Composer, who are thee? – Claude Baker (2): The happy by-product is the exploration into yourself

Read Claude Baker (1).

Anvi Hoàng: How do you recharge yourself when you are burnt out?

Claude Baker: If I am in the middle of a piece I don’t ever feel let down, not until the piece is over. Then there is usually a long gap between one piece and the next and that’s when the let-down occurs. But during the process, I don’t feel like that, I am never bored anytime. How can anyone be bored of the world? Even just sitting down looking at the sky isn’t boring.

I guess myopically, it gets so close and I can’t see it anymore, it all becomes a jumble and I have to push it back and move away from it for a while.

AH: What is the longest time you compose in one sitting?

CB: I can go for hours if I am in the zone. But if I am not, minutes. I tried “Work-and-doze” method and I like it when I have a big span of time. If you have all day, that is a method you can use: lie down looking up and doze off for fifteen minutes – and it is helpful to give yourself time for the subconscious to do its work.

AH: Does it work for you to have to work under pressure?

CB: Yes, otherwise I just drink wine and mow the lawn.

AH: What music do you listen to?

CB: Everything from the Medieval music to the present. And a lot of it has to do with what sort of piece I am writing at the moment. Let say if I have a piece based on the Renaissance music and I will listen to a lot of Renaissance.

AH: Are you concerned that if you listen to a good piece of music then you cannot write your own?

CB: As I have said, I am daunted by the past. But if I found something good I can take a lesson from that and apply it to my own music – “What is so good about this piece?” That is why Bach copied other composers’ music. He sat down with the score and hand copied it because he wanted to learn what was so good about that piece. That is how you learn, too, as a composer: you imitate. Something really draws you into a piece and you write a piece to imitate. Then you learn, “Ah, this is actually very simple, I see why it clicks.” And you gradually incorporate that into your own style.

AH: And at some point individuality comes out?

CB: Exactly, but it’s all the synthesis of everything that is fed into you – all the wonderful composers you’ve listened to. So at first you can see their influences in your music and that can be true of any composer. If you look at Brahms you see a wave of Beethoven; if you look at Beethoven, especially early Beethoven, you see a wave of Haydn and Handel. Then they come to a point when they start synthesizing things and they don’t need to imitate anymore – they become individualistic.

AH: Is there a difference in the music that one writes to win a competition and the kind one writes for the sake of composing?

CB: There are so many competitions these days and there is almost something for everyone. There was a period when I was at school, there were very few competitions. So at that time you had to conform to a certain aesthetics. Now there are hundreds and hundreds of competitions around the world for composers, mostly for young composers. That is why I told my students: you don’t just send out your music to various competitions, you pick and choose those that are best for you. Look at the websites, check out who the previous winners are, who the judges are, what sort of aesthetics they tend to embrace and see if that is appropriate for you and whether your music is appropriate for that. Then look at another one that you are eligible for.

AH: What does composition do to you that other things cannot?

CB: It is the sense of self-gratification I talked about earlier, the sense of fulfillment that I don’t get any other way. Writing a piece of music is the hardest thing I ever do. There is nothing harder than writing a piece of music, for me and I think for most people. If I can do that and feel that I can do it well, then there is a great sense of self-gratification and that is the primary reason I compose.

The happy by-product – and this is true and, I’m sorry, I don’t care what other composers say, that “I write for the greater good of humanity.” No you don’t, you write for the same selfish reasons we all do. The happy by-product, as in writing or painting, is the exploration into yourself, and you use it as a way to find out more things about yourself, your internal conflicts and problems. I don’t mind spending hours and hours a day working on a page because of what I discover about myself in the process. And the by-product of this self-gratification and self-exploration is that when your music is played and your book is read or your painting shown, it is going to register with somebody else, perhaps, you hope. And through your work they can more easily gain a sense of who they are, look at their problems, and be a key for them to explore themselves. Mahler was like that to me. I listened to Mahler and it forced me to think in a way that I never thought before about life, about art, personal relationships, about everything. And I do believe that ultimately there is a worth beyond yourself, that there is greater good that you are doing. But that is not your motivation – anyone who says it is, is just arrogance.

AH: Did you think like that when you were in college?

