Contemporary Notation Project: Drew Baker

The extract above (click to enlarge) is from Stress Position (2008) for amplified piano, by Drew Baker. This piece has had some press recently, thanks to its performance by Chicago’s Spektral Quartet in May. Here’s a short interview with Baker about it on the Quartet’s website; and here’s a thoughtful review by Will Robin.

As Baker notes in that interview, the work is politically-inspired, and uses the piano as “the perfect instrument through which to examine the topic of torture” (a stress or submission position being a well-known interrogation tool). That’s communicated through the notation itself. The music is highly repetitive, being based on two simultaneous, continuous demisemiquaver pulse tones at opposite extremes of the piano (the high B flat and low B natural at the top and bottom of the chords above). Over the course of the work, other pitches between are gradually filled in; the example above comes a couple of pages before the end, at maximum vertical density. The piece’s harmonic and rhythmic single-mindedness recalls the minimalism of Charlemagne Palestine’s Strumming Music. And yet the fact that every one of those pulses is precisely written out rather than more loosely suggested, drags the piece into a whole new sphere. The demands and expectations of the performer are just different in tone, even if practically they might be much the same.

Strumming Music is a very different, much more ingratiating piece. There are certainly elements of discipline in its performance, and it is a superhuman feat to pull off; but the spiritual dimension of its sounds points towards the durational disciplines of training and meditation, rather than torture and punishment. Internally directed and positive in intent, rather than the outward and evil forces dramatised in Stress Position.

I can’t help thinking, too, that the choice of a computer set score adds to that sense. Certainly this is the kind of piece that benefits a hundred times over from the convenience of digital cut-and-paste, but I don’t get the sense that digital has been chosen only as the more convenient option: the impersonality and the machine-like input/response narrative behind the work’s inspiration are also effectively conveyed.

Here’s a performance by Jonathan Katz:

Baker is clearly a composer who thinks carefully about notation. The bonus image below comes from his Whisper Wall (2005), a hand-drawn score, very different in appearance, for 12 musicians. (Update: listen here on Soundcloud.) The merits of computer-set scores vs handwritten ones have recently been debated by Rob Deemer at NewMusicBox, and it’s interesting in this light that Baker responded to my call for new scores a while ago with an example of each. Horses for courses.

Previous posts in this series may be found here:

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