drewbakermusic BLOG

Monday - September 1, 2014

This Saturday, September 6, 2014 at 7PM at Chicago's Constellation, Marilyn Nonken will present an intense exploration of the piano's many sonic identities. In addition to three of my works, the program will include pieces by Paul Clift, Joshua Fineberg, Gerard Pesson, Dominique Troncin, and Claude Vivier. Tickets are only $10 and can be purchased online at or at the door.

Below is the complete program as well as a brief interview with Marilyn. Her historical, philosophical, and technical insights provide an engaging preview of Saturday night's concert. Hope to see you there!


Dominique Troncin: Ciel ouvert     

Gerard Pesson: La Lumière n'a pas de bras pour nous porter

Joshua Fineberg: Grisaille

Drew Baker: Asa Nisi Masa


Drew Baker: National Anthem

Paul Clift: Action painting -- dark blue, green

Drew Baker: Gray      

Claude Vivier: Shiraz

DB: In your book, The Spectral Piano, you talk about “the spectral attitude” and define it as “an approach to music composition and performance supported by four related preoccupations: timbre (tone color), process (transformation), time (temporality), and perception.” While the program you will play in Chicago is not exclusively comprised of spectral composers, these preoccupations seem nonetheless applicable. Is this spectral attitude an appropriate filter through which to view the concert?

MN: I think it's a great way to listen to these pieces—it does provide that through line, and those four preoccupations are affinities all of these composers share.

Of course, many of the pieces on the program are directly connected with the spectral composers. Paul Clift's piece doesn't "sound" spectral, in terms of its use of the instrument, but he worked George Benjamin and Tristan Murail, and he shares their sensitivities to color and process. Troncin and Fineberg both worked with Murail, and in their pieces we hear something really tied to the spectral tradition: a fascination with resonances and building resonances in ways only the piano can, through use of highly specific kinds of articulations and pedaling. It's all very tactile, physical, sensual music. There is a drama to the sound that supersedes any kind of typical narrative or traditional musical form.

One thing to keep in mind is that the spectral composers' interest in timbre and color was closely tied to developments in computer and electronic music, and many of these composers were also taught by Ivo Malec at the Paris Conservatoire, who was a kind of disciple of Pierre Schaeffer. Many share an interest in electronic music, and have been influenced by those revolutions in how we hear and make sound, which have taken place in the past thirty years. Pesson's piece, which hardly uses pitched elements, still explores a continuum of tone colors, resulting from barely attacked tones on the keyboard to the various sounds of skin and nail on the keyboard, and the attack of the foot on the pedal as well. So there is this extraordinary attention to the sound itself, as the basis of the drama of the work.

In your own pieces, too, there is this fascination with transforming harmonies and layered resonances. I always think of your work as being intimately connected to Feldman, and although he wasn't in any way a "spectral" composer, he had that affinity for sound. Feldman also studied piano with a student of Scriabin, whom I consider a primary proto-spectralist.

DB: You will open the program with Ciel overt by Dominique Troncin (1961-1994), a composer whose works are seldom performed in the United States. When did you first discover this piece and how would you compare Troncin's treatment of the piano to that of his teacher, Tristan Murail?

MN: I’m not sure when I first heard his music, but before performing this piece for the first time last spring, I had wanted to learn it for years. I'm sure I heard it from Dominique My's recording. Troncin died of AIDS in 1994, only 33 years old, but he was an inspiring teacher and composer. I've come across so many composers and performers who crossed his path, who describe a wonderfully generous and inventive man. There's a fabulous CD of works written in his memory by the major composers of the time, many his colleagues in Paris, and both the Pesson work (La Lumière n'a pas de bras pour nous porter) and Joshua Fineberg's Til Human Voices Wake Us (a work I also play, but not on Saturday's program) were written in his memory.

Troncin's piece resembles Murail's music, but is also highly individual. There are great swaths that Murail would never have written! Texturally it is very much his own, and dramatically it is sometimes very weird. Troncin's piece doesn't have the same "organic" feel as many spectral works, which can be intensely-process-driven. He is able to find these moments of rupture, that are very shocking, particularly because the piece begins in such a beautiful, delicate fashion.

DB: The sheer physicality of Vivier’s Shiraz stands out as a unique challenge. Yet it seems that this program requires an impressive technical range that goes beyond the more obvious virtuosic demands. What are some of the technical concerns you've encountered in preparing this concert?

MN: Shiraz is certainly one of the hardest pieces physically in the repertoire, in terms of sheer stamina and power. Vivier requires that the pianist play extremely athletically, for what seem like impossibly long passages, and then immediately afterwards play graceful passagework with sensitivity and delicacy. One needs to play with certain abandon, but retain the control or reserve to bring nuance to the material as well. In Pesson's piece, of course, there is a different kind of control and skill required—no actual "notes" are played, so the pianist needs to recalibrate her relation to the keyboard. Many, many levels of articulation and dynamic are required—but the keys must never hit the key bed.

There is a fantastic center-section in Joshua Fineberg's piece which borders on the difficulty of the "new complexity," and perhaps transcends it: requiring that the pianist play polyphonically, physically being almost phantom-like, in two or four or six places at once. I really enjoy practicing this material, and ultimately I think the pianist is able to create a compelling illusion of what's on the page. As a pianist, I think that "compelling illusion" is often what I'm after.

Technically, I am always interested in the variety of color and nuance, and this is always directly tied to the instrument and space in the live performance. So in all the pieces, traditionally "virtuosic" or not, a real challenge to me is developing these conceptions of each piece and its individual sound world, and then creating these sound worlds Saturday night on a new instrument (to me), in a new space. So there is a high level of anticipation, uncertainty, and chance involved with each one—that's a big technical concern which I don't really address until the night of the concert itself.

NOTE: Below are YouTube videos featuring some of the pieces that Marilyn will perform on Saturday night. With the exception of National Anthem, all performances below are by other pianists.

Dominique Troncin: Ciel ouvert (Dominique My, piano)

Claude Vivier: Shiraz (performer not listed)

Gerard Pesson: La Lumière n'a pas de bras pour nous porter (Alfonso Alberti, piano)

Drew Baker: National Anthem (Marilyn Nonken, piano)

Wednesday - April 16, 2014

The JACK Quartet recently performed the complete Xenakis String Quartets on the Bowerbird concert series in Philadelphia. Videographer Bob Sweeney filmed the concert and posted separate videos of each piece on his Vimeo account. I have compiled and embedded the set below. On a related note, I highly recommend reading JACK Quartet cellist Kevin McFarland's "Second-Generation Interpretation of Iannis Xenakis' String Quartets," published as part of the Performing Xenakis collection.





Friday - March 21, 2014

ICE will perform three concerts of Alvin Lucier's music at Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art this weekend. Included in the series is Carbon Copies, which ICE succinctly describes in their program notes:

"Three musicians gather field recordings from an exterior environment. These recordings are played through loudspeakers to the audience and through headphones to the musicians: a percussionist, a saxophonist, and a pianist. Slowly, the loudspeakers fade out while the sound in the headphones remains. The performers attempt to emulate the natural sounds from the field recordings in real time; the effect is that the field recordings fade imperceptibly into their instrumental simulacra."

The goal of seamlessly integrating the acoustic sounds into the field recordings defines the supreme challenge of this work. I speak from the experience of having participated in a performance of Carbon Copies several years ago. The difficulty begins with creating a field recording that one can precisely emulate. Regardless of location, it is highly likely that the recording will feature some degree of non-pitched or indefinitely pitched material. This fact alone forces the performer to consider the entire breadth of timbral possibilities for the instrument.

In preparing for my performance of Carbon Copies, I ventured around Chicago looking for interesting sounds both obvious and obscure. I remember standing beneath the tracks and recording the El train passing above. Ultimately, I settled on a recording I made by holding the mic out of my car window while driving down Lakeshore Drive. My attempts to match the resultant muffled wind sound involved standing in the crook of the piano with the damper pedal permanently depressed and shaking a square piece of metal flashing (like a mini thunder sheet).

Of the many performances I've been a part of over the years, that one continues to stay with me. I honestly want to try it again because I came away feeling less than satisfied with the result. What appeared initially to be a very simple concept proved extremely challenging. Lucier was present at the dress rehearsal and performance and he emphasized the point that we were not there to capture the atmosphere of the combined field recordings, but to reproduce the sounds as precisely as possible. He chastised the saxophonist for playing slap tongue sounds that clearly did align with the recording (a directive that was sadly ignored in the actual performance).

The experience furthermore drove home the point that, like many Lucier works, virtuosity in Carbon Copies is defined by one's ear. Can the performer pick up the subtleties of the recording? Can the performer translate those subtleties via all sonic parameters (timbre, rhythm, pitch, etc.)? The elegance of the piece's setup hides the fact that Carbon Copies demands a high level of dedicated preparation. It is a test of musicianship that is unique and well worth experiencing.

Friday - March 14, 2014

Below are the program notes for limb, one of my most recent works for contrabass flute (doubling piccolo) and percussion. I wrote limb for the A/B Duo who will perform it at Spectrum in New York City this Sunday, March 16, 2014 at 7pm.

Sol LeWitt's Scribble Wall Drawing series served as a primary source of ideas for limb. These massive drawings (many in the 8' x 8' range and one as long as 61') are comprised of hyper-dense bands of pencil gestures that, depending upon the particular work, coalesce into formations akin to the paintings of Rothko (horizontal) and Barnett Newman (vertical).

LeWitt's method of developing a visual concept and its associated process, and then delegating the execution of the process to others, offers interesting parallels to the composer/performer relationship. Robert Storr, a member of one of the teams that created the drawings, described the process as follows:

"...far from being a matter of mechanically executing a fixed schema, LeWitt's delegation of labor in the production of his work enlists others in a, for the most part, aleatory and highly sensual activity that was as much at the heart of his own engagement with the result as the generative idea behind each project."

This notion of the sensuality of gesture has long been important in my music, and it is present throughout limb. From the gently pulsating tremolo figures in the opening, to the middle section's gong swells, to the final section's chords tethered together via long tones in the crotales, these gestures, simple as they may be, are intended to elicit a palpable intimacy and sensuality.

Maximizing this effect often depends upon another critical compositional parameter: proportion. In executing LeWitt's drawings, the teams temporarily extend horizontal or vertical strands of thread (depending on the orientation of the drawing) across the paper in order to attain a detailed sense of spatial proportion. LeWitt dictates the gradations of pencil tone and density for each section of paper using a scale from 1-6 (1 being essentially white paper and 6 being the darkest and most gesturally dominated).

It is important to note that I did not attempt to create a perfect linear/sonic parallel to LeWitt's process. There was no 1-6 sonic density scale. I do, however, obsess over temporal proportions at both the local and global levels. The composer must attain a heightened awareness of swaths of time--understanding how each moment exerts influence upon the next, how long a particular texture can extend,and how specific gestures leave short and long term residue in the memory. This nexus of gesture and proportion provides an inroad between my linear/sonic wold and the spatial/visual of LeWitt.

Friday - November 22, 2013

Photo by Steve Scap

On December 1st, the A/B Duo will premiere one of my latest works, limb for contrabass flute (doubling piccolo) and percussion. The concert will take place at The Green Mill Cocktail Lounge in Chicago's Uptown neighborhood at 2pm, and is being presented by the Anaphora Ensemble as part of their 3rd annual Sounds of Chicago series. Tickets are $5 at the door. Also featured on the program are works by Jenna Lyle and Carolyn O'Brien (check out my interview with Jenna Lyle here).

If you're in New York, the A/B duo will perform limb at the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music on December 7th at 8pm. Tickets can be purchased online for $20 (student rate is $15). The Brooklyn program will include works by Adam Cuthbert, Ian Dicke, Carolyn O'Brien, Matthew Joseph Payne, and Ivan Trevino.

limb was commissioned by and written for the A/B Duo, a.k.a. Meerenai Shim and Christopher Jones. The project enabled me to work with a unique instrumentation that includes the extremes of the flute family mixed with vibraphone, Thai gong, wind gong, and crotales. Needless to say, this has been an exciting opportunity from a compositional and collaborative standpoint.  

You can pre-order the A/B Duo's forthcoming release "The Things We Dream About" at their Bandcamp page and view their performance calendar at