Anyone who is learning to appreciate the “new language” of new music will speed up their music appreciation course by talking to Claude Baker. With his superb knowledge and skills of composition, his thoughts on composition, music and life are refreshingly delightful. He talks to you about music composition in terms you can easily relate to, regardless of your profession. Doubt it? Then check out the interview below, as well as his music from the link. And let patience be your guide!

Anvi Hoàng: How did a piece of music take shape?

Claude Baker: Every piece is different and I approach it in a different way depending on what that piece is supposed to do, to accomplish, or what your desires are. Some pieces are programmatic and they derive their influences from extra musical sources; or I might base a piece on a poem or work of literature. Other pieces are absolute as if they have no extra musical association whatsoever. Still others grow from a small idea, perhaps a melody or gesture, and they grow organically from that single idea. So every piece begins very differently.

AH: People are curious what is going on in your mind as you compose. So when you write the notes, what do you see or hear?

CB: In the early stages of a piece, most composers hear broad gestures, unless they are working from a specific sound, but it is interesting to look at sketches of composers, even from the 19th century. In Mahler, for example, you have very specific melodic ideas that will run through the scores – you’ll see how he traces it in sketches, how he wants the melody to unfold. There are times when he will want a counterpoint to play along with the melody, he’ll start it and then he’ll draw a curlicue to show that it continues but he doesn’t write it out – he doesn’t want to take the time as he is sketching to worry about details. I think a lot of composers sketch graphically with gestures and upward sweeps than refining exactly where the notes are at that particular moment. Gradually, those general gestures work out more and more specifically with the exact notes in the time frame that you want.

AH: If you look at the scores, what do you see or hear?

CB: All composers are trained to be able to score read. They look at the score and be able to get some aural image out of it, but it takes a long time to get to that point. When you look at the score for the first time, just like listening to a piece of music for the first time, you view the scores at different levels as you go through it. At the first read, you just see through the individual lines or perhaps get a sense of harmonic progression, or you hear strictly this very fast arrhythmic standpoints and you hear the meters or rhythms unfolding but it’s going by so fast as you’re reading through it you cannot take into account all the picture simultaneously. Looking at the score without the music is a skill that takes a long time – years – to develop but every composer, conductor is taught to do it.

AH: Can anyone be trained to be a composer or you must have it in you?

CB: I think anyone can be trained to compose but whether you are good or bad, that is something else altogether.

AH: When you talk about “good” or “bad”, who gets to decide that?

CB: We have centuries in western music that are fed into our music practice that paves the way for us to recognize something as good. Our sensibilities are shaped by studies of music in the past. I don’t think that everything that goes down on the page is anything more than just personal perception. What is good is in relation to what has been done, and what is “good” is certainly a thorny thing and something that people argue about. I can go to a concert and think a piece of music is having an impact whereas the person I am sitting next to, with the same sort of conditioning and training, will say it is a terrible piece. We can both acknowledge that it is well-crafted, that the person knew what he/she was doing in terms of handling the materials, but what may strike you as good or bad might differ when it comes to music. And again, we have been told for so long, “this is good music,” “this is learned,” “this is Beethoven Symphony and it is good” – so we measure everything against these great pieces from the canon.

AH: Why is Beethoven music so popular?

CB: If you listen to the music of Beethoven’s contemporaries, even those who were acknowledged during their time to be better than Beethoven, no one in that period was writing anything of recognition. Ludwig Spohr, acknowledged by many people as the best composer then, now he sounds plain. Only because Beethoven was so idiosyncratic that people at the time had difficulty seeing his vision. His music has very unusual, very personal qualities.

AH: When there are so many great composers ahead of you, how do you go about composing your pieces?

CB: I am always daunted by the past. I look in the past and think, “What right do I have to write music? I don’t think I have anything at all important to say.” It haunts me in every piece and that is why it takes me so long to compose, because nothing is ever good enough. The more literature I know the more daunted I feel. It gets worse as I’m getting older and as I learn more and more literature. So I may write a lot, and then keep this little  – whereas some people keep everything they write.

AH: How do you feel the moment you decide this is the best you can do and this is how you want to finish it?

