Merging Politics and Concert Music

Drew Baker Columbia College Lecture

Tomorrow afternoon I will present a talk at Columbia College Chicago on the role of politics in three of my works: National Anthem, Stress Position, and Age of the Deceased (Six Months in Chicago). I will discuss the specific events and conditions that inspired each piece and how the related political considerations influenced the compositional process as well as the listening experience. Admission is free and I hope to see you there!

Political Sounds: Connecting the Concert Hall to the Outside World
Friday, May 1, 2015, 2pm
Columbia College Chicago
Room 205
1014 S. Michigan Ave.

Can't make it to the talk? Learn more about the making of Stress Position at the blog post below:

Politics, the Piano, and the Making of Stress Position


MFCP Presents Short Works Inspired by Morton Feldman

Detail from the Rothko Chapel score

Detail from the Rothko Chapel score

Morton Feldman Chamber Players
Sunday, April 19, 2015
Constellation, Chicago
Tickets: $12 (18 and over)
Facebook Event Page | Tickets

I am very pleased to be included on the program for this Sunday's concert by the Morton Feldman Chamber Players at Constellation in Chicago. Entitled "Hors d'Oeuvres," the program features short works (incl. 3 world premieres) by Thomas Carr, Anthony Donofrio, Marti Epstein, Jacob Gotlib, David Grant, Morgan Krauss, Ryan Packard, John Rea, and yours truly. All of the selected composers have been influenced to some degree by Morton Feldman.

My own long-standing interest in Feldman's music began with one of the other featured composers on Sunday, Marti Epstein. Marti, who was my first composition teacher, once recommended I listen to Rothko Chapel. I was immediately captivated by the way in which the incredibly simple gestures that open Rothko Chapel (rolls on the timpani and temple blocks, chords in the vibraphone and celeste, long tones in the viola), combine to generate a surprisingly sensual, expressive atmosphere.

This reductive approach to gesture, in addition to Feldman's fascination with resonance (Cornelius Cardew states that the sounds in Feldman "do not die away, but recede from our ears"), are clearly present in National Anthem, my contribution to Sunday's program. Scored for solo piano, National Anthem proceeds at a slow tempo, allowing the listener to hear each sonority fade and elide with the next. The piece also features an underlying political element, something that stands in stark contrast to Feldman. I won't go into the details in this post, but you can learn more about the political inspiration for National Anthem and listen to a recording here.

Sunday's program also includes works by two of my close colleagues here in Chicago, David Grant and Morgan Krauss. Their music, like that of Feldman, immediately transports you into unique and often unexpected environments and it is this quality that makes hearing their work so special.

I hope to see you at Constellation on Sunday for what will undoubtedly be a truly unique experience. And speaking of unique, courtesy of the one and only Andrew Tham, I leave you with the official concert video:

Listening List: Krauss, Muller, Wubbels, Zaldua

This week's selections live in a sound world of austere beauty, my favorite kind. I begin with Morgan Krauss's child of the mandrake for alto flute and voice. This piece is like a strange vapor of vocal fry and alto flute emanating from the mouth of a well. The approach to text setting, in which only bits of discernible language make it to the audible surface while the remaining words become enmeshed in the surrounding texture, is one of which I've always been fond. Here is a haunting performance by Frauke Aulbert and Shanna Gutierrez:

Next is Otto Muller's Violin and Nails (Sketch) which, as the title indicates, is scored for a traditional violin and an instrument the composer built that he refers to as a "nail fiddle." The resulting sounds are extraordinary. Otto and I attended Northwestern together years ago and, upon hearing this piece, I wrote to him to learn more about the nail fiddle. His response revealed a whole philosophy behind creating instruments from everyday materials:

"They (nail fiddles) are quite fickle and ephemeral in terms of intonation, which is kind of why I like them. I've also been making cigar box viols, garden hose trombones, etc. I started to feel like, if the sound world that I'm interested in is at the edge of the techniques and intended capacities of traditional instruments (and not necessarily the "cutting" edge, but just the edge), why not create instruments that yield these sounds (and only these sounds) in the hands of amateurs."

To that end, Otto, who teaches at Goddard College in Vermont, recently started a group called the Rural Noise Ensemble. They describe themselves as, "A collective of composers, musicians, and makers investigating uniquely rural sound worlds and musical practices." These practices include the use of invented instruments. I truly look forward to hearing more from both Otto and the Rural Noise Ensemble.

Before I get to the next recording, a quick related note of interest. Last weekend I had the pleasure of hearing the Mivos Quartet perform a reduced version of being time by Eric Wubbels.  To my knowledge, a recording of this work is not yet available. It is, however, a piece that should be on your radar. The full-scale version is scored for "string quartet and electronic sound" and is described on the EMPAC site as follows:

"Titled being time, the piece is an audio variation on the psychological experience of time. Extending nearly an hour, it moves from sections of extreme slowness and static sustains to high-energy plateaus of dense, saturated sound textures. In the final sequence, quadraphonic electronic sound pushes the performance into an altogether new dimension, creating vivid psychoacoustic illusions by using extremely high sine waves."

The version presented last weekend was much shorter (around 25 minutes) and did not include the electronic component. Even so, the temporal experience in this truncated arrangement was striking, leaving me with the sense that far less time had elapsed. I can't wait to hear the full-scale version. Check out images of Wubbels's beautiful hand-drawn score for being time on the EMPAC site.

As we await future performances and recordings of being time, let's revisit an older work, beata viscera for flute, clarinet, trumpet, piano, percussion, violin and cello (excerpt presented below). The composer's program notes about this work are quite interesting and end with the following:

"Fundamentally, this music grows from a refusal to acknowledge the apparent separateness of the individual instruments, or even the individual people playing them. Instead, they're related like the fingers of a hand, or the limbs and organs of a single body."

The idea of fusing multiple timbres into a singular entity relates to the last piece on the list, Alistair Zaldua's Contrajours for piano and electronics, about which the composer writes:

"The title refers to a technique in photography where the main image is almost totally obscured by having been photographed against the main source of light: 'against the day(light)'. My intention wasn't in hiding anything; the blind spots in this piece attempt to describe the proximities or disconnections between electronics and pianist whilst conceiving of both as a singular instrument."

Enjoy and be sure to check back next week for more suggested listening.

A New Look, A New Beginning

drew baker homepage

This past week, I relaunched My intent was to create a clean-looking design that encourages exploration and provides an engaging experience. Sound samples can be found in multiple places throughout the site including the Works section which offers easy access to program notes and recordings for each individual piece. The site is mobile-optimized and, for the first time, includes a store that will soon feature all of my scores.

While dormant of late, the site relaunch presents the perfect opportunity to simultaneously resuscitate the blog with coverage of recent books and recordings, interviews with performers and composers, discussions of compositional technique and repertoire, and much more.

I greatly appreciate your interest in my music and writings and I look forward to many conversations about creating, performing, and listening to the works of living composers across the globe.