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  • Michael Conway Baker

THE DECOMPOSING COMPOSER

This is an anecdotal autobiography and is not intended to provide the usual details of my life but only some insights regarding my struggle to be a music composer.  When I see what others have accomplished and compare my achievements with theirs, I find it difficult to not be constantly humbled. This is not false modesty, it is simply the reality of recognizing the enormous musical talent I have encountered in my dealings with so many musicians who I have had the privilege of working with.


Unlike many talented musicians who have excelled in their musical achievements, I was very late in my musical training.  I began serious musical studies when, at the age of 20, I began to really practice the piano, my chosen instrument.  I worked hard but always felt handicapped. Reading music was very difficult for me, possibly because, as I found out much later, I was dyslexic.  I would reverse the notes on the page and seemed to constantly struggle with this disability. I forced myself to memorize simply because this was the only way I could perform without falling apart. (I later studied with the famous Swiss pianist, Boris Roubakine who, because he was almost blind, had to memorize all his piano repertoire.  He certainly understood my sight-reading problems.)


From a very early age, I always wanted to be a composer.  I loved improvising, something I seemed able to do. I was also totally hooked on music and would listen to recordings by the hour.  This was an activity that began when I was very little, around the ages of three and four.  I had a good ear and would climb up on a piano bench to play much of the music I heard.  I was, and still, am, fairly eclectic in my musical tastes, something that has helped me a lot with the film music I have written.  When I look at the lists of music I have composed, as a classical composer and as a film composer, I’m quite astonished. That someone like me, who was so lacking in early training, should manage to accomplish so much seems like some kind of miracle. Unlike some composers who seem to be able to write music like you or I would write a letter, I struggle with every note.  I’m a “slogger” who watches the racers speed ahead; I just keep plodding along and, slowly, I leave a trail of notes behind me which, somehow, become my finished musical efforts. I don’t like people listening to me while I make my agonizing way up the musical hills I have sometimes quite foolishly chosen to climb.


Like Sisyphus, who would try again and again to push a boulder up a mountain only to have the bolder finally take the upper hand and force poor Sisyphus back down to the bottom I, in my conceit, think I will succeed only to find myself falling back down to the bottom of the musical hill I’ve chosen to try to conquer. This frustration often causes me to have, what my stepson Randy calls, “creative pms”, the best characterization of what creative people go through I’ve ever heard. Stamping my feet and smashing my hands on the keyboard are just two symptoms of my creative pms.  What follows are a few anecdotes about some of the musical hills I have tried to conquer. I have omitted a great deal simply because I want to convey, in a relatively few pages, what it’s been like, in my case, to be a music composer.


These experiences, many and varied, will, I hope, give the reader a sense of what I have dealt with, not only as a composer but as a human being trying to “manage” the vicissitudes of life.  Frustrating as many of these experiences have been, they have made up the fabric of my life.  I have chosen to present these in anecdotal form and hope that this way of presentation will more interesting than the usual “I was born in---, March 13 --, I went to school etc. “and so on.  My dad was a vaudevillian who, like many in his profession, had a horror of being boring. And if they were, a hook, on a long pole, would emerge from the wings of the stage.  This hook would grab some part of the performer’s anatomy and proceed to drag him or her off the stage to who knows where.  My hope is that I will escape this fate, metaphorically speaking, so that the reader will be able to resist the temptation to yell for the ever-present hook, which always lurks in the written prose of those who have enough conceit to produce material like this.


Dad became famous as a comedian in the early part of the 20th century. Vaudeville led to a radio program called, “Take it or Leave it” and featured a prize of $64, a lot of money in the early 1940s. Unfortunately, Dad gambled, drank and smoked (3 packs a day) which resulted in losing his health and many fortunes (gambling) alcohol addiction (drinking) and cancer/heart disease. His gambling was almost lethal. He owed money to the “mob”, which terrified my mother. Even though he managed (just) to escape the inevitable mob “problem solving’ solution which usually ended with a ride to the East River, he got into trouble with the IRS and had to work just to pay off his back taxes. At one point he was seriously considering moving to Mexico because the cost of living there was so much lower than in the U.S. Dad’s marriage to my mother produced me and my three siblings: Margot, Stuart, Me and Susan. However, after five years, they were divorced. He then re-married, this time to a Danish showgirl many years his junior. This followed a pattern. (He was almost 20 years older than my mother when he married her.) Dad was musically talented – but lazy. My mother tried to inspire him to work on his music, but it was far too easy for him to coast on his “personality”. By his mid 50s he was finished as a known celebrity and was reduced to doing warmed over material in Los Vegas. He managed to do some television work and, earlier, two feature films which he said were “just terrible”. I remember seeing both of them at a New Year’s bash at a drive- in theater and could only agree with his assessment. He died of heart disease and cancer in 1963 at the age of 67. His Danish show girl wife made certain none of his children from his previous marriage received anything from his estate.


MY UNIVERSITY YEARS

My first years at the University of B.C. in the 1960s brought me into contact with the wave of “new music,” which seemed to be mostly dependent on effects. It seemed that the more outrageous the effects, the more this approach was lauded, especially by academia. Thus, we had musicians watching slowly rotating mobiles which had scraps of score paper hanging from the bottom of each mobile. When a music scrap came into the view of a musician, he/she was to play, on their chosen instrument, what was notated. Or dice were thrown and whatever came up indicated “something” to the musicians. They were to “play” whatever the random number conveyed. Recordings of garbage cans produced “musique concret” The tapes would be manipulated, spliced, played backward, etc. A concert of this music was “performed” by loudspeakers arranged on a stage. One particular musical event stands out in my memory. During my first year, I attended a concert by a group of visiting contemporary musicians from San Francisco. The audience eagerly waited to hear what this group had to offer. The first sound was a loud buzzing sound, which got so loud many audience members left.


Those that stuck it out were soon aware of a commotion at the rear of the hall. We turned around to see two young co-eds proceeding very slowly down each aisle. These ladies wore layers of plastic. The male attendees were most interested, and all hoped to see if the plastic-wrapped young ladies were sans clothing under the plastic. As the ladies reached the stage, we, the audience, were suddenly bombarded with hundreds of computer punch cards launched from air vents in the ceiling. When the bombardment stopped, there was a concerted gasp and screams from the audience sitting in the back seats. I was sitting near the front so, at first, I couldn’t fathom what was causing this reaction; I soon found out. I turned to see that, from the back rows, a giant ball was slowly rolling over the heads of the audience. It looked like people were being crushed, but it soon became apparent that the ball was composed of rubber. Still, it was a terrifying sight. Just as it seemed that I, and those around me, were going to be crushed, or at the very least smothered, the ball burst spraying an enormous amount of white powder over everyone. By then, I had had enough and fled, along with my fellow students. My next class was English. When I found a seat and sat down, one of my classmates, looking at me and seeing that I was completely covered in white powder, asked if it was snowing out. (It was a beautiful September day!)

As a student with music composition as my major I, and all music my fellow music students, were drilled in traditional harmony. We were required to analyze the music of the great Baroque composers. The head of the music department was fixated on the 14th century and expected all music students to be well versed in the music of Palestrina and many 14th and 15th century composers. (The first piano major to enroll in the Master's program, answered when told he was “weak in the 14th century” had the satisfaction of replying, “I don’t think I’ll be performing too much 14th century piano music”. (The piano wasn’t even invented until 1709, just one example of the tunnel vision which pervaded academia when I attended university. ) This kind of narrow thinking is still very much in evidence. Students like myself were told we were “out of step with current musical trends” if we liked, or heaven forbid, composed music which reflected past musical practices. Atonality was the “in” thing. It didn’t matter if this approach was disliked by a majority of classical music lovers. Anything that was tonal was not accepted as being “serious” enough for a university or college-educated musician. To insist on being a tonal composer at this time was “blasphemy”. When I performed, with one of my piano majoring friends, my Capriccio for Two Pianos at a student recital, the whole music faculty rose and left within seconds of the final resounding A major chord. This was their way of showing disapproval for my temerity at writing tonal music. I was shocked and stunned. However, directly after the door closed on the departing faculty, the attending audience of students burst into wild clapping, stamping and cheering. I found myself standing dazed in the adjoining reception area, shaking hands with a long line of well-wishers. Over 50 years later, this Capriccio is still performed with, hopefully, a similar audience response.

Throughout my career as a composer of concert music, I have had to deal with an academic community which, in general, disparages my insistence in writing tonal music. Ironically, this narrow approach by the academics is not prevalent in other areas where music is valued. In film scoring, dance, popular music and musical theater, etc. a composer has to simply provide music which fills a need. Thus, a composer who writes melodies is welcomed if the need is there. The film/dance/musical theater, producer is usually far more broadminded than the academics who delight in disparaging art forms they feel are unworthy of their elitist considerations. When my first flute concerto was premiered, the flautist who was in the atonal group of composers turned, as we walked off the stage, and said, “Well, you know, anybody can write a melody!” The enthusiastic audience response to the music he just performed seemed to make no impression on him. My concerto just wasn’t music which should be considered “serious”. No doubt he would have preferred an atonal approach which would have brought forth the usual tepid response from the average music lover. Perhaps this analogy will illustrate this perplexing attitude: A diner in a restaurant is served up a dish which he/she finds distasteful. When the diner does not show great enthusiasm for the food the chef has prepared, the chef complains that the diner doesn’t “appreciate” the chef’s culinary efforts. Who is to blame? The chef, who has prepared a meal without considering the taste of his patrons, or the guests who have simply picked the wrong restaurant? I have just begun a series of concerts which are called: Classical Jazz Encores. The pieces performed are short “encore length”. At the first concert, the audience were given “feed back” cards which asked the attendees to provide responses to the various works performed. The results were most illuminating and will certainly be considered for the next upcoming concert. This shouldn’t be an unusual procedure. Unfortunately, I haven’t encountered this approach during my many years attending concerts. What are concert organizers afraid of? Most of the time we have to guess what an audience likes. This is usually judged by the amount of applause. But is the applause for the performer or for the music being performed? I sat next to a woman who, after a performance of, what I considered contemporary rubbish, asked me why I wasn’t clapping. I had to explain that I didn’t like the composition and this was the only way I knew to show my displeasure. “But what about them” she said pointing to a small, but noisy group, applauding. “Well,” I replied, “my guess is they are friends of the composer or performer.” This poor lady simply looked mystified – but she quietly put her hands in her lap.