5 Questions to Renée Baker (composer, conductor)

Composer and conductor Renée Baker is a dynamic force in the creative music scene in Chicago. She has crafted a unique compositional approach by melding classical training and 23 years as a founding member, and subsequently principal violist, of the Chicago Sinfonietta with deep artistic impulses nurtured by her involvement in Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). Baker will conduct the Chicago Modern Orchestra Project and singers in the premiere of her Sunyata: Towards Absolute Emptiness on May 3, 2015, at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, which commissioned the work as part of their year-long celebration of the 50th anniversary of the founding of the AACM.

What inspired the creation of Sunyata: Towards Absolute Emptiness?

In 2012 I did a residency in Saigon with the hopes of collaborating with the Ho Chi Minh Symphony, but that didn’t work out. So I spent my time there learning about Vietnam, the nature of its people, and the almost desperate vibes I felt as this country still battles to come back from devastation. Inside I began to feel their desperation, and I could also sense that that their current life is born out of that longterm legacy. These brilliant, resilient people somehow left me feeling bereft and mortal. Out of the fear I felt of the possible impending oblivion of post mortality, I turned to my copy of the Tibetan Book of the Dead (Bardo Thodol) I had brought with me and decided to describe my hopes of absoluteness, and perhaps immortality, through the writings which became Sunyata.

How have you realized these ideas in your composition?

My hope is that the music, interaction of voices and movement, and my very surreal idea of what the six bardos of post physical existence will be, will give some relief to the listeners’ fear of the unknown. In the Book of the Dead it is stated that the writings are about enabling liberation through hearing in the bardos. In Sunyata, I have characterized this near life/near death period by distilling these ideas: birth, dreams, meditation, moment before death, visions/illusions, abandoning fear, and subsequent becoming. I have adopted an abstract vision of this boundless reality by trying to bring the listeners into a state where they abandon confused emotions for just a short time and think on what beauty there could be…abandoning fear and terror and allowing ourselves to be distracted by this visualization of the possible.

Renée Baker conducting the Chicago Sinfonietta (photo: Michael S. Baker)

Renée Baker conducting the Chicago Sinfonietta (photo: Michael S. Baker)

You’ve joined the AACM through the unusual path of a substantial career in classical music; how does working with the AACM inform and facilitate your work?

Since my membership in 2008, I have tenderly straddled the tightrope that is my experience: from the classical to the creative. Under the umbrella of the AACM, possibilities run rampant in the creative vein. They have embraced me as I have passionately embraced the idea of great black music and its future. Though the AACM and groups like it arose out of the need for empowerment and self determination, I cannot see how this authentic, creative music would have been born without the angst which propelled it into being. To be able to embrace the genius of Douglas Ewart, Ernest Dawkins, Ed Wilkerson, Harrison Bankhead, Dushun Mosley…they committed to my journey as an artist as much as I did. Sunyata and tons of my other creations are born out of an aura of no danger, just crafting authentic black music full of meaning and fervor is all I have to do. Yesterday I received a notice that I am being commissioned along with George Lewis, Wadada Leo Smith, Nicole Mitchell, Roscoe Mitchell and Mwata Bowden, to write for the University of Chicago Jazz Xtet for a concert in June commemorating the 50th anniversary of the AACM. What can I say?

How did your ensemble, the Chicago Modern Orchestra Project come to be?

CMOP is my creative vehicle for putting real-life sound to my compositions and that’s why I created it, as an afterbirth of Mantra Blue Free Orchestra which Fred Anderson helped me workshop at the Velvet Lounge for a couple of years. CMOP emerged when I received tacit approval from my AACM cohorts that I and this ensemble were ready to fly. We didn’t need their permission, per se, but they sanctioned and blessed the endeavor. CMOP is the most fully integrated new music ensemble in the country. Modeling inclusion not just racially, but breaking barriers regarding the marriage of classical and other creative forms. Too long have the genres been frightened by each other via unhealthy marketing ploys which keep audiences unaware of the beautiful hybrid possibilities in listening material.

Oscar Micheaux: Still from Body and Soul, 1925 (Courtesy of Don DiNicola)

Oscar Micheaux: Still from Body and Soul, 1925 (Courtesy of Don DiNicola)

What can you tell us about your new film score that debuts at MCA Chicago?

I have crafted a new score for African American cinema pioneer Oscar Micheaux’s 1925 race film Body and Soul, which features Paul Robeson’s movie debut. It is so rewarding that my realization of a musical narrative for this film be included in the MCA’s Creative Music Summit on April 26, the weekend before the premiere of Sunyata. The score, which was recorded by CMOP, will accompany a screening of film producer Don DiNicola’s newly restored print of Body and Soul, giving the listeners an even deeper vision of my musical language.