Stepping to a Found-Sound Symphony

    UCSD professor and sound enthusiast Steven Schick leads a class disscussion on contemporary music analysis during his seminar. (Karen Ling/Guardian)

    Just north of Malibu during the summer of 2006, percussionist and UCSD music professor Steven Schick encountered a curious homeless man who inquired what he was doing. To the homeless man, who had spent 18 years of his life roaming among those streets, Schick was no ordinary passerby — he wore a large backpack, tennis shoes and a hat, and appeared unruffled by his busy surroundings. Schick explained that he was traveling from San Diego to San Francisco by foot, listening to and recording the sounds of California. Along his journey, Schick continued to leave a wake of inquisitive, bewildered or — more often — envious witnesses.

    “The romantic notion of a one-way trip is important to them,” Schick said.

    Long determined to make the trek, Schick was propelled by two key motives. Foremost, he wanted to experience the changing sounds of California firsthand, questioning whether music can be found in one’s natural surroundings or whether it’s all just useless noise.

    In a confusing world filled with sounds, Schick is acutely aware of the unremitting interference of our technologies, often numbing us to noise. Frequently used electronics like laptops, stereos, cellular devices and televisions tend to distract from the detection of enviornmental sounds.

    “I couldn’t help but notice that everyone uses iPods wherever they go, blocking things out,” Schick said. “What if we listen to outside noises the same way we listen to Mozart’s Quartet?”

    His second reason for traversing the coast of California was unrelated to his quest for musical enlightenment — he wanted make a courtship gesture to his fiancee, who lived in San Francisco.

    At one point in the trip, while sitting in a cafe in Santa Maria, a psychiatrist questioned his mental well-being for voluntarily choosing to take the trek. Schick responded, “[You] should tell all your patients to try this.” For him, walking over 20 miles a day, alone with his thoughts, was of therapeutic caliber.

    The idea of taking a long walk had always fascinated Schick. He recognized that great men had walked in meditation before — John Muir walked from Indiana to Florida when he was 30, and Martin Luther King, Jr. marched from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., during the civil rights movement. He casually mentioned the idea to his students during a lecture the previous spring quarter. Schick recalls quickly refuting the notion, which prompted his students to ask, “Well, why not?”

    “I couldn’t see a reason [not to], except for the fact that it was nuts — but obviously that didn’t stop me,” he said.

    Schick covered 700 miles by foot in nearly six weeks. His travels began in a McDonald’s parking lot in Imperial Beach and concluded as he crossed the Golden Gate Bridge and slapped the Marin County sign.

    Because he was walking up and down hills for long distances at a time, Schick had to be cautious about what he packed. Every ounce could make a difference in his physical condition at the end of the day. When he originally reached Los Angeles, after setting out with only the clothes on his back, he was called back to San Diego a few days later for work. He made a detour by renting a car from Los Angeles International Airport and driving back home. But, that first stretch ended up helping Schick determine which essentials he needed to bring along for the rest of the journey: when he picked up where he’d left off, he brought a backpack filled with extra clothes, food and water. Schick spent his evenings in different motels, where he did his laundry and kept in touch with friends and family with his cellular phone.

    According to Schick, the most difficult part of the trip was the act of walking on the highway, particularly the Pacific Coast Highway 101, where roads are narrow and cars veer dangerously along cliffs. He recollects the importance of making eye contact with every driver so that he or she could acknowledge his presence.

    “I knew which driver was on the cell phone from far away, and they were the most dangerous,” Schick said. There were times when he had to dive into bushes along the road to avoid getting hit by a car. In Big Sur, clumps of poison oak among the bushes made this more difficult.

    But Schick’s musical journey began long before this coastal ramble. He was raised on his parents’ farm in Iowa, where at the age of four, he decided to take piano lessons. Flipping through the Yellow Pages one day Schick found a picture of a piano, dialed the telephone number beside it and asked the perplexed stranger at the other end of the line to teach him how to play the piano.

    His interest in percussion gradually developed in school. Schick studied at the University of Iowa, where he developed an interest in contemporary percussion that engaged both traditional and experimental instruments.
    Schick is certainly not the only musician to examine the sounds of the outside world and bring them into the concert hall. For 10 years he was a part of Bang on a Can, a contemporary organization in New York of musicians who shared his interest in unconventional sound. The group members used mallets to bang on cans and incorporated sirens and whistles into their pieces.

    “At some point when I was hitting things, inevitably I was going to hit something else,” Schick said.

    Aside from a decade spent in New York, Schick also stayed in Geneva, Switzerland, for four years and served as Artistic Director of the Centre International de Percussion de Genève. Currently, Schick teaches various seminars and a symphony course at UCSD. He additionally took the position of music director and conductor of the La Jolla Symphony and Chorus two years ago after making a name for himself by founding percussionist ensemble Red Fish Blue Fish and teaching a wildly popular course on the Beatles.

    During those six weeks of walking, Schick observed the way different social settings can take on distinctive rhythms. He was fascinated by how sounds changed as he passed from subculture to subculture.

    In more urban settings, he noted how the air filled with steady manmade noise, saturated with the sound of automobiles, people and airplanes overhead.

    “The only thing you notice is when something stops happening, when there is a brief moment of repose or silence,” Schick said to KPBS host Tom Fudge at the midpoint of his excursion. Once a week, Schick would call These Days, a KPBS morning show, for a series of interviews that informed the San Diego community of his discoveries along the way.

    He noted that in rural areas, particularly Big Sur, there existed an everyday backdrop of noise that often went unheard by people in the city, namely birds, insects, wind and surf.

    “Along the coast, where there are very little motorized sounds, [the passing car] becomes the event,” he said.

    Suburbs like San Diego and San Luis Obispo had their own ebb-and-flow tempo, waves of silence and passing traffic. There was no steady hum of automobiles or unbroken noise of nature. Instead, the air was punctuated by sounds of both.

    With each day that passed Schick became attuned to previously unoticed harmonies. When walking through Marine Corps base Camp Pendleton, for example, he heard a recording of “Pomp and Circumstance” for a sixth-grade graduation overlapped by the firing of machine guns and tank artillery on a nearby range. On the road, he sometimes found himself drawing a connection between the sounds he was hearing and certain parts of familiar compositions he knew and appreciated. At a certain field in Oxnard, Schick associated the sound of sprinkler heads clicking on and off as metal percussion instruments from Iannis Xenakis’s Persephassa.

    Schick did some recording on his trip, though he admits they pale in comparison to the live experience. He made a tape at the end of one tiring day in a bustling restaurant, where the clattering of voices and Willie Nelson’s voice overhead provided a warm background. However, when he replayed it later, Schick realized it sounded almost raucous. Other listeners would not be able to identify with the traveler’s aching feet, the pleasures of sinking into a chair or hearing the voice of his father’s favorite musician playing over the speakers.

    Schick met the end of his trip with conflicted feelings, joined by his fiancee and one of his students during the last couple hundred feet. After crossing the Golden Gate strait, Schick called his friends and family on his phone to inform them of the commemorative moment. Despite the sense of accomplishment, Schick could not help but feel sorrowful.

    “[Even as I finished], the road kept going,” he said.

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