Renee Baker Took Flight in New Directions at VCFA

Renee Baker was already forging new paths in music by the time she came to VCFA. She had established herself as a strong musical force, with her Chicago Modern Orchestra Project. She went to the school seeking credentials to aid her in the cut-throat world of art music. And she found that. But she also found an environment that let her explore all of her wildest creative impulses—and an unexpected partnership that sent her off in a whole new direction.

“The teaching part of my life was long over,” Renee says. “I was 55 when I applied to this school. I don’t think they knew why I wanted to come here.” But Renee knew exactly why. “What you are purchasing is the affiliation, the ability to attach the identity of the business to your name. This is the be-all and end-all of what colleges are. When you go into it with that in mind, you go in trying to grab everything you can. It’s like the blue light special at Kmart. I’m taking my buggy and I’m grabbing as much as I can as fast as I can. That’s how I approached it.”

And she did grab everything. Renee was hoping to learn more about nontraditional notation, and more avant-garde methods of composition. “Everything I submitted was , but I knew when I came that I wanted to spend some time studying nontraditional notation. And that’s where I dove in feet-first, head-first, butt-first. Because I felt that was a safe environment to explore it in.”

She made friendships with her mentors that have lasted to this day. She credits her first mentor, Jonathan Bailey Holland, with setting the tone of the program for her. That first semester, she was working with a unique system of graphic scores—gorgeous, vividly painted works that guide performers through a piece under her guidance. These paintings don’t look anything like traditional music scores. She came in that first semester with 16 paintings, 19×30 each, as her piece to be performed. Jonathan found the unique approach interesting, and was eager to hear the results. Renee knew it was unorthodox.

“I said ‘I promise I won’t leave you with egg on your face. I know what I’m doing.’ And it was a huge hit and it kinda set the pace. After that, I felt free.” She cites Jonathan’s openness to exploration as a huge part of the program for her—perhaps even the most important part of the student/mentor relationship. Renee’s directness and clarity of vision are legendary, and Jonathan trusted that and let it flourish. She says, “VCFA meets the student wherever they are in their compositional life, and gives each student wings.”

Renee was tearing through new ideas at a speed all her own, staying up late and poring over rare scores and books in the library. But then a faculty member sought her out with a proposal she wasn’t expecting. Don DiNicola wanted her to score Body and Soul, a 1925 “race film” by Oscar Micheaux. She’d actually had producers pitch her the film before, and nothing had come of it. Don’s sincerity won her over, but she had a condition. She wasn’t going to try her hand at snippets or scenes. She was going to score the entire feature-length film. It was unheard of in the program and wildly ambitious for a six-month workload. But Don dove right in with her.

Renee’s scoring is bold work. Rather than rely on themes for individual characters, like you might see in a John Williams score, her music cuts straight to the heart of a scene’s emotional struggle. She goes past the surface-level interactions and into each character’s inner turmoil. “Don was really responsible for helping my ideas to crystallize. He’d send me pieces (of the film) in small batches and I’d send something back. It was that partnership that really helped formulate the truly abstract nature of how I think, and distill it into film scoring. That really is my nature. Don’t let the housewife disguise fool you.”

“This man taught me so much about how to look at film, how to look at what’s going on in the background, things that normal viewers don’t even see. He had me studying what was on the walls, the shoes they had on. The tables, and chairs, and then at the end of that process he said, ‘So you know you’re a film composer, right?’ I said, ‘Yes, I do.’ He said, ‘You’re also a filmmaker. I listened to your comments, and everything you said, and you’re a filmmaker.’ I said, ‘Nah I don’t wanna make film.’ But now, of course I’ve got probably 20 experimental films in rotation. Because Don took the lid off and gave me permission. You can open something here. I came in really wanting to look at extremely contemporary classical music, and develop my vocabulary for graphic scores, and then meandered over the line, crossed the lane into the film scoring.”

At the time, Baker was working on an opera, Sunyata—another point of synchronicity with Don DiNicola. “I told him, ‘it’s about the time period after you’re pronounced dead, to the time that you’re actually gone.’ He said, ‘oh, you’re talking about the Bardos!’ Next thing I knew, Don gave me this fabulous translation of the Tibetan book of the dead, the source material my opera was based on.”

She was already talking to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago about producing the opera. But when they learned about her Body and Soul re-score, they jumped at the chance to premiere that, as well. It was a hit. And it sparked a massive jumping off point for Renee, who never does anything in half-measures.

“When I’m interested in something, I exhaust it before I move on. At this point now, I’ve probably scored over 150 silent films. I’ve actually developed 14 film festivals. I developed themes crossing all sorts of boundaries. Ethnic boundaries, geographical boundaries, and matched films that you normally would not see together. I took the first one to Indiana University last year. They did a four-film festival of my work. And that precipitated another invitation. I just got back from an almost two-week residency at Indiana. They wanted a score to The Scar of Shame, a 1927 silent, using the orchestra from the Jacob School of Music, interaction with people in the jazz department, lecturing on film and sound design to film classes and taking in my own experimental series into their Black Experimentalist classrooms. It was amazing. They said, ‘We need you to touch all the areas.’ I talked to composition students, film students, jazz students, orchestra students.”

