Drew Baker on New Focus (CD Review)

Drew Baker

Stress Position

featuring Marilyn Nonken, piano

New Focus CD FCR 116

Composer Drew Baker’s music is demanding stuff. Highly conceptual, viscerally physical, and often politically charged, it requires much from its performers. Baker is fortunate to have a staunch advocate in pianist Marilyn Nonken. She has championed his music, commissioning works and programming them frequently on her recitals. This New Focus disc demonstrates just how much she has internalized music that would fell many a less formidable artist.

Take the title work, which is named after the “vigorous interrogating techniques” that, during the past decade, proved to be one of many regrettable blights on the United States’ human rights record. The piece requires Nonken to have her arms extended to both registral extremes throughout, gradually stretching her hands to navigate wider intervals and thicker chords. Sensory assault – increasingly piercing amplification – and, live at least, sensory deprivation (the work ends with the lights out, imitating a detainee being blindfolded) are also part of the package. It’s an unnerving, deeply troubling piece about an equally squirm inducing topic. The most amazing thing to me about all this – Nonken asked for this piece: she’s a plucky pianist!  Asa Nisi Masa, another amplified work, features fists full of dense low register clusters, delivered in a battery of cannonades.

But, thankfully, Baker isn’t merely indulging a streak of danger music throughout the disc. National Anthem, another piece commissioned by Nonken, is a far more delicate affair. Yet it’s just as politically motivated as Stress Position. The Star-Spangled Banner is deconstructed, played in three different keys, in a slowly moving overlapping canon. What might seem like an Ivesian conceit is deployed in a more Feldmanesque fashion, to agreeable effect. Also quite appealing is Gray, another slowly developing piece featuring angular linear counterpoint and gently articulated yet dissonant harmonies, delicately shaded with careful attention to pedaling indications and keen awareness of the decay rates of various resonances. It’s played quite beautifully in this detailed performance by Nonken; she inhabits it with graceful poise.

Baker and percussionists Sean Connors and Peter Martin join Nonken for Gaeta, a work for two pianos and water percussion. I heard this piece’s premiere at the Guggenheim’s Works and Process Series back in 2006 and found it to be quite impressive.  One was awash in a plethora of water sounds, hand percussion, and prepared piano in a soundscape that was abundantly varied yet never overly busy. While Gaeta thrives in a live acoustic, the New Focus disc has done much to capture its shimmering sonic magic.

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