Renée Baker: Nothing’s Gonna Stop You From Creating
Spending an hour over Zoom chatting with Renée Baker about her more than two thousand musical compositions and perhaps almost as many paintings was inspirational as well as motivational. Renée does not let anything deter her and while her music is extremely wide ranging and gleefully embraces freedom of expression, her daily schedule is precise and meticulous.
Spending an hour over Zoom chatting with Renée Baker about her more than two thousand musical compositions and perhaps almost as many paintings was inspirational as well as motivational. Especially during this time when the ability for anything we do to have a certain future seems somewhat precarious at best. But Renée does not let anything deter her and while her music is extremely wide ranging and gleefully embraces freedom of expression, her daily schedule is precise and meticulous.
“I don’t separate life from creation,” she explained to me as she outlined a typical day in her life. “Breakfast about 7:30. And right behind that, about 8:15, started [making] dinner. … When I’m done with my conversation with you, I have four gallons of paint in the hallway that will make their way to my studio garage; I’m working on a series there. … These might not be finished for a couple of weeks while I determine what the palette is gonna be. You know, it has to strike me. Once I do that, I might wander out. I’ll go past a thrift store or something looking for pieces because I do make sound item sculpture, so that’s always fun, especially with wood and glue. And then I’ll probably nap and watch a few zombie movies. I’m a Walking Dead aficionado. When I’m done with that, since dinner’s already fixed, my husband can eat whenever he wants, I will probably go to a coffee shop or sit outside a coffee shop. I keep my manuscript book in the car. So anytime I’m driving or going to sit by the pond, or sit by the lake, or feed the ducks, I keep adding to these compositions. When they’re finished, I pull them out and I put them in the envelopes. So I touch almost everything every day.”
Her discipline has paid off. In addition to the ensembles that she herself has formed to perform her compositions, most notably the Chicago Modern Orchestra Project, organizations around the country and the world have commissioned and presented her music including the Chicago Sinfonietta, the Spektral Quartet, Boston’s ECCE Ensemble, Berlin’s International Brass, DanceWright Project SF, the Joffrey Ballet, Berkeley Books of Paris, the Destejilk Museum in the Netherlands, and on and on. Plus her paintings are represented by two different galleries—and they sell.
Given her broad range of artistic pursuits, it’s no wonder that Renée Baker is a member of Chicago’s pioneering AACM (The Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians), an organization founded in 1965 by the late Muhal Richard Abrams who counts among its members such legendary genre-defying Black artists as Roscoe Mitchell, Anthony Braxton, Amina Claudine Myers, Henry Threadgill, George Lewis, and Tomeka Reid. Yet at the time Nicole Mitchell first suggested she join, Renée had acknowledged that she had never actually improvised. And while she proudly identifies herself as “a Black woman in America that survived classical music,” she “never sought to do an all-Black anything.” As she explains, “When you’re looking at my music, you can say, oh, it’s Black music because she’s Black, or whatever. But the fact is I’m interested in people who can play in four with my beat pattern and stay with me. It’s very simple. I don’t care; I don’t care what you are.”
Also, despite the fact that she creates vital work as a composer and as a painter (plus she also writes poetry and makes sculptures), Renée Baker does not compartmentalize. She does not think in terms of synaesthesia, but if you spend enough time looking and listening to the different forms of art she creates, you will notice clear aesthetic affinities. E.g. the striking combinations of colors in her paintings share a kinship with the way different timbres interact in her musical compositions. In fact, she has worked extensively with graphic scores that are as fascinating as visual art as they are as music. Ultimately, Renée Baker’s work is a by-product of an extremely healthy confidence, and her advice about perseverance is something that all artists should heed, especially in these extremely uncertain times:
“If your heart is married to creating, then there’s nothing, even a pandemic, that’s gonna stop you from creating. You might not create as much. You may experience a bit more stress, some financial worries—no telling what everybody individually is facing. But you can’t stop the train. Just keep going. Just keep going. Look at other directions. Maybe the direction you were going in would have been stopped without the pandemic. Maybe you’d gotten to a wall and there’s something else for you to access. Don’t be frightened, and don’t be cowed by criticism.”
NOTE: As part of this month’s Ear Taxi Festival in Chicago, Renée Baker will lead a string quintet from her Chicago Modern Orchestra Project in a performance of her composition Eternal Units of Beauty for one of the Spotlight Concerts at Chicago’s Phantom Gallery on September 26. Learn more about Ear Taxi’s Spotlight Concerts here. She will also participate in Ear Taxi’s panel discussion “What are the components of a thriving ecosystem for new music?” moderated by New Music USA’s CEO Vanessa Reed on September 29 at the DePaul Art Museum. More info about that panel can be found here.
Read the Full Transcript
Frank J. Oteri in conversation with Renée Baker
August 30, 2021—10:30 p.m. CDT
Via a Zoom Conference Call
Transcribed by Julia Lu
Frank J. Oteri: I’ve been poking around your website and you’ve written over one thousand pieces of music. [Renée Baker raises two fingers.] Two thousand? Two thousand! Wow!
Renée Baker: And that is an old estimate.
FJO: To anybody that’s totally shocking that somebody would have written 2,000 pieces of music, and you’d say okay, well maybe that’s all she does. But that’s not all you do. In addition to writing music, you conduct various ensembles. You lead ensembles. You play music. And that’s just the music. And then you’re a painter and you’ve done tons of paintings. And you’re a poet.
RB: And you know what? I sell paintings, too. That’s the best part.
FJO: They’re beautiful. So, that’s great to hear that.
RB: Thank you.
FJO: But all these things take time. Where do you find the time to create all this amazing stuff?
RB: Well, the first thing I don’t do is I don’t separate life from creation. So I have a life as a da-da-dah housewife. I have to cook every day like everybody else. But you know, I think my time schedule is very different. Like you and I are speaking at 10:30 in the morning my time, and I’ve already cooked my dinner. I do it immediately after breakfast so that my husband doesn’t have to be inconvenienced. But my time schedule is almost like I’m on European time.
I get up in the morning, I fix breakfast like everyone else, but then the day is segmented into: Am I working on publishing? Am I working on painting? Am I working on composition? And so the time that I allot for those things, I don’t allow myself to be distracted during those times. And, you know, when you sit down and get to it, it gets done. And I really wasn’t counting, but at some point, I said I really need to catalog what I’ve done. The books that I published this summer were just remnants of catalogs from shows with hundreds of paintings in them. It was mostly from my documentation, but to share also with one of the galleries that I’m represented by.
I don’t write on the computer. Sorry I don’t know how to use any of those notation programs, like Sibelius or Finale. I just don’t have a feel for them. So I write on paper. And I just keep going. I have a plethora of groups that I write for. So it can be classical. It can be my orchestra, the AACM, the Great Black Music Ensemble, solos. All of that. I just do it.
FJO: Now you say you divide, so each day you work on music, each day you work on painting. Outline a typical day for me.
RB: Okay, this morning it was breakfast about 7:30. And right behind that about 8:15, started dinner. Now I had this call with you at 10:30, so I sat down and did payroll for a recording that I did. The musicians need to be paid. When I’m done with my conversation with you, I have four gallons of paint in the hallway that will make their way to my studio garage, and I’m working on a series there. It’s a quartych of four paintings that were started about three days ago. I can’t always get things finished that day. So these might not be finished for a couple of weeks while I determine what the palette is gonna be. You know, it has to strike me. Once I do that, I might wander out. I’ll go past a thrift store or something looking for pieces because I do make sound item sculpture, so that’s always fun, especially with wood and glue. And then I’ll probably nap and watch a few zombie movies. I’m a Walking Dead aficionado.
FJO: Love it.
RB: When I’m done with that, since dinner’s already fixed, my husband can eat whenever he wants, I will probably go to a coffee shop or sit outside a coffee shop. I keep my manuscript book in the car. So anytime I’m driving or going to sit by the pond, or sit by the lake, or feed the ducks, I keep adding to these compositions. When they’re finished, I pull them out and I put them in the envelopes. So I touch almost everything every day, mainly those. But I do a lot of silent film. I’ve scored over 300 silent films.
RB: Unfortunately, Ebertfest, the Roger Ebert Film Festival, that was supposed to be September 8 through 11, just got cancelled.
FJO: Oh, because of the pandemic.
RB: Because of the pandemic. But this is the third time that I’ve been invited to present silent film with my ensemble live at Ebertfest. Chaz Ebert is marvelous fan of our work, and this year we were going to be doing The Scar of Shame, from 1927. But she’s already booked us for April 2022. They just feel it’s too much of a risk for the audience. We found a way to space in the pit, and make the ensemble much smaller than the last one. The last one, I took 20 for the pit. So this time we were taking 8, so that everyone could distance. But it’s not gonna work for the audience. So April it is. But I’ve been so lucky to be accessed at the top of that film game, just out of the box from my first film.
FJO: That’s really great. And hopefully there’ll be a time where we won’t constantly say, “is this gonna happen? Is this not gonna happen?”
FJO: We’re living in a very strange time, and I eventually want to talk about that a little bit, but I don’t want to turn our whole conversation to that because that would be way too depressing, and there are so many things that are so great.
RB: I know, but you know what? Most of us you know, freelancers, etcetera, etcetera, you always say to yourself, “Oh my gosh. If I had a sabbatical, this is what I would do.” Well, you just had one.
