Politics, the Piano and the Making of Stress Position

The following post contains the liner notes to Marilyn Nonken's CD of my complete piano works on New Focus Recordings.

Pianists spend lifetimes alone in small rooms with antique instruments. This intimate scenario is defined by an atmosphere of confinement as well as an overt physicality. The piano receives the weight of the body and disperses sound.

These simple and rather obvious facts regarding intimacy, physicality and space are essential to my piano works. Whether addressing extra-musical and political topics or simply existing as "absolute music," every piece on this recording attempts to lay bare the visceral intensity that directly results from the act of playing.

This is quite apparent at the outset of Asa Nisi Masa for solo amplified piano. With brute force, the performer strikes a series of low cluster chords that begin as dry, cannon-like shots separated by long pauses, before evolving into resonating, beating choruses of pitches. As the piece inches forward from the lowest depths of the piano to its highest octave, the listener experiences a vast spectrum of articulations, densities and rates of decay.

Gray for solo piano also investigates the instrument's resonant capacities, albeit on a much gentler and smaller scale. This work is named after my nephew and was written to commemorate his birth. I think of this piece as a series of melodic phrases moving in slow motion. As with Asa Nisi Masa, the deliberate pacing enables the listener to take in the action of the piano as sonorities appear, interact and dissipate.

Interaction of a sonic and spacial nature is a critical feature of Gaeta for two pianos and water percussion. One might think of this work as examining the piano through the filter of its percussive relatives. I began the compositional process by deciding upon the percussion instruments (waterphone, wind gongs, almglocken, earth plates and more - many submerged in water) and exploring their timbral potential. After establishing a set of sounds and textures, I incorporated the pianos with the intent to conceal their traditional identities. Not only are the pianos treated as percussion, the pianists and percussionists move around the stage, playing, holding and transporting a wide array of instruments. Interaction is critical to the process of playing, the resultant sound and, in the case of live performances, the visual experience.

Watching the process of interaction is also central to the title track of this recording, Stress Position. Here we return to the aforementioned intimate physicality embodied in the relationship between pianist and piano. In the case of this piece, however, that relationship is taken to an extreme and even perverse level. The insistent and unrelenting rhythmic repetition, coupled with an ever-increasing mass of pitches and dynamic intensity, creates a scenario whereby the piano becomes a torture apparatus. Virtuosity in this case is defined by the ability to endure. To a large extent, perfection in the most basic sense (avoidance of wrong notes and rhythms, command of tempi) is impossible given the manner in which the pianist must marshal all strength and concentration in order to merely continue.

The title of Stress Position refers directly to an ancient form of torture that was recently brought back into the public consciousness following the atrocities at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. Prisoners at both locations were forced to maintain positions in which the full weight of the body is directed at a specific muscle group, resulting in extreme pain and even disfigurement. In the case of the U.S. military, this technique was often augmented by visual deprivation (use of blindfolds) and auditory abuse via the playing of deafeningly loud music.

The pianist in Stress Position must play the entire piece with the arms extended to the extreme ends of the piano. As events unfold, the hands are likewise stretched until each accommodates six pitches spanning over an octave. The tension is not limited to the performer. The audience, which initially plays the role of voyeur in this situation, is subjected to ever increasing volume. Once the pianist reaches a maximal dynamic, amplification is introduced and steadily increased. Finally, without warning, the lights are cut and the closing section of the piece is played in total darkness.

To a large extent, Stress Position makes the notions of confinement and physicality the focus of the piece. However, one may rightly note that the confinement of the practice room or concert hall stands in direct opposition to the brutality and inhumanity of the torture chamber. Within this stark contrast lies one of the central political themes. As humans, we are capable of remarkable civility and the most base, animalistic behavior. The piano, a historical technology of great innovation and beauty, reveals these conflicting human capacities when turned into something that physically compromises the player.

The other politically motivated work on this recording is National Anthem for solo piano. Unlike Stress Position, the political ideas are somewhat hidden despite the fact that they provide the harmonic, rhythmic and formal basis of the piece. The Star Spangled Banner is simultaneously played in three different keys at three proportionally related and very slow tempi. To further conceal the anthem, the melodic contour is altered so that ascending motives often descend and vice versa. The solemn and almost dirge-like sound that results is intended to contradict the usual overt and often trumped up patriotism of the anthem. Instead, I wanted the mood to more accurately reflect my own unease and sadness about America’s place in the world as wars continue in Iraq and Afghanistan.

I must express my deepest thanks to Marilyn Nonken for championing my music and for challenging my understanding of the piano and its potential for continued exploration. Marilyn commissioned National Anthem and Stress Position, both times requesting politically charged works. I had not previously attempted to musically investigate political themes in this way, but was very much intrigued. My goal was to create works that engage the listener from sonic and political perspectives. In the end, just playing the piano seems a political act in itself, one which from the confines of small rooms, refuses to forget the past while continuing to grasp at now.