CB: When I get to the point when I just finish the piece, where I think it is the best I can do, I feel very good, I feel it is an accomplishment. I don’t care during the process to think, “How do you know the piece is good?” – I think that is self-deluding. When you are in a process of putting something together, you make the logic fit what you started out to do. Somehow during the process this logic all came together.

AH: When did you first know you wanted to become a composer?

CB: I was a theory major in college. I had to take composition as part of the curriculum for theory. So I wrote my first piece to fulfill  a requirement. I wasn’t happy with it because I had to do it but I didn’t want to do it. But then I had to do another piece – a string quartet. I thought, “If I’m going to do it,  I should do the very best job I can on it and really work on it this time.” So I poured everything I could into it, never having composed and not knowing what I was doing, but really working hard on it. When I got to the end of it, I felt really good about it. “It’s not so bad,” I thought. When it was performed shortly afterwards, I never had the sensation like that – the feeling of fulfillment. I was hooked by that point. So I came in composition very late, while some of my colleagues started to compose very very early.

AH: Did your feeling of fulfillment change over time?

CB: If I am happy with the piece, I still have that same senses when I started it, but I’ve got to be happy with it.

AH: How do you use different instruments in a composition?

CB: I have to say that despite the fact that I’ve been asked to write solo pieces, or pieces that feature a certain performer or a certain section, I tend to write the sort of music that focuses more on my goal on creating this composition. If it happens to include a virtuoso passage for a performer, that is fine but that is not my starting point or my goal, even though it is supposed to be. I worry more about how all the materials can come together to create a realization of my vision for this piece. Oftentimes, performers don’t have very much to do in a piece because they are part of a whole. They have a role to play, and typically a very supportive role for the music.

AH: What is that goal of each piece? What goes into it: aesthetics, philosophy?

CB: It varies from piece to piece. Sometimes it is a philosophical intention that motivates me, or aesthetically by certain things I want to do. I can never say it is the same for each piece.

AH: Is there a composer who inspires you?

CB: Numerous composers, going back centuries. The music that I am writing now comes from several sources. Aesthetically, I’d say George Rochberg shaped my music aesthetically as much as anyone. Aurally, George Crumb has a huge role, so does early Peter Maxwell Davis. Orchestrationally, Jacob Druckman has been a huge influence. So there are a number of composers and I don’t feel any qualms about acknowledge them either. I think you can tell from listening to the music who my great influences are.

I do think, however, that one can bring something very individual into it. Originality is a self-deluding concept – no one is original – you can be an individual and you take what is being fed into you and you synthesize it the way no one else does. We can take two composers: they can study and listen to the same music, do everything the same way, but they will come out very different because they filter their music through their own view of the world. So I think people can be individual. People like Bach who never worried about being original ever, he just happened to be the best of his era or the best of all time, but originality is not something that he sought. If you listen to his music, it can’t be said to be original because he based it on something that has been done around and before him. He copied out scores so he could learn from those composers, and he just happened to be better than anyone else.


Interview in English. A version of this interview has been published by Vien Dong Daily News. Online Vietnamese version here.

***** Read Claude Baker (2).

Photo: IU Jacobs School of Music


Claude Baker (b. 1948) attained his doctoral degree from the Eastman School of Music, where his principal composition teachers were Samuel Adler and Warren Benson. As a composer, Mr. Baker has received a number of professional honors, including an Academy Award in Music from the American Academy of Arts and Letters; two Kennedy Center Friedheim Awards; a “Manuel de Falla” Prize (Madrid); the Eastman-Leonard and George Eastman Prizes; BMI-SCA and ASCAP awards; commissions from the Barlow, Fromm and Koussevitzky Music Foundations; a Paul Fromm Residency at the American Academy in Rome; and fellowships from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Bogliasco Foundation and the state arts councils of Indiana, Kentucky and New York. At the beginning of the 1991-92 concert season, he was appointed Composer-in-Residence of the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra, a position he held for eight years. He is currently Class of 1956 Chancellor’s Professor of Composition in the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University, Bloomington.

Listen to music by Claude Baker.