THE DECOMPOSING COMPOSER
NEW ANECDOTE: My major musical experience was attending a concert in Carnegie Hall when I was 6 or 7. I was so overwhelmed to hear a performance by a live orchestra, I had to be carried out of the hall.
Another “memorable” musical experience, came when my mother, having been given free tickets, took me to a solo recital of songs by Wagner. She begged me to just try to “bear with it”. I found the singing so excruciatingly awful that the only way I could sit through the two hour recital was to concentrate on the piano accompaniment. Afterwards, my mother, thankful I had managed to sit through the whole thing, rewarded me by taking me to an ice cream parlor where I was treated to an ice cream soda!
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.
4. TEACHING FILM AND TV MUSIC
My career in music composition stemmed from a very early love of classical music. After a nomadic life of moving from place to place (I was on my own from the age of 15), I began serious music studies at the ripe old age of 20 at the University of B.C. At the same time, I completed a piano degree from the London College of Music (England). I should mention that I played in dance bands, sang in choirs and played cello, tuba, and keyboards during my high school and university years. While at university, I wrote several classical pieces that are still performed. Because I loved orchestral music, I was determined to write for every instrument in the orchestra. In this manner, as well as studying scores, I learned the craft of musical composition and orchestration. After graduation, and with a family to feed, I realized I had to earn a living. I went into public school teaching but continued writing music: after school, on weekends and during holidays. (My fellow teachers loved to razz me because I orchestrated much of my music during staff meetings). I entered classical music competitions and garnered a few prizes –more importantly, I managed to get more and more of my pieces performed. Many of my first commissions came from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) and then from ballet companies. My involvement in writing this kind of music culminated in my being commissioned to write a full – length ballet score for the National Ballet of Canada. The score, recorded by the London Symphony (England) and was, at one time, a staple in both the ballet and symphonic repertoires. This led to my first film score – a short animated film called “Flashpoint” (1978) done for the National Film Board. I had tried once before to get into film, but it wasn’t until I got a direct reference from an ‘insider’ that I made the all-important contact. The music was written for a 16-piece orchestra, and I pretty well had to learn the art of film composing ‘on the fly.’ In those days, before VCR machines, the composer would screen the film on a film ‘bench’. There was no timecode of any sort and timings were done to ‘events’ in the picture. I took notes and timed sequences with a stopwatch. The session recorded in a small studio without reference to the picture. No one had heard of click tracks. I was more than concerned that my music would ‘synch’ with the picture – but it all worked out, and I was hired to do more short films. My first big opportunity came with an NFB short called “Nails” made by Philip Borsos. I had just completed a CBC recording of my piano concerto, and this was the recording I played for Philip. He loved the music and kept saying he wanted ‘that’ for his film. However, I had to pitch the NFB for more money because their music budgets would pay for only five musicians. I talked them into 19 – and tried to make the orchestra sound like 90. The score got me my first GENIE. After doing a feature for Universal – which was a no-win situation for me – a Director who wanted me to write a score AFTER a score had already been written and recorded by the Producer – I was asked to write the music for Philip Borsos’ first feature: “The Grey Fox” (1982). I received my second GENIE for this score and started commissions to write film music on a fairly steady basis. At this time (1999), I have written over 180 tv and film projects, 114 concert works, 111 competition ballroom dances (Latin and Standard), received 14 nominations and won awards in every category of film and concert music. At present, I have a complete MIDI studio in my home and do a large majority of my film projects using this technology. I should mention that I started with MIDI in the early ’80s and, although I am convinced of its value in doing contemporary film scores, I still feel that acoustic instruments have a tremendous contribution in providing the expressivity I feel necessary for a lot of film music.
5. Okanagan Landscapes (1965?)
Okanagan Landscapes, is a very early work and was performed in the Okanagan by the Okanagan Symphony (otherwise known as the OK Symphony). Because two women living in Kelowna, B.C. (part of the Okanagan Valley) who had, or so they said, been the founders of the Winnipeg Ballet (or was it the National Ballet? I was never sure), Okanagan Landscapes, was performed as a ballet. These ladies, who ran a ballet school, would choreograph the music with students from their ballet school. I was invited to attend the premiere and was excited to hear an orchestra perform my composition. I hoped that making the long trip to Kelowna would be worthwhile. Shortly after arriving, I went to hear the orchestra play a rehearsal. The playing was pretty ragged, but I was still thrilled to hear my notes translated into orchestral colors. As to the ballet, that was another question. During the rehearsal with the dancers, one of the ladies, draped in flowing robes to disguise her considerable girth, stood in front of the whole assembly of musicians and dancers frantically “conducting” everyone. One of the musicians asked me “Do we watch her or the conductor?” “Better to watch the conductor!” I advised. (But given the state of the production I caught myself stifling the thought that it probably wouldn’t have mattered much.) Amongst all the lovely teenage girl dancers, stood a young boy, quite tall, whose principal job seemed to be to walk around picking up the female dancers and putting them down. When he wasn’t doing this, he stood in various “ballet” poses trying to look “balletic”. All this seemed to be the sum total of the choreography. During the performance, about 5 minutes after the “production” had begun, a side door was flung open with a great crash. This door just happened to be right in front of the left side of the stage. A mass of people came through to find seats. This caused an uproar which completely disrupted the “flow” of the production. (Perhaps “flow” is the wrong word. “Lurch”, might be a better word to describe what was going on.) The whole thing seemed to collapse. Thankfully, the musicians kept going. (Which is always the admonition given to musicians everywhere when imminent disaster seems to be on the horizon.) The effect was something approaching bedlam. I sank lower and lower into my seat hoping the debacle would finally come to its chaotic end. Rather than stay afterward, I left, hoping no one would approach me with comments about how well everything went. And, as always, I would have to lie and pretend that, yes, well, ah, it was all very “interesting”. Thankfully, I haven’t had to resort to this over worn cliché too many times during my many years in the arts. The music of Okanagan Landscapes is very lyrical and has something to recommend it. But as a ballet – well that would have to be left to choreographers and dancers who can do a bit more than “lurch”.
6. Concerto for Flute & Strings (1970)
This concerto was written and premiered during my first summer at Shawnigan Lake in 1970. I was inspired to write this music after hearing the phenomenal flute playing of one of the visiting music faculty. There was no commission. I would say this was a seminal composition in that I was really developing my own harmony, something Prokofiev was fond of saying with regard to his own music. I also felt that the counterpoint of J.S. Bach, whose music I had long ago fallen in love with, suited this particular piece. There are strong melodies, or themes combined in counterpoint with each other. However – ah yes, there is also a “however” when it comes to me-- this piece did not reflect the trend, to avoid melodic writing. The wonderful flute soloist, who premiered the Concerto, was also a composer whose music avoided any reference to anything one could characterize as a melody. Like so much of the music, especially in academia, of the last half of the 20th century and well into the 21st, composers were considered “not serious” if they wrote like me. At the premier, this same flute soloist/composer, walked off the stage telling me (over the thunderous applause) “Anyone can write a melody.” Really? A few years later this same Flute Concerto was performed at a music festival which featured all Canadian music. One of the composers on the same program, whose piece was at least 50 decibels louder than mine and which employed a full orchestra, was heard to say “They always like fluff!” because the audience obviously preferred my rather gentle Flute Concerto to his very noisy composition. I guess he thought that audiences always wanted the big, noisