drewbakermusic BLOG

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

Friday - July 19, 2013

In Megan Grace Beugger's Liaison, a dancer is harnessed to a piano via wires that, when pulled, bow the strings inside the instrument. Thus, the physical movements of the dancer generate the sonic result. It is a visually and aurally striking work. Below is a video of Melanie Aceto performing Liaison at this year's June in Buffalo Festival. In addition, I asked Megan a few questions about how the work came together. Her responses reveal a fascinating process informed by multiple collaborations.

D.B. How long did it take to create the apparatus that connects the dancer to the piano? Did you work from a pre-conceived plan or was the process defined more by trial and error?

M.G.B. It was quite a long an intense process. From the initial conception, it probably took about 9 months to get a contraption that produced sound which resembled the final apparatus. After, there were a lot of adjustments made along the roughly one year it took to write the piece. I originally just thought of really long piano bows being tied to a dancer. When I tried that, parts of the piano (dampers and the frame bars) actually prevented any sound from occurring. So first, I just designed a simple device that was just a large wood block with a pole, which would be placed on top of the piano and pull the bows away from anything preventing them from resonating. This worked fine, and could be a useful tool for other pieces, which include intricate bowed piano, but it was rather limiting for this piece. It required two hands or body parts to operate one bow, which was off-putting because of the few amount of potential bows we could use, and the mandated scissors motion would get old really fast. From there, we wanted to have a contraption which would retract the strings, and we had to enlist tons of help from everyone we knew that had any sort of experience in designing mechanisms of any sort. We had three guys from the Center for the Arts at UB, who normally work on set design, Tom Tucker, Gary Casarella, and Tom Burke, architect Michael Rogers, and engineer John Roeseler, among others who worked extensively with us to come up with designs, problem solve, and physically build the contraption. It was extremely exciting to have so many people from such diverse fields actively and enthusiastically involved in making my idea for a piece with into a reality. Once the machine was built, we found problems as we began to work on it, which we consulted our friends for advice and help. The solution for one little problem would usually cause a trail of more, so we had to follow it to the end to get a final apparatus that would work.

D.B.To what degree is the gestural vocabulary in Liaison informed by your collaboration with Melanie Aceto?

M.G.B. It was extremely informed by my collaboration. Due to the nature of the piece, there is no possible separation of dance and music, so we had to write the entire thing together. Melanie would record improvisation sessions with the contraption, which was really helpful, and I’d bring pre-composed segments to rehearsals. The success rate of my pre-composed segments was much lower than I’d normally have composing music. Probably about 80-90% wouldn’t even be physically possible, and that is before you start to cut out what is boring, overdone, and ineffective. Melanie was much more likely to come up with gestures that were linear, rounded, gentle, and smooth, while I was much more likely to come up with gestures which were more choppy and harsh. Our collaboration allowed us to work with material that we would have never come up with on our own, which was really challenging but also rewarding. Additionally, our points of view about larger scale issues, such as form, were very different due to the different fields we were involved in, and it was really interesting for me to see how someone outside the music field thinks about the same concepts composers think about.

D.B. Is there a score for Liaison? If so, what does it look like and how did you come up with an appropriate notation?

M.G.B. Not yet, but one is in the works. As a composer, I always have worked in score, but dancers and choreographers use purely videos of performances in lieu of a score (giving an even stronger interpretive role to the first performers of a work). The piece clearly uses motion beyond that of an everyday person, and requires a skilled dancer. I’m sure there are a few musician/ dancers out there that have a relationship to written scores, but they are in the minority. Most dancers are very visual, and prefer that I show them how to do a movement instead of reading about it, and I prefer doing that too (given enough rehearsal time) as I get to really refine the movement and interpretation to fit with my visions for the piece. However, as this piece has consumed the last year and half of my doctoral studies, I’m hoping to create a score in order to include it in my doctoral portfolio, as well as be something that can open up more musicians to the work. The notation will be a mix of pictures depicting a motion and boxed text that describe sections where one specific motion is repeated until it is “maxed out.” Right now, the focus is on creating extremely detailed diagrams, which document the apparatus and its setup so it can be successfully recreated.

D.B. Given the physical setup of the piece, it makes sense that the pitch material is static. How did you decide upon the chosen pitch collection?

M.G.B. That was something that we experimented with and changed a lot as we wrote the piece. A lot of my choices regarding pitch for this piece were more about practicality than anything else. There were many pitch combinations that I was pleased with the sounds, but due to their placement in the piano they created some sort of technical issue (getting stuck, being hard to pull, twisting with other lines, or producing too much friction and snapping). I also wanted to pick a collection with enough timbral variety. After much trial and error we found a collection that worked great physically in the piano, and I was happy with the sound. The pitches are quasi based off the A spectral series, but there are a few pitches in there to throw it off and create dissonance.

D.B. The title of the piece, the striking image of a performer harnessed to a piano, the provocative ending gesture- all of these elements suggest a variety of possible sexual/political themes. Is this piece intended to explore a particular political idea?

M.G.B. Our goal was to create strong imagery, but not specific imagery. I think when you allow an audience member to connect with the piece by creating their own symbolisms, imageries, and meanings; the piece becomes more personal for them. Neither of us is interested in creating a linear story, however we were interested in creating characters. I often think of the piece more as a duo than a solo piece, where the piano/contraption is character too, and I was very interested in exploring the relationship between the piano/contraption and dancer. The dancer is in control of moving the bows that sound the piano strings, but the piano and contraption have more physical weight and mass, therefore the dancer must face the contraption’s resistance while being stuck in a confined space. This raises questions for me, such as what is strength and what/whom holds it.

Have a comment? Share your thoughts on Facebook or Twitter.