CB: Yes. The very moment I wrote something, the questions that were asked were: Why do you compose? Why do you want to be a composer? The first person that asked me that was Samuel Adler. So I left that day thinking: “Why do I want to be a composer? Why do I compose?” I didn’t want to face it at first but the thing that just screamed was self-gratification.

AH: Do composition students these days think the same way?

CB: I don’t know if they do or not, but I think everyone believes it. If I ask my students, “Why do you want to be a composer?” they’ll give all sorts of elaborate, convoluted answers of why they want to be a composer. But always running through it is something they don’t see themselves – and I never point out because they have to come to that realization on their own – they keep saying “I” “I” “me” “me” “I” “me,” even though they are not aware of it. So I think eventually they will see. But as I said, ultimately, great good comes out of it.

AH: What do you teach your students?

CB: I tend to concentrate first on technique and literature, and discuss philosophy and motivation less. I remember when I was a student, George Crumb was asked in a Master Class what he felt he had given to the students. He said, “I can only teach my students two things: one, how to notate music properly; two, knowledge of literature.” I hope I can give a little bit more than that. But knowledge of literature is a huge thing. Every time my students write a piece, let say a string quartet, I expect them to know an enormous amount of that literature because every ensemble’s like that, call up its past and if you don’t know the history of that ensemble and those instruments, you can’t write the very best piece.

They have a listening assignment every week. This week, Haydn’s Lark quartet, Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge, Brahms’ First quartet. Next week, something else. I later ask them questions about the pieces to make sure they heard these pieces and studied them: What lesson do they come away with these pieces? What do these composers have to impart to them? I make sure they heard the instruments properly, that they notate correctly. I am afraid I don’t spend as much time with psychological and philosophical aspects as much as I should.

AH: Why is that?

CB: Many students will come in and they will have some extra musical association in their piece and we will talk about how that could affect the direction of the piece. Philosophy, may be because it is a personal aspect and it is hard to do. I want them to learn the craft – that they are able to construct the piece well, that they are literate. They must be literate otherwise they could hardly strive for philosophically or aesthetically. They cannot do it if they don’t have the tools.

AH: What are some important qualities to be a composer?

CB: Discipline is certainly an important quality. Having an open mind, being able to accept lots of things instead of pushing it away. Leaving yourself open to influences because that’s why people grow. Ligeti, for example, his music evolved a lot his whole life because he was always fascinated by everything that went on around him: African drumming, electronic music. He studied all these things, and he was always influenced by everything he heard – like a child, so exuberant his whole life.

An open ear to the sound around you. That doesn’t mean you have to change your whole course  because Ligeti was always Ligeti his whole life, there is the quality – that individualism – that you can always identify with him. But somehow letting things intrude is always a way to grow.

AH: Is that the same thing with imagination or imagination is a different thing?

CB: I think it is attributive to imagination. Also, I think as a composer you have to keep listening, trusting people with your pieces and this is a part that goes hand in hand with what I call, “keep an open ear” – knowing your music intimately from every era.

AH: Is personality an important factor in composition? In other words, does the composition reflect the composer’s personality?

CB: People can write gorgeous, beautiful, heart-breaking music and be a real schmuck in life – Wagner evidently was not a very nice boy, but the music he wrote was transcending. I thought music always reflects who the person is, but you would hope so.

AH: People often say music comes from the soul. Is it true? What do you think?

CB: I think it pretty does. It is filtered through your intellect and your musicality, but the soul is a complicated thing. There is a romantic view of composers sitting by babbling brook and letting the muses do the marvels just to write. There is a romantic vision of Schubert doing that. In actuality, it is just darn hard work. Doing any kind of creative work – writing, painting, etc. – is just so difficult.

AH: Just like Einstein said, 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration?

CB: But that 1% of inspiration comes from your sub-conscious, and that is why composers who work every day tend to be more productive and write music that is more focus, because you’ve got to feed your subconscious something. So you need to keep what you are working on in your consciousness. When you are not thinking about it anymore, it will retreat to your subconscious. A problem you could not solve in your consciousness, your subconscious will take over and do it for you. And that subconscious is really where inspiration lies. It does not mean that it is not magical – by saying your subconscious is working for you, that is mystical and it is amazing how it works.

***** Read Claude Baker (3).

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


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.