FJO: It’s true. But I still want to get to this, this amazing day that you have, so art, art in like the morning-afternoon, music in the evening.
RB: Yeah, and film when my eyes are clear from not staring at the computer all day. Um, yeah. It’s all about creating. I feel I’m creating even when I fix dinner.
FJO: Right, of course. And I assume you get to eat that dinner too, I hope.
RB: Yes, I do.
FJO: Do you sleep?
RB: Of course I do.
RB: But I can tell you it’s generally between like 2 or 3 AM, and then 7.
RB: And you know what, because I’m not jumping in the car and driving on the expressway, I don’t have to pad two hours on the front or two hours on the back of the driving time. Because it can be, it takes me in normal stop-and-start traffic about an hour and half to get into Chicago. Without that, that’s three or four more hours.
RB: So we have 24, jeez oh petes. We have 24 and if we’re lucky enough, as freelancers to make any kind of living, then we’re piecing together many of these factions of activity. And so I just feel really, really happy and blessed that right now I don’t have to say, “Welcome to Walmart” and hand you your cart. So the music, the film, the art, just the creating is, is worthy. It’s a worthy profession.
FJO: Our society—we’re victims of Aristotle saying one person, one job. Right? Are you a composer and just a painter on the side? Or are you a painter, composer on the side? But for you these things all seem equal.
RB: They are. I’m thrilled that you said that because for almost 25 years, I was principal violist in the Chicago Sinfonietta. One of the things that I’d always been told by teachers was basically the message was stay in your lane. So my lane was as a violist slash violinist, and I did very, very well. Very, very well as a teacher and as a performer. But as that time came to a close, not quite eight years ago, I realized that I had kind of stifled the urge to do all these things and expose them to the public. I have drawers and cabinets of paintings, but I always felt that I didn’t want to be seen as a dabbler. So I just kept working on whatever that voice was.
The switch turned on when Paul Freeman, the former conductor of the Sinfonietta, actually heard my music at an event and he said, “You program these programs? Whose music is this?” And I said, “Well, tell me first, did you like it before I divulge the program.” He said, “Yeah, yeah, it was wonderful.” It was a string quintet with marimba. And I said, “It’s all mine.” I had made wedding books for ensembles, which I never published, but I just gave to my musicians. He was flabbergasted. After that, he asked me if I wanted to write, if I would write a string overture for the Chicago Sinfonietta, and I said no. He said, “Why?” I said, “You got like a whole orchestra up there, one that I’m in, and you want me to write just for strings? Nope! I need to flex. So it’s the whole orchestra or nothing.”
RB: And he said okay. And that was my first orchestra commission. It was Sundown’s Promise. A piece about the celebration at the end of the Japanese rice harvest. So it was premiered at Symphony Center. It was amazing, 13 taiko drums, jazz quartet, with toe dancers, shamisen ensemble, and full orchestra.
FJO: I want to hear that.
RB: Lots of names that you know. Tatsu Aoki, and his shamisen ensemble, and Tatsu Aoki’s taiko group, Nicole Mitchell, David Boykin—It was an amazing first outing.
FJO: Fantastic. And it’s amazing that you stuck to your guns and said I’m not writing for string orchestra. I want to write for the full orchestra. I love that.
RB: Well you know, it wasn’t about sticking to my guns. It’s just if I stayed in one pigeon hole, I needed to flex my muscles on the brass parts and the wind parts, and honing the skill of how to write an effective bass line. I needed to work in the total vernacular. I’m a string player. I know about string writing. Let’s access and hone the stuff that I’m not as proficient with. I’m not scared of very much. I mean, what’s gonna happen? If somebody doesn’t play it, well hell, I got my own orchestra. I can have my orchestra play it. That was my impetus for starting it.
FJO: Let’s listen to the Chicago Sinfonietta’s performance of another one of Renée Baker’s compositions. This is Divertimento Notte Blu.
RB: Composers that honestly sit around and wait for the environment to form their career, that’s nice, but I’m not 21. So I need an ensemble that’s trained, that understands my language, my vocabulary, and reads traditional notation, because I use it all. It was a vanity move, but one that has worked for me in that if I don’t want to listen to the MIDI of a piece, I can have my orchestra at least give me some sort of live rendition.
FJO: And since you’re avoiding Sibelius and Finale, and all that software, MIDI is kind of harder to get to happen anyway. You’re not missing much. MIDI is awful.
RB: Well yeah, but if that’s what you got, that’s what you got.
FJO: Sure. Your confidence is so inspiring. It’s contagious. It’s wonderful. So I’m wondering, you began doing all this stuff, getting back to this Aristotle nonsense, growing up, did people try to say: “Oh, you should only do art.” Or “you should only do music.” Were you encouraged? How did you find yourself being able to do all these different things?