She also puts on screenings locally with the Chicago Modern Orchestra Project

“It’s from an ugly period in our history, but didn’t Charlottesville just happen? It was such a challenge for me, and I put it in the can. Then Charlottesville happened, and when the ACLU called me, I said ‘I have just the vehicle.’ This is information. We need to see it. Especially in light of the fact that it was the first feature-length film shown in the White House. And Woodrow Wilson thought it was a masterpiece, with the KKK saving the white people from us. The score brings it to today.”

The film scoring has blown up in a big way for Renee. From her screenings in Chicago, to residencies at universities, to screening at film festivals across the world, it’s taken her already-booming career to new heights. She credits the combination of her self-starter attitude and VCFA’s openness.

“What impressed me was a comment Jonathan Bailey Holland made. He said, ‘This is your program.’ I am 2,000 percent a self-starter. I left there with nothing I wanted to explore left unexplored. Go knowing what you want to get out of a master’s-level program. For me, I wanted validation of concepts, of research, of exploring. I wanted it validated for a program of this time. This program left me open. There were no closed doors.”

 

You can stream and download tracks from the Chicago Modern Orchestra Project at their Bandcamp page here.
Renee’s website is here, and includes a store where you can check out her recent film work.

Two VCFA Music Comp Grads take Semifinalist in American Prize

Two VCFA students were recently listed as semi-finalists in The American Prize. Marjorie Halloran and Timothy Lee Miller were both on the list for the professional division of the choral category. Finalists, runners-up, and winners will be selected from this list as the competition progresses. The semi-finalists include 39 composers from across the country, so we’re excited and honored to know that two of our own have made it this far.

The American Prize is a competition dedicated to “recognizing and rewarding the very best in the performing arts in the United States.” It was founded in 2009, and has been a strong voice in the elevation of new American music and art.

Timothy Miller submitted Tears, a choral setting of Walt Whitman’s classic poem. He is also a semi-finalist in the Vocal Chamber Music category (professional division). His song cycle, Three Poems of Henry W. Longfellow, is one of 28 semi-finalists in that category.

Miller, currently in Mahwah, New Jersey, says:

The art song cycle “Three Poems of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow” was written for Lauren Alfano-Ishida who premiered it, and has performed it on three occasions. “Tears” was recorded by the Composers Choir in St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral in New York in 2011.

You can find a performance of two of the Longfellow songs here, filmed at the Roerich Museum in New York City. It’s a lovely, sensitive setting of the text.

Marjorie Halloran, currently in Austin, submitted four pieces – Write It On Your Heart, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, Stillness, and 8 Ways to Look at a Window. She wrote the first three pieces during her time at VCFA – the first two with Mike Early as a mentor, and Stillness under Jonathan Bailey Holland’s tutelage. She says:

Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” was commissioned for Resounding Achord of San Jose, CA. It uses the traditional text and melody combined with the harmonies from the second movement of Beethoven’s 5th piano concerto– the two favorite lullabies of the children I cared for.

8 Ways to Look at a Window” is the product of working with Alice Parker as the winner of the 2015-2016 Youth Inspiring Youth composer competition, commissioned by WomenSing in Orinda, CA. The text was by Francesca Myhrvold, a finalist in the “River of Words” youth poetry competition.

Stillness” was written for the choral workshop at VCFA, which I co-founded, and was performed during the inaugural workshop. The piece describes the plight of the artist as she compares the process of creating to the dawn of a new day.

Write it On Your Heart” was premiered by Schola Cantorum of Los Altos, CA, in 2014, and had its midwestern premiere in St Paul, MN, by the Vox Nova Chorale in 2015. The text, by Ralph Waldo Emerson, describes the practice of carpe diem/seize the day.

We’re incredibly proud of our graduates, and we’re rooting for them both as the competition continues.

How Scott Barkan Rediscovered Himself at VCFA

Scott Barkan came to VCFA for the stability a master’s degree could offer, but he found a musical journey that helped him rediscover his passion for composition. His degree helped him land a university position that allows him time to compose, and gave him a rekindled flame for the music that he loves most.

Scott Barkan had always made a living playing guitar. He taught the occasional private lesson, but the bulk of his work came from touring and recording. He was a sought-after session player, and toured with the likes of Marian Call and Howard Fishman. For 20 years, it was enough. But a few years ago he’d started wondering what was next. “Assuming I don’t ever have a big break, and reach a point where I can expect to indefinitely sustain myself just playing guitar and writing songs, what else could I do? The only thing that really added up to me was teaching on a college level.”

