Stress Position

Drew Baker/Marilyn Nonken

Drew Baker/Marilyn Nonken: Stress Position


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.

-Drew Baker, from the liner notes

Track List

Compositions by Drew Baker
Performances by Marilyn Nonken, piano

1. Gaeta for Two Pianos and Water Percussion (2005)
Marilyn Nonken and Drew Baker, pianos
Sean Connors and Peter Martin, percussion

2. Asa Nisi Masa for Solo Amplified Piano (2005)

3. Gray for Solo Piano (2004)

4. National Anthem for Solo Piano (2006)

5. Stress Position for Solo Amplified Piano (2008)

All works heard in their premiere recording


Tracks 1-3 Recorded by Max Anisimov,
Track 4 Recorded by Scott Lehrer at 2nd Story Sound,
Track 5 Recorded by Silas Brown,
Mastered by Silas Brown
Art and design by Jennifer Boyd, Brij Design

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Track Time Preview Cost +Add
1 Gaeta 15:42 $2.49
2 Asa Nisi Masa 16:01 $2.49
3 Gray 4:19 $1.29
4 National Anthem 6:18 $1.79
5 Stress Position 9:20 $1.99

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American Record Guide

"Stress Position is an album of piano music
by Chicago based composer and pianist Drew
Baker; it is brilliant. His way of writing for the
piano is based on the sonorities—the unique
sounds a piano makes and the idiosyncratic
way a piano makes them. It is extremely inven-
tive and aurally seductive, and each piece
speaks with its own voice. Gaeta is a work for
two pianos and water percussion. It is made
up of fantastic, ethereal sounds in thin, glassy
layers. Asa Nisi Masa is a completely uncom-
promising work for amplified piano built of
rough, violent chords, and punctuated by
pregnant pauses. Gray is a short work written
for the composer’s nephew—thoughtful and
achingly beautiful. National Anthem layers
three simultaneous versions of ‘The Star Span-
gled Banner’, each in a different key and with
its own slow tempo. To disguise the source
even more the melodic contour is altered—this
also serves as a statement of the composer’s
“unease and sadness about America’s place in
the world” in light of the recent, and continu-
ing, wars in the middle east. Stress Position is
evocatively described by the composer: “The
insistent and unrelenting rhythmic repetition
coupled with an ever-increasing mass of pitch-
es and dynamic intensity, creates a scenario
whereby the piano becomes a torture appara-
tus. Virtuosity in this case is defined by the
ability to endure.” The title refers to the
method of torture where victims are forced to
maintain difficult body positions for extended
periods of time—brought again into the public
eye through news of the atrocities at Abu
Gharib and Guantanamo. The piece is
absolutely electrifying, and there are very few
people other than the incomparable Marilyn
Nonken who could pull it off with such power." - Ira Byelick, March/April 2012


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 asStress 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.

-- October 18, 2011