RB: I am a Black woman in America that survived classical music. End of discussion. I not only survived, I thrived. Okay? And it’s not that racism didn’t touch me. It’s not that hostility didn’t touch me. It’s not that comments and attempts to put the basket on my head weren’t there. It’s just that I don’t believe in limits. And if I’m given a skill set, it doesn’t mean that that skill set is developed at the time that I start. But it is my duty to develop it because God gave me that ability. So, go for it. What’s the worst that can happen? Somebody says they don’t like it. I don’t care. Somebody says, “Oh, I don’t like the color palette in that painting,” which has been said. Well look, there’s hundreds of others that you can look at. The fact that I’ve been able to monetize it is sheer luck and a blessing. But I don’t create out of making a commodity. None of my work is a commodity. My work is art. So if you think only in terms of commodity, if it doesn’t sell, you think it’s not worth it. And that’s a faulty mindset that many composers fall into. You have to see your art as art and not merchandise. That’s just my thinking. So when the opportunity meets the work that you’ve already done, you’re in. That has been the rubric for me. It’s been that simple. I don’t mean to oversimplify it. But I truly believe that everything that anyone touches if you work hard enough at it, you can make magic. And you can engage people.
FJO: So in terms of mentors, in terms of people who encouraged you, inspired you, was there anybody that you can point to and say, this person helped set me on this direction?
RB: Well, you know what, it’s not just people living. I was totally inspired by Anaïs Nin. In the composing-conducting world, believe it or not, this guy Iancu Dumitrescu is an absolutely amazing creator. It’s not that I seek to duplicate anything that any of these people do, but I find inspiration in their activity. I certainly was opened to the door of the AACM by my friend Nicole Mitchell. At that time, I had never improvised, not one note. And she said, “There’s something about your spirit; I think you belong in this group.” And I said, “Yeah, well whatever.” So after two years, I petitioned for membership, and I got in. I’m inspired in the academia world by George Lewis and what he’s made happen. And Roscoe [Mitchell]. But the majority of the people that I look up to have come from reading, and from accessing not just their successes, but their tragedies. So Nicolas de Staël, the painter. Picasso. Absolutely most prolific person on the planet, because he just worked. I don’t think he was counting. And writers. Mirtha Dermisache, I believe she’s Argentinian, an asemic-published writer. It’s all over the place. I’m constantly absorbing life journeys. Not for direction, but for affirmation.
FJO: And the affirmation that the AACM represents is this openness to all styles, to all approaches to making music. AACM embraces everything.
RB: Yeah, we do. I realize that at the beginning of my composer journey—whether or not I was going to be focusing on a classical piece, or a string quartet piece, or a trio, or a solo piece, or a combo—between the AACM and believe it or not, John Cage, the umbrella opened for me and basically said: Don’t write in genres. Write from your ear. Write from what you hear. I will say that a luncheon with Anthony Braxton also changed the palette for me. He had mentioned to me that he was interested in my orchestral works. I hadn’t started writing the operas at that time. I was in New York to play on one of his operas that was presented at Roulette. And he just said to me, “We’re not writing jazz. We’re just writing music.” If we’re thinking people, then out of our hands or into our music comes everything that we’ve absorbed as humans. I leave it to other people to categorize it. If you want to pigeonhole it, that’s for you. It certainly doesn’t impact what I create.
FJO: I know that you went through the program for musical composition at Vermont College of Fine Arts, which is also open to so many different styles and treats all musical genres equally. I’m wondering if that was affirmation as well, in that way.
RB: It was. There were two mentors at VCFA who expressed shock and awe, but then said, just go for it. It was Jonathan Bailey Holland and Don DiNicola. Jonathan said, “I don’t know what you’re doing, but it works.” And Don said, “You’re a film composer. You don’t even know it.” I wasn’t following the film trend. But I know I had sat in enough classes, and watched dozens of people present four-minute clips that they had worked on all semester, and I thought if I look at another clip here, I’m just gonna barf.
So Don approached me and said at a breakfast one day, “I’ve got an idea for you. Why don’t we work on Body and Soul, 1925, Oscar Micheaux? I think there may be an opening for you to work on something like this.” And, of course, that’s with the idea of doing a four-minute or five-minute clip. And I said, “I’m not interested.” He said, “Are you kidding?” I said, “No. I want to do the whole movie. What is the value in doing these little clips?” So we worked for six months. I wrote and recorded and sent him the samples and things. At the end of that semester, we released it and had it released in New York. It actually got reviewed here in Chicago by the Tribune and the Reader. Howard Reich, the critic at the Tribune, sent me a message, and it said, “Wow.”
