Each week, SFCV looks behind the scenes to give you a sneak peak of what's coming up on stages around the Bay Area...so you can learn about concerts before they happen.
On a recent afternoon, Dresher was in the studio — which takes up three large rooms on the upper floor of an old West Oakland warehouse — working on his latest music-theater production, Schick Machine. The evening-length work makes its world premiere March 7 at Dinkelspiel Auditorium on the Stanford University campus. Percussionist Steven Schick will be the solo performer. But, with a score by Dresher, text and stage direction by Rinde Eckert, and original instruments created by Dresher, Matt Heckert, and Daniel Schmidt, the production is a decidedly collaborative effort.
Schick Machine, which was commissioned by Stanford Lively Arts, is written for a solo performer, but features two characters: an inventor of musical instruments, and the musician who discovers them after the inventor’s death. The musician, not surprisingly, is a virtuoso percussionist — a character, says Dresher, who is “very much like Steven Schick.”
“He’s the person who can play all these things, who can actually discover sound in almost anything,” says the composer. “He comes across this trove of arcane instruments, and his task is to find out whether it has any value. That’s the question we’re asking: What is the value of sound?”
Dresher, whose previous works include the large-scale Soundstage and the chamber opera The Tyrant, says that Schick Machine has evolved into a larger meditation on the relationships between sound, memory, and emotion.
Still, Dresher fans might suspect that the production will transcend by virtue of sheer sonic invention. The instruments on display in the composer's studio offer a tantalizing glimpse of what the audience at Stanford (and, in the fall, at the Mondavi Center at UC Davis) will hear.
At one end of the studio sits Dresher’s latest creation, an enormous hurdy-gurdy. The instrument has a traditional crank, but at nearly 10 feet long, with seven strings and an electronic soundboard, it produces an eerie, one-of-a-kind singing sound.
Five Heckert-built instruments are nearby. One, called the Big Disc, is a large metal wheel powered by a high-velocity motor; Dresher activates it, and it spins and clashes, sending sound spiraling through the room. Others — a thrusting piece they’ve dubbed the Fencer, and an elegant construction called the Bird that, when set in motion, flaps in avian rhythm — add to the mechanized chorus.
Most intriguing is a large sound sculpture that Dresher calls the Field of Grass. It’s a grouping of wood blocks perched on metal rods. Inside each block is a ball bearing (“from tractors,” says Dresher); given a nudge, the blocks wave back and forth, tocking like metronomes. With its sculpted shape and hypnotic motion, the piece is as beautiful to watch as it is to hear.
In the next room, meanwhile, Schmidt is working on an old pipe organ that the group recently acquired and dismantled. He’s rebuilding it with new circuitry that allows the pipes to be played by mallets hitting strings, rather than the traditional keyboard.
It’s an impressive collection, much of it made from found objects. “A lot of it comes from Dumpsters, junkyards, or weird industrial suppliers you’d never deal with for traditional instrument-building or music-making activities,” says Dresher. The organ and hurdy-gurdy will provide melodic texture, says the composer, while text will be spoken and projected on a rear screen. But Schick Machine is all about percussion, and Dresher says that Schick — a virtuoso performer, percussion scholar, and veteran of the New York–based Bang on a Can All-Stars — will supply the work’s “X” factor. “That’s the world of percussion,” says Dresher.
“These aren’t instruments in the way a violin is an instrument. But when you hear them played, they’re no less interesting. A drum does a limited number of things, but a good musician can make a drum do anything.”
Which is why, as March 7 approaches, Dresher says he still isn’t sure exactly how Schick Machine will sound. “This kind of piece can’t come together in advance,” he says. “You can’t know what you have until you are literally doing it.”More »