The works on Drew Baker’s New Focus recording Stress Position are puzzling to analyze. As a listener of new music, it is compelling to hear, but to put in any kind of verbal language after only experiencing it a few times is like trying to describe how you feel after your first taste of a new cuisine. What is very apparent on this recording is that the works are a continuation of the ever-ongoing adventure of examining different ways of performing piano (in this case its amplification), Baker’s use of piano resonance and visceral sound in general, done successfully by pianist Marilyn Nonken and (on the piece Gaeta) the percussionists Sean Connors and Peter Martin.
Gaeta, scored for Water Percussion and 2 Pianos (the second piano part provided by the composer), is a piece that interchanges the shrill, tinny sound of the percussion with the sonic booms of the low-end of 2 keyboards.
The first chord of Asa Nisi Masa (the first of many low-end chord clusters) makes one jump out of their skin after a 25-second silent introduction, and these chord clusters are played many times, some of them sustained, interspersed with pauses, then are gradually replaced by a higher-end melody halfway through.
The two pieces that Nonken plays without amplification are Gray, a slow, short piece written for Baker’s nephew, and National Anthem, which to unbeknownst ears is actually a deconstructed, stripped-of-its-patriotism version of The Star-Spangled Banner played on solo piano, leaving it sounding almost like a eulogy for the country.
The highlight of the disc is the title piece Stress Position, which Nonken plays with both arms extended to extreme ends of the keyboard all though the piece while the hands stretch to accommodate six pitches. The consistency and intensity of this piece makes one wonder what an orchestral version would sound like.
Stress Position is a compelling display of pianistic delicateness, force and volume, and is a good indication of what can be imagined for piano and/or percussion. I hope to hear more from both composer and pianist.