An excerpt from Body and Soul (1925) directed by Oscar Micheaux. Music by Renée Baker performed by the Chicago Modern Orchestra Project. Produced by Don DiNicola
So that totally started the film journey. I just sat down and taught myself how to use the software. I just sat in the studio for almost three months until I figured out how to marry the scores to the silent film. I only deal with public domain film, when I’m dealing with someone else’s art. So we’re talking about from 1898 to 1927, when talkies became de rigeur. I could sit and score two or three films in a day if I put my mind to it, because a lot of the silent films were shorter. They’d range from 15 minutes, 20 minutes, an hour + 10, that kind of thing. So it’s a lot to embrace, but I do give each discipline and each practice its time, so that nothing stands still. It may stand still for a couple of weeks, but then I’m back on it, if something takes a lot of time.
FJO: Well, I want to posit a crazy idea here. I think one of the reasons why you do such fantastic work in all these different mediums, is that you don’t necessarily compartmentalize them and say: That’s music over there. Oh, that’s painting over there. But there’s kind of a common aesthetic that filters through all of these things.
RB: Absolutely. Believe it or not, not that I need another degree, but I’m getting ready to apply for the Visual Art MFA at VCFA.
FJO: Oh, wonderful!
RB: I want that experience. I don’t want to pay for it, but we’ll see. But part of my practice when I was at VCFA was to also hone the area of graphic scores: Studying composers like Sylvano Bussotti, who was one of my all-time favorites, and trying to figure out how to produce almost exactly, or similarly, the kind of sound that you envision through non-traditional notation. That was my focus. So, that kind of crosses into the art life. But because I have honed and worked with my musicians, and they can read anything that I paint, or write, or scribe innately, I don’t have the worry that other artists do when they start a painting. Is this a good painting? Is this a bad painting? It doesn’t matter because whether it’s perceived as a work of art, or a score, I can produce from it. That’s what I trained myself to do. That’s what I trained musicians, and that’s what I continue to do. So, this fall, I’m subbing for two ensembles at DePaul University. I’m conducting both the new music ensemble, Ensemble 20, and the chamber orchestra. [laughs] I never thought I’d get engaged to do both extremes, but the students this semester are going to get exposed to: tactile scores, which is physical scores that you touch; textures and graphic scores; and totally through-notated works.
FJO: I want to talk with you a bit more about the differences between those kinds of scores and the kinds of liberties that musicians can take and creative interpretation. This ties back to the whole notion of AACM and improvisation and writing for specific people rather than specific instruments. For the Duke Ellington Orchestra, Ellington didn’t write for trumpet. He wrote for Cootie Williams [or] Bubber Miley. Those people, putting them together, is another way of looking at orchestration.
RB: Oh, absolutely.
FJO: He knew the certain kinds of sounds you’re going to get. But it also gives these players agency and ownership over that music, to have it be theirs as well. And I’m wondering in a graphic score, when you say, I want to be able to create something through a graphic score what I’m hearing in my head, and get that sound through a graphic score, what precisely does that mean in terms of those sounds and what the players will bring to it?
RB: When I’m preparing a graphic score, I’ll be very honest. I am not preparing it with people in mind, though I know the skill set of every person in my ensemble. And even when new people come in, one of our introductory exercises is always, without any music, I need to hear each person’s creative voice. Now, I also tell people: don’t run out and get those Jamey Aebersold books ‘cause I’m not interested in hearing those licks. I listen to every player because the majority of my players are classical musicians who play in orchestras, so they have honed a voice. I know their tones. I know where they’re likely to go. I can look at a cellist and look at his hand, and see pretty much what he’s getting ready to play and the range. And so sometimes at that moment, I can tell him to shift, oops. Oh, there we go. I can tell him to shift because I see you’re getting ready to launch your little solo in a range where the trombone and all those middle voices already are. So if I want your thing to peak out, I need you to move up. So there’s a whole symbology involved. I did study Walter Thompson’s sound painting as well as Butch Morris’s conduction, John Zorn’s Cobra, Ianco Dumitrescu, and Ana-Maria Avram.
There’s not one of those systems that works for me alone, because the language that I’ve developed is pretty organic, and I don’t need people sitting and looking at me, going like this, “Who me?” Or, I don’t need them wondering about what the symbol means. So what I’ve developed is very organic. You know right away, within seconds, what it is I’m instructing you to do. Some of it is improv, but it is totally shaped. Often I give them cues at the beginning. If I think something’s going to be pretty heavy, and they’re looking at a graphic score, sometimes I have to point them back to the sheet, because I can tell when you’ve just gone off on your own journey. Because what I envisioned has nothing to do with what I put on that page and what you’re doing.
So when that clarinet player decides to go whoop whoop whoop, I know you’re just having fun because there’s nothing that resembles a glissando on that page. You know where the twists and turns are. You learn the skill set so that you can create as a conductor and composer. You can create close to the sound that you want. I am often thrilled with the happy accident, which means that someone really goes in and takes the blue in a piece very seriously. And they lower down into that warm blue area. Someone else might see it differently. But I have put the same music in front of the same players over and over again and got similar results. So I know that they’re reading what I put in front of them. It’s magic. Absolute magic.
