Anvi Hoàng: What kind of personality is conductive to having a successful career as a composer?
Claude Baker: It’s got to be a certain degree of arrogance and a certain degree of self-confidence that what you do is worthwhile. And despite what I say about being daunted by the past, you still can’t deny that there is a certain degree of self-confidence in what you do, otherwise you wouldn’t put yourself out there in the world for ridicule. It takes willingness to get performances, to enter competitions, to apply for grants and all that. It is bruising to get rejected but something in the core keeps you going to reapply and send it back out.
AH: Do you have tips for young composers to promote their music?
CB: Well, it is a different world now with the internet and everybody can be a star. Even if a composer doesn’t go through the traditional means to get recognized, they have the resources of the internet. There are composers who establish an alternative career for themselves through the internet. They can market their music, have it played, they can gain an audience in a way that we couldn’t twenty years ago. Back then you had to go through traditional routes: you had to send your signature orchestra pieces to ensembles, you had to gather performances. Now you just post your music online.
AH: If a composer chooses to have an academic career, are the marketing techniques the same or different?
CB: I think academia expects certain established kudos in order to be considered for an academic position. If you are simply a composer who writes music and tries to make a career out of simply writing, you don’t need all that. Libby Larson in Minnesota is a good example. If you look at her resume, she has been performed by any major orchestration in this country. She is deluged with commissions, she cannot handle all the commissions she has, but she has not won the sorts of grants and prizes that you’d associate with someone who’s had that sort of success: she never taught full-time in college. So if you compare her resume, just on the surface, forget all the other stuffs, just look at the awards and prizes, it’s not much; whereas someone in academia will have more because those sorts of things are expected in academia. But in terms of performing world, no one cares if you get a Guggenheim or a Fromm commission or anything like that.
AH: What can be taught and what cannot be taught to students?
CB: You can’t give anyone innate musicality. You can be taught to compose to a certain point, but after that, if you don’t have the right disposition, you can only go so far. What you write is just vacuousness without substance, even though you may have all the tools. You’ve got to have that musicality. To go that far you must have those gifts that you were born with, there is nothing that you can do about it.
AH: What do you consider the greatest achievement for a composer?
CB: To come to the end of your career and have a body of works that you are proud of is probably the greatest achievement.
AH: What do you attribute your achievements to?
CB: I think a lot has to do with good fortune – to be at the right place and the right time. Perhaps at a different time and different place they would not come. You can apply for a grant, and one committee will choose a certain person. But remove that committee, put in another, they’ll definitely select someone else. Having sat on all these committees myself, I have seen unbelievable disparity in selection. I would give a top rate to someone and one of my colleagues would give the lowest rate for that same person. We are looking at different things. Usually in these competitions, it is the person that offends the most people on the committee the least. In other words, he hits the middle ground. You don’t win these sorts of things, they are awarded to you. But a different group might see things very differently. I am very happy to have had these kudos, I feel very grateful and fortunate, but you have to keep it in perspective that it doesn’t mean that you are a great composer by any means. A lot of it has to do with perseverance as well.
AH: What is a great composer to you?
CB: If I hear a piece and I just go, “Wow, oh my God!” and get that breath knocked out of me, for me that’s a great composer.
AH: What is the chance of a living composer being considered a great composer in his own time?
CB: I think it is easier to be considered a great composer after you are gone. History doesn’t judge you very nicely. In the 60s, early 70s, no one wanted to perform the music of Samuel Barber or Leonard Bernstein. They’d perform the 12-tone works of Copland. In the 1930s and 40s Barbara was the great composer. Then he slid into oblivion. When aesthetics changed and twelve-tone music became prominent, he was chided and neglected and was not performed very much at the end of his life. And now he is back big time and, as a matter of fact, has more respect, demands and performances than he ever did in the most successful time in his life.
AH: So it is possible to say that we have a lot of Mozarts or Bethoveens right now but they are not recognized until the future time.
CB: Absolutely, and those composers we consider the greatest of our time might be relegated into obscurity. As I said, Spohr was considered a better composer than Beethoven in his time! So you never know. We are all history but we use it to define our own time. History is defined by accurate seasons, based on what our goals are and what we can do with this information. That is true of history of any era, politically, artistically – we are always rewriting it sooner or later.
AH: Would you encourage someone if they say they want to become a composer, especially when the job outlook is not so promising?
CB: Of course, that is what we’re doing now. We have so may undergraduates who apply to the school and other schools in the country. They have this dream of being a composer. I don’t think these kids are going in with their eyes shut. I think most of them have a very realistic view of the likelihood of their success, they deserve a chance.
AH: What do you think about the fact that the audience for new music is shrinking?
CB: The audience for art music is shrinking, or, I should say, art music is being redefined. Concert attendance is down, that is just not only true of classical music but it’s down even in pop music. People don’t go out. There are socio-economic reasons for the decline of concert attendance. People stay by their computers and they live the world more and more through the little square box. We used to have pop groups going on tours, and now tours are being cancelled right and left, or they are not getting the number that they used to and they can barely break even. So the record companies do not send out bands as they used to, to increase sales. Now they just go to the internet to boost their sales there. What would bring people into the concert hall is determined by so many factors. But again you can still encourage young composers because they have different outlets than the traditional concert halls and they don’t have to go that route – they can have your pieces widely disseminated through the internet.
AH: Why do people enjoy Beethoven so much?
CB: Because there is a familiarity with that language that comforts you. There is nothing there that makes you go through hoops; whereas in a new piece there might be certain elements that are challenging. Music is a tough sell because these sounds are always unfolding as time continuum. With a painting or sculpture, or written word, if I don’t understand something, let say a painting, I can look at it and study it, then I can start seeing things, I start gaining a different appreciation of it. But with music, as soon as you hear it, it is gone. It is constantly moving forward. You cannot stop and examine something you didn’t understand without going back and listening to it again, but you don’t always have that opportunity. You never have that opportunity with a performance. With a recording, if it doesn’t strike you as extraordinary the first time, most people wouldn’t go back and listen to it again. So it is difficult, and it was difficult in the days of those composers we now revere. You read reviews of some of those composers, and it is shocking to think of those composers we now consider such giants denigrated by many critics and audience of the time because they write music that is incomprehensible: Brahms, incomprehensible! So the world is about a hundred years behind.
AH: So time is the key factor?
CB: And the willingness to open yourself up to things that are unfamiliar.
AH: What do you have to tell a person who is trying to appreciate new music?
CB: First-time listener who is a layperson listens to a new piece the way you would listen to an older work, you don’t do it differently. You don’t come in with any preconceived notions of what that piece should or should not do for you, or should or should not be. Most of the time when we first hear a piece there’s a wash over us. We tend to listen on different levels simultaneously. But for most listeners, it is a wash of sounds and you get a general impression from it. The more training you have, the more you listen or the more you perform, you’d go to different levels. Sometimes you focus very carefully on the detail, then focus back out on the general sounds or pan back out, or you might get the sense of the overall shape of the piece – focusing on different levels as the piece unfolds for the first time.
Nothing that is being played now is any different from anything that most listeners have encountered: they heard it in movies and TV, but there is something different about putting the same pieces in the concert hall. Whether it is without meter or rhythm, that it’s atonal, they’ve heard it countless times before but they have the visual association with it. Or they’ve been to heavy metal concerts where there is no sense of harmonic progression – it is all meter and rhythm, and melody has nothing to do with it. But having the same sort of things and putting them on the concert stage, there’s a presupposition that music should be this, it should have recognizable melody, it should have a pulse, it should have a perceivable harmonic progression.
People go to art galleries all the times, new exhibitions are packed. Or an opening night of a new play will be packed. An opening night of a new composition, “Oh Gosh, there is a new piece in the program! I’d rather not go.” And this is not something unique to our time, it has always been that way – except in the pre-Romantic period when new music was what was expected. You don’t want to play an old piece, you want to play a new piece just written for this occasion. It’s not until 19th century when we concentrated more and more on music of the past that composers began having a more difficult time than the pre-Romantic period when composers wrote highly personal music that didn’t conform to common practice principles.
Interview in English. The Vietnamese version of this interview has been published by Vien Dong Daily News.
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.