, made so by the act of producing it. How you hear something depends on how you see it. Theatricality also plays a role. Percussion in part as theatre?
How does the story change when you change the ways in which the sounds/music is produced?

Context is important. How you produce the sound is fundamental to how you perceive it. Where it is produced also matters to how you experience it. So what makes a good percussion narrative? Percussion has a visual component that we in the audience experience and the visual setup and physical performance impact how we hear and experience it. How the composer and performer conceive a performance is integral to the choreography needed to produce it.

The class consists of the ten short videos below – seven  lessons by percussionist and 2015 Ojai Music Festival director Steven Schick, and three 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: Introduction – Storytelling From the Percussionist’s Point of View

For a percussionist, telling a story begins with setting up unique physical landscapes that define the sound worlds a listener will enter. Each piece of music is produced by its own unique instrument comprised of the objects that will make those sounds. But it isn’t just about the objects themselves. Or simply striking them to produce sound. The way you arrange the instruments is an important part of how you make the music, and the architecture of the setup dictates the choreography of the performer.

Lesson 2: A Short History of Percussionists Telling Stories

Percussionists have always had an important role in storytelling. Unlike orchestra instruments built for the concert hall, percussion has historically represented the outsider, the intruder. But it also tended to show up at important moments in a score, amplifying or reinforcing chord changes or structurally significant events. In the 20th Century, however, composers began using percussion not just for its ability to emphasize but for its harmonic and melodic qualities as well as its ability to create color.

Lesson 3: The Theatrical Side of Storytelling

Some composers have come to regard the choreography of performing percussion as integral to the texture of the music. A sound made with a nonchalant flick of the wrist looks different than one produced by the performer intently striking the instrument. The sounds produced by the two gestures is also different. Music that looks easy to make sets up a different response from the listener from music that shows signs of visual struggle. So setting up a percussion array isn’t necessarily about the most efficient ways of being able to play it. If you want struggle or suspense or happiness in the music you have to build it into the construction of the instrument setup.

Lesson 4: Try This at Home: A Demonstration of how Space Changes Instruments

Build your own simple percussion instrument at home and experiment with how where you put the “instruments” you’re going to play changes how you’re able to play them.

Lesson 5: It’s Complicated (Why?)

Could music be a metaphor for the wider culture? If so, the culture got more and more complex as the 20th Century went on. Composers spent much of the century experimenting with greater and less degrees of control. From wanting to impose order on every aspect of a sound to abandoning control altogether to create music of chance and accidence, the materials of music got more complicated. And then there was the whole debate about what music is, and the definition kicked off its shoes and went for a ramble through uncharted waters.

Lesson 6: Percussion and Musical Tradition

We know the names of the great performers of traditional instruments. We build on their work and celebrate the innovations and discoveries. But for much of musical history percussionists have been largely anonymous. Even in popular music, the musician supplying the beat or reinforcing the musical line has not stood out as soloist. Yet the performance practice and culture and traditions of performing on a djembe or marimba or drum kit has been created and shaped by generations of musicians.

Lesson 7: Recapitulation: The Building Blocks of Storytelling

We’ve talked about the inherent rhythms of the world around us. We’ve talked about how percussionists mine sounds from the objects around us. And we’ve talked about turning those sounds into music, into stories that have meaning. If you’re curious why John Cage’s name keeps coming up in this class, it’s because his ideas about music and our engagement with it are central to the ways contemporary musicians think about the act of music.

Example 1: Steven Plays Karlheinz Stockhausen’s “Zyklus”
How do you notate a story for percussion? “The title of Zyklus is reflected in its form, which is circular and without a set starting point. The score is spiral-bound, and there is no “right-side up”—it may be read with either edge at the top. The performer is free to start at any point, and plays through the work either left to right, or right to left, stopping when the first stroke is reached again. (In this way, it is an example of what Stockhausen calls “polyvalent” form.) The instruments are arranged in a circle around the performer, in the order they are used in the score.”
Steve Schick plays  Zyklus    YouTube

Example 2: Drum Kit Smack Down
Search for “best drum solo” on YouTube and you get 431,000 videos touting the awesomeness of this or that performer. In this video, the guy on the drum set is particularly mindful of the effect of his physical movement on the performance. (sorry for the ads on the video, which are pre-set. You can get rid of them by clicking on the “x” in the upper right corner of the ads)

Example 3: Mark Applebaum performs his piece “Aphasia”
Mark is a California composer and “Aphasia” is a 9-minute piece expressly written for a “singer” to perform without making a single sound. The idea to write a piece for a mute singer with hand motions was Applebaum’s own “obsession.” His intention was to have Aphasia come across as a metaphor for “expressive paralysis,” something that unnerves him every time he “confronts the terror of composing a new piece.” Even though the performer isn’t making sound, the physicality of the performance enhances, explains and sets the context for the piece, demonstrating the storytelling theatricality we’ve been talking about in this class.

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 sign up for 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 – Hitting Things: A Vocabulary will go live Monday at noon.

Class #1 – Beat of the World]
[Class #2 Physicality of Sound]
[Class #4 Hitting Things: A Vocabulary]


  1. Steve Rowland says

    Fabulous percussion discussion!!!!!

  2. Dan Dietrich says

    I really enjoyed the explanation of percussion in these lessons. It was made very clear that we as percussionists don’t just look for “things to hit”!

  3. Wow – what a ride – really enjoyed this