FJO: So, synaesthesia…
RB: I don’t have it.
FJO: So when you’re creating a painting, you don’t hear certain sounds, or when you’re creating music you don’t see certain images.
RB: What I access are emotions. So when I write keys for some of these color field paintings, I’m trusting that the players will innately go to what a red is, or a yellow, or a black. In some of those, the color field paintings/scores are actually the ones where you have to give the most freedom because each person experiences these emotions differently. So, does that help?
FJO: Yeah, I don’t think I have synaesthesia. But when I was saying before that I feel there’s an aesthetic connection between your paintings and your music, I was listening to a bunch of stuff and I was looking at a bunch of paintings. And what kept striking me was there’s such a sensitivity to palette. To combinations in visual art of different colors versus combinations of different timbres in an orchestra context. And it totally makes sense that you wouldn’t want to write a string orchestra piece because that’s like saying: okay, I’m going to do a painting, but I’m only allowed to use green and yellow.
RB: One color, one or two, right. I know about synaesthesia as is applies to people like Braxton, but it’s almost like saying, “Oh, I have perfect pitch.” Well guess what, perfect pitch only works if you’re in tune with everybody else in the ensemble, ‘cause otherwise your perfect pitch can be out of tune.
RB: But I will say that in regards to color and palette, I have relative pitch. Just like I develop relative pitch with music. When I write a viola line, I can hear exactly what it’s going to sound like. When I write a trumpet line, barring a weird transposition, I can hear that line. That’s actually how I write. I’m not a pianist. I only play enough so that when I was younger and teaching, I’d know every Suzuki book piano accompaniment because I could accompany the kids. But keyboard is not an instrument that inspires. It’s a struggle.
FJO: And it’s also a bit of a straightjacket, ‘cause it’s just those 12 pitches.
RB: Well, especially because of your music, I can’t say that’s all that we have. We have tons and tons and tons of pitches.
FJO: In terms of rehearsing and performances you know, working with your own ensembles versus—classical orchestras are notorious in that you get two rehearsals and a performance. So everything has to be so tight. Most of the time. Sometimes you get lucky situations, but that makes doing things like graphic notation, unusual notation, very risky in those contexts.
RB: This is where writing for orchestras is another art, another skill, if you as a composer realize that for the average orchestra rehearsal time is money. I’ve been a union steward for many, many years. When you get that new piece that no one in the orchestra knows or likes, your piece is going to get from within the two rehearsals, you might get 20, 25 minutes. You’re going to get a total of maybe 40 minutes and maybe a five-minute hit at the dress rehearsal, and then it’s on.
So, as the composer, you can decide if you want to regurgitate everything that you know on that one piece, banking on getting the recording of a lifetime, then you took that risk. You have to know that new music to some of these orchestras is like bug repellant. They will do it because it’s the thing to do. But will they do what you envisioned? Most of the time, people come away disillusioned. Not that it has to be totally accessible. You’re going to take the orchestra on an adventure, but it can’t be an impossible venture. It can’t be that they can’t get anything out of the piece. Or you’re gonna get a repeat of John Cage’s performance from the New York Philharmonic.
FJO: I was going to bring that up.
RB: Oh yeah. I’ve done my homework. I have had people come up to me after concerts and say, “I didn’t think I’d like this. I didn’t like everything on the program, but I’ll certainly be back.” Because I took the audience on a journey. I always tell people at the concerts, no matter what melodies and things you hear at the beginning, you will access crazy at some point during this concert, so get comfortable with that. Then I’ll bring you back to that E-major chord or whatever. If you listen to the end of Subtle Hues, it took you everywhere. And I remember the engraver saying to me, I can’t believe how you ended it. You brought it back together and you had people settle down. And you heard the applause, if you listened all the way through. People loved it.\
People want to write for orchestras because it’s a big thing. Right? Maybe that’s not the place for everybody. If you as a composer can’t rein it in a little bit, and make a piece that the musicians can access even a little, then you’re probably not gonna have a success. I know that in writing for orchestras—as an orchestra member and as an instrumentalist for the majority of my life—there are only two components that you have to consider: the musicians’ skill set and the conductor being able to understand your score. If a conductor does not have a way to process your score, you’re gonna get a mess. It’s not that new music is given the short shrift. The fact is an orchestra concert could have anywhere from like four or five pieces on it. By union rules for the most part, you get a three-hour maximum rehearsal. Three-hour rehearsal equals 30 minutes of break time. So now you’re talking two and a half hours of actual butts in the seats playing time. If you split that into half-an-hours, you’ve got five half-an-hours. Whether it’s Beethoven Five, or George Walker Lyric for Strings, or Frank Oteri’s hootie-hootie suite. Whatever it is, they’re pretty much going to look at the difficulty and split that rehearsal time up. Every rehearsal. And so very often we’ve gone on stage and barely got to touch a particular piece because something else took more time. So it’s not that they’re trying to cheat new music composers. It’s just that if there’s more than one thing on the program, the time has to be divvied up according to difficulty.
