The stage, full of stuff, might have been a tinkerer’s paradise. There were lengths of what looked like discarded auto exhaust pipes lying around, a huge hanging cymbal and a cluster of little wooden boxes on long thin wires of spring steel that looked like some cubist’s idea of a meadow. Each one held a golf ball. A large stainless-steel ring lay on a slightly concave platform in front of an enormous circular array of what looked like a giant keyboard splayed out and bent into a flat disk. Small ranks of organ pipes were stuffed into various nooks and crannies.
A cluttered playground of sound-creating possibilities, this was the set for “Schick Machine,” an hour of whimsical sonic playfulness that the Paul Dresher Ensemble (composers, sound technicians, instrument inventors and light designers) and percussionist Steven Schick brought to the University of Maryland’s Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center on Friday.
As Schick moved (sometimes wandering distractedly) from one delectable sound morsel to another, a loose story held the evening together — sort of. Schick plays “Schick,” a sound artist who has lost his memory, not of events but of himself, and has taken the name Klangfarber — “sound-color” or “timbre” in German — and is trying to reconcile his forgotten past with his future by experimenting with sounds.
And the sounds are wonderful. He stands the steel ring up and twirls it. Like a gyroscope, it gradually sinks, wobbling faster and faster, to the ground, its percussive clicks amplified and forming a rhythmic background to the clonks of the balls in the wood boxes Schick is shaking. The strings of an enormous koto-like instrument are vibrated by a rotating disk as Schick plucks and slides things around on them. He creates delicately eerie sounds by playing a thin, flexible strip of steel with a violin bow and makes complex rhythmic interactions by setting the “meadow” of boxes swinging, the ball in each one clonking in its own time.
It was a feast of color and rhythm, marrying the physics of sound with its aesthetic, and as fun and compelling to watch as to hear.