But that meant pursuing a master’s degree. And Scott’s schedule kept him touring constantly. “I was also hoping to find a program in songwriting. And at the time there was only one, maybe two in the world, and they were both overseas. I did entertain it, and I did reach out to those schools, but ultimately I couldn’t do that.”

When he found VCFA, he was excited, but hesitant. “It seemed at the very least like the essence of what I was trying to find. I was very concerned about the legitimacy of the program, to be perfectly honest. But I gradually transitioned from highly skeptical to super excited about it during the first week, and it wound up being a great experience. It wound up being what I was hoping for it to be. I was able to get the degree without abandoning my current career, and I had an excuse, I had permission to dive deep into things I’d wanted to dive into. I couldn’t budget time for it earlier, but getting the degree meant ‘Well, I have to do this now.’ And that was great for me.”

His initial plan was simply to get credentialed to teach and get out, but he wound up finding more than just credentials. “I was prepared to go through the motions, in a way. But I wound up being very inspired by the process. I became excited about the creative potential as it went on.”

Over time, Scott had drifted from avant-garde, jazz-inspired work to more mainline pop songwriting. He’d long wanted to marry the two styles, but he hadn’t figured out how to do so. And he hadn’t really had time to devote to figuring it out. VCFA gave him that time. He started expanding once again from his pop style into something fuller. He moved from writing on his guitar to writing sheet music again, and found joy in the expansion of possibility that happens when you’re not just thinking about what’s easy to play on the instrument you’re writing for. He also learned a lot from his mentors. John Early and Don DiNicola helped him on the songwriting front, but he was most surprised by John Mallia, who challenged him often.

“I also feel that my work with John Mallia was pretty formative and instrumental for me. His area of expertise is incredibly broad. But the stuff he’s deeply into, that I knew nothing about as far as modern compositional ideas, really put my head in a different place than it ever has been. And his feedback was so far from my own thoughts about things. Just the way he phrases things, and looks at things, is so different from the way that pop music is structured that it helped me get my head out of that space.”

All of that culminated in a bold, multi-movement thesis piece with some pretty unorthodox instrumentation. “I think it’s my favorite thing I’ve ever written. But it’s extremely niche. That’s a piece that’s so tailored to my individual taste that I’m constantly surprised that anyone wants to listen to it. But for what I want to be doing, I love it.”

Scott’s latest record, Good at Goodbye, scratches the surface of that avant-garde streak as well, albeit in very subtle ways. “I think it’s present in a good portion of the new record…I think it still errs on the side of songs, but there’s certainly evidence of it in there. People have responded to it in that way, though, maybe more than I was thinking. I think I’m immune to what’s on there now since I’ve spent so much time with it. But most of the feedback I’ve gotten has been that it’s a more adventurous electric guitar record. Which is what I wanted. But I still think that there’s a long way to go between that and the thesis.

But most of those songs were written early in his time at VCFA, and he promises that he’s going to keep pushing boundaries—especially once he gets his feet under him at his new gig. Scott landed a teaching position at Rowan University almost immediately.

“It’s great. I feel like I’m amazingly lucky to have gotten this gig so fast. Certainly if I hadn’t gotten the degree, I wouldn’t have gotten the job. I got the gig within a week after graduating. Within a week, I was hired. Subsequently in my second year, I’ve been hired by two additional schools in the Philadelphia area. So obviously that would have been impossible.”

As it turns out, the program had some unique needs, and thanks to his VCFA experience, Scott was uniquely equipped to fulfill those needs. “A big part of it was that I was able to say that I specifically had a degree in songwriting. The director of the program that hired me basically said, ‘I didn’t know that was even a thing it was possible to have.’ So on the one hand, I was incredibly lucky to be in the right place at the right time, but on the other hand, if I had gotten the degree from another school that didn’t have that focus, it would’ve sent a different message to the department that was looking for a songwriter.”

The university has him teaching classes in songwriting, as well as courses on the business aspects of the music industry. But they also support his work in much the same way you’d expect a university to support a researcher. He’s still getting his feet under him, but he’s excited for the future. “At this point I wouldn’t say it has enabled much beyond stability, as far as musical output. But I think that is inevitably part of the future, and the reason to do this. This job was forgiving enough that I could go on tour for most of October (with Marian Call) and that not be an issue.”

“So once I get the learning curve out of the way, I see it as the perfect gig to support the other work that I want to be doing creatively. Which does take the pressure off of having to take any old gig. I hope to able be to put the energy I spent into just surviving into a meaningful, thoughtful creative process.”

Scott’s music is heart wrenching, emotionally honest, and bold. The emotional gut-punch that he achieved with his thesis piece was staggering. Scott is now armed with his renewed passion for bringing the weird back into everyday life in a palatable way. And he’s working a job that offers him the perfect combination of stability and freedom. Good at Goodbye is just the beginning, and we can’t wait for what’s next.