is an old friend of mine, I’ve been playing his music since I was in school at Northwestern and have played four works by him so far. He’s one of Chicago’s most gifted composers, and I’m incredibly thrilled that we’re presenting his gripping work “Stress Position”
on our Theatre of War
I came to Drew with a few questions about his compositional approach, pianistic background and politics.
AW: As a pianist, can you describe how you came to decide on this instrument as the vehicle for Stress Position?
DB: The simple answer is that Marilyn Nonken requested a politically-inspired work for piano. That said, after careful consideration, the piano seemed like the perfect instrument through which to examine the topic of torture. There is something very machine-like about the piano, from the action of the hammers to its overwhelming size. It isn’t terribly difficult to imagine the piano as some sort of torture apparatus to which the player is attached. This leads to the unique bond between piano and pianist. In the liner notes to the Stress Position CD I wrote: “Pianists spend lifetimes alone in small rooms with antique instruments.” I was attempting to illustrate the confinement, physicality, and intimacy that define this relationship, characteristics that make the piano and pianist prime candidates for this particular piece.
AW: One of the intriguing aspects of Stress Position for me, is its ability to simultaneously be a well-contained musical composition as well as a performance piece about empathy. Could you discuss what your initial in-road was for making this connection?
DB: Let me begin by pointing out the incredible difficulty (and perhaps impossibility) involved in creating a piece that functions both as a compelling musical and political statement. My attempt to meld these two purposes centers around the idea of endurance. The pianist must not only play for over nine minutes without stopping, he or she must maintain a steady stream of sixteenth notes that grow louder and denser as the work unfolds. It is a form of virtuosity that demands extreme concentration and, most importantly, stamina. Regardless of the performer’s threshold, there is almost no way that a human can actually sustain the tempo, especially in the last third of the piece. This vulnerability and its impact on the music is a critical part of the experience and, in a way, may generate the empathy you mention.
AW: Are any aspects of the musical technique/process related to the topic of the piece?
DB: Absolutely. The term “stress position” refers to a torture technique whereby all or most of the body weight is directed at a specific muscle group. In the case of the musical composition, the “stress position” involves having to play continuously with the arms outstretched to the far ends of the keyboard. Another related process involves the use of amplification. In researching the topic of torture, especially as it pertains to the past decade, I learned about the technique of placing a detainee in a pitch-black room where excessively loud music is continuously blasted. In Stress Position, amplification is gradually implemented during the second half of the piece. This increase in volume is punctuated by the lights being cut, leaving the audience in darkness while being bombarded by the amplified piano. Thus, over the course of Stress Position, the role of the audience evolves from witnessing the torture to being subjected to a torture-related scenario.
AW: On a broader level, what’s your feeling on the ability or responsibility of a composer of classical music to engage with the events of our current day? Some composers have deliberately avoided this, while others have embraced it.
DB: I understand the reluctance on the part of many composers to avoid overt engagement with politics or current events. From a personal standpoint, I never had a great deal of interest in it until Marilyn first asked me to write a politically-inspired work. The resultant piece, National Anthem, predates Stress Position and served as a study of sorts for incorporating extra-musical issues into my music. I very much like the idea of grappling with ideas and events that have contemporary relevance. While I don’t think composers have a responsibility or duty to engage with current events, it can be a way for us to join a larger dialogue. That said, one cannot go about it in a casual way. The composer must wrestle with the political idea(s) with the same intensity as he or she brings to timbre, harmony, rhythm, form and various other compositional parameters. The musical and extra-musical must be fully integrated in the mind and ear of the composer at the very outset.