FJO: That makes sense. So one area that’s even bigger and harder, but I guess it doesn’t suffer from not having multiple things on the program—because it is the thing—is opera. And you mentioned that you’ve done a bunch. I know that you’ve done at least eight. You’ve probably done more than that now. I’d love to talk a little bit about how that works and the kinds of freedoms that musicians are given. Are there freedoms with stage action and acting? Have you used graphic notations in the opera? Then I specifically wanted to talk a bit about the James Baldwin opera because that one really intrigued me.
RB: The James Baldwin opera is a trilogy. The first one is the Baldwin Chronicles, Negro Ideologies. That was presented at the Arts Club of Chicago and it seemed to knock everybody’s socks off. Symphony Center asked next, and I said, “Well, you can’t have that one; you’ll get the next one.” So it was Baldwin Chronicles, Midnight Ramble. And the third is Baldwin Chronicles, Lone Alchemy, which I’m jockeying around now, trying to figure out who I’m going to give it to, where I’m going to present it. What I did was in reading the texts and writing the libretto, I read the works, and then I distilled them. So that I was not using any of James Baldwin’s actual words. And I assigned characters like every other opera composer assigns characters. And I positioned those characters in the line-up so that you know you are to interact with the person next to you. So they don’t have to know everything. You just have to know that the character that’s next to you is who you’re supposed to do your duets, or your trios, or whatever with. I’m a wiz at production. It’s just part of the operations duty, orchestra setups, and all that. No one’s gonna believe it, but none of these operas have rehearsals beforehand.
RB: None. I give the libretto to the singers. I may give it to them a week before, and I may hand it to you on the day of. The one thing I do dictate is costume. I need the element of surprise because I need them to be inside the text and libretto that I’ve given them. And no one gets the same piece of libretto. The musicians never know what I’m bringing, never know how it’s going to be notated. The strings and things are generally not graphic. They have complete through notations ‘cause I need that thread. I need the melodies. I need the treble instruments to give me the themes. And to give me the pitches. That’s about all of the secret magic of my operas that I’m about to divulge. It has been absolute magic. I know the voice and the leanings of every vocalist. And the voice styles always span all the genres. So on the Baldwin Chronicles at Symphony Center, I had four opera singers and I had Dee Alexander and Taalib-Din Ziyad from the AACM. I had gospel singers: Vickie Johnson and Jeffrey Burish. Pop, opera, gospel, creative, classical. I find that those genres to me become colors. And I have to encourage the singers. I know you are standing next to an opera singer: “Please do not try to imitate that vibrato. Do what you do when you do pop.” And I found that that formula works for me.
My second opera presented in the US was Sunyata at the MCA. I wrote Sunyata in Vietnam. I had taken myself to Vietnam to do a residency, and that’s where I crafted Sunyata. When I came back, I contacted the MCA and said, “I’d like to have a meeting with someone. This is what I’ve done.” They said yes. It was Peter Taub and Yolanda Cursach. They said, “Wow. Okay. We’ll meet at the restaurant.” We talk. I explained the premise of it. And they said, “This is kind of dark, but yes, we want to produce it.” That simple. That was the very first time using singers that I knew of.
The very first opera that I did was in Zwolle, the Netherlands. That was Blue Samsara. I used community players and community singers. You know, people who do the jazz hands, all that kind of stuff. That opera needed some rehearsing. But I was there to do that at the Stedelijk Museum, and I learned a lot on that very, very first dry run. Because if I could do that with totally untrained actors-slash-singers and musicians, then I definitely could get a hit with musicians and singers that I knew.
FJO: Fantastic. So a final area to bring it full circle: We’re talking about opera; all these things happen in specific places. You’ve made a lifetime career in Chicago. And it’s been a very good nurturing environment. It seems like an extremely nurturing environment for a wide variety of creative pursuits.
RB: I’ve taken things other places when I was working on honing like the films. I gave numerous screenings in Berlin because they were primarily race films. I knew that people wouldn’t be familiar with them. And so I was able to get reactions from European audiences. I did that in Graz, at Stockwerk, I did a Japanese film, Page of Madness, with a completely live ensemble. It’s gone around. I’ve done screenings in Minneapolis and through the Portland Art Museum. Chicago is definitely an access point, but, like most Americans, sometimes we only value stuff that’s been other places.
