Interview with Renee Baker

Nov 27, 2020

As GIOFest XIII approaches, Renee talks to Stewart Smith.

Interview with Renee Baker

Renee Baker is a composer, conductor, violinist and organiser based in Chicago. She founded the Chicago Modern Orchestra Project in 2005 with aim of performing composers who tend to be overlooked in more traditional programmes: Cornelius Cardew, Morton Feldman, Nicole M. Mitchell. A member of the Association For The Advancement of Creative Music, Baker has worked with organisation luminaries such as the late Fred Anderson, proprietor of the famed Velvet Lounge, and younger stars like Ben Lamar Gay and Tomeka Reid. She last appeared at GIO Fest in 2011, hosting a workshop and performing with the Orchestra.

Could you tell us a little about your background: your first musical loves and and what inspired you to become a composer?

RB: Wow..lucky me! My undergrad work was in viola/ violin performance and my masters/doctoral work focussed on composition, both traditional and nontraditional composition trajectories for large ensembles. I was Principal Violist of the Chicago Sinfonietta for 25 years so my foundational training is 100% rooted in classical music. After encountering AACM and gaining membership in 2007, I understood that though my spirit and work as an improviser was developing, the language of creative development for me needed study. Having founded CMOP already, I realised I had the perfect vehicle for the pendulum swings I was about to experience. Armed with hundreds of compositions in various formats, from traditional notation to graphic scores, I began the CMOP dream, a group that could access anything written and any of my developing conceptual ideas.

How important have Chicago and the AACM been to your development?

RB: It’s the permission slip under which I create. The AACM has been my safety net as well as umbrella for exploration. As the creative and new music arena in Chicago is still highly polarized, the impulses from a collective of encouragement was necessary. I will mention that CMOP as a performing entity has been accepted everywhere from the Velvet Lounge, where Fred Anderson encouraged me to use the venue as a lab, all the way to being presented at the most prestigious venues, including being embraced by the world class association of the Chicago Symphony Association.

Do you see great things for the AACM’s future?

RB: Always..the membership of the AACM is the most brilliant of creative minds… no boundaries to creating/acceptance/encouragement is the key.

Can you tell us about your approach to notation and improvisation?

RB: I’m a traditionalist. I used Western notation to express a host of ideas but always recontextualising what I experience in the world. My personal philosophy regarding improvisation is to allow my inner voice as well as encouraging the inner voice of the improvise..

Can you tell us about your approach to direction/conduction?

RB: Improvising is natural. However as a purveyor of ideas while trying to shape an experience of a listener, one needs a willing group of egoless performers. This is not easily achieved when the ensemble has preconceived ideas, can’t distance themselves for the moment to serve the greater experience… and then there’s a terrible unconscious racial component that often others aren’t aware of. They want to partake of the creative arena of a different person but are holding ideas that won’t allow them to open to other ideas.

Can you tell us about Mantra Blue Free Orchestra and Chicago Modern Orchestra Project?

RB: Simply, they are two vehicles for getting my music heard. We have also premiered contemporary classical works for other composers. We will continue this trajectory.

You played GIO Fest IV in 2011. What are your memories of the festival and working with GIO?

RB: The festival was wonderfully programmed with interesting ideas. GIO is a great group of collaborators.

Can you tell us about your performance for this year’s festival?

RB: I don’t want to set up any expectations. The criteria I set by answering leads minds to expect exactly what I expressed as a vision. I prefer to allow people to have their own happening and experience of my art, video creations and music tracking.