RB: So the summer before the pandemic started, I did two film festivals in Paris. Nine films each at a place called the Berkeley Bookshop, right around the corner from the Odéon. I just contacted someone and said, “You ever consider doing a film festival?” They said, “What?” So they looked my stuff up, and they said, “You should be at the Odéon; not at this small place.” I said, “Small is good.” So I packed my thumb drives, and the first time all the films had recorded scores. The second time I hired a live ensemble in Paris and did screenings at the Babilou and at Berkeley Bookshop. So I will go anywhere that someone will give me the opportunity to screen and show. The same thing with music. I started PEK’ Contemporary Project in Berlin, all-Berlin musicians. German musicians respond differently than American musicians. So I was very interested in the take on the processes that I was bringing. I’ve done it with universities here. I did a major project within Indiana University using orchestra and jazz musicians from Jacobs School of Music, using the Illinois Modern Ensemble and students on campus. So I’m an opportunist.
FJO: But Chicago being your home base, the Chicago area, has that been helpful? Has that been nurturing? Has that been encouraging, versus if you were somewhere else, as your home base?
RB: Okay. How does this sound? Chicago is one of the most racially polarized arenas, especially with a very, very, very large abyss and chasm between new music and composers of color. I’m talking Black. I’m not talking everything else. Bridging that has taken time. I’m a lucky one. I’ve actually been able to bridge the gap for myself. I don’t know if everybody’s able to jump over that kind of chasm. For me, befriending and sharing—everybody doesn’t like me, but a lot of people do. So that entrée into new music, absolute new music, was fairly simple for me. It didn’t hurt me that my ensemble is multi-cultural. I never sought to do an all-Black anything. So when you’re looking at my music, you can say, oh, it’s Black music because she’s Black, or whatever. But the fact is I’m interested in people who can play in four with my beat pattern and stay with me. It’s very simple. I don’t care; I don’t care what you are. So it’s definitely multi-cultural.
Before the pandemic, I’ve been a four-year visiting artist at the CSO. Did I ever think that was going to happen in my lifetime? No. When they approached me, I was wary, but I said, “This is your chance.” Now, of course, I played on that stage for 25 years. That’s the Sinfonietta’s other home. That’s where they perform. But it’s very different being accessed by possibly the world’s greatest ensemble that to this day has one person of color, one Black person, in it. So jumping over that mine hurdle, I said, “Let’s go!” So I’ve taken in films. I took the opera. And the last project, February 29 [of 2020], was A Sovereign Pout, a retro on Josephine Baker. And all of the events that I’ve had a Symphony Center, proud to say, have been sold out.
FJO: So, the world past February 29. The pandemic world. The world we’re still in and who knows when we’ll be out of it? The sabbatical as you called it earlier in our conversation. In a way, we’re able to now be less trapped by where we are. You know, we can have this conversation right now. We’re in two different places. And yeah, we could do that before, but people didn’t do it the way everyone’s doing it now. Everyone’s on Zoom. So we’re closer to everybody all over the world, but we’re further away from everybody ‘cause we can’t be physically with people, only under certain conditions. Things are loosening up. But who knows? It’s gotten bad again. You just mentioned this film series getting cancelled.
FJO: So how to create work in this environment?
RB: I told you earlier. If you look at your work as a commodity or merchandise, you’re in trouble. You have to create because you love creating. I have a list longer than my body of things that I want to accomplish. I just have faith that we’re gonna come out of this at some point. And when we do, I’m ready. I haven’t been doing a lot of virtual things. You know why? Because people are posting all kinds of horrible pieces and madness, and I don’t want to come back in two years and say, “Oh God, why did I put that up on YouTube?”
I can work to stay relevant in other ways. I share a lot on Facebook. I’m in contact with people who create. We have to embrace this time. I’m sorry. It is what it is. So, you can embrace it and grow, or you can stop, and cry, and get bitter. But you won’t be ready when the world opens. Who knew that we were still gonna be looking at this right now? And who knows the impact on the music world? The number of artists that we’ve lost is beyond scary.
FJO: It’s heartbreaking.
RB: But again, if your heart is married to creating, then there’s nothing, even a pandemic, that’s gonna stop you from creating. You might not create as much. You may experience a bit more stress, some financial worries—no telling what everybody individually is facing. But you can’t stop the train. Just keep going. Just keep going. Look at other directions. Maybe the direction you were going in would have been stopped without the pandemic. Maybe you’d gotten to a wall and there’s something else for you to access. Don’t be frightened, and don’t be cowed by criticism, etc. etc.
FJO: This was great. This was a wonderful inspiring conversation.
RB: Thanks for asking.
FJO: And hopefully we’ll have one of these in person one of these days.
RB: That would be lovely, too. That would be wonderful.
FJO: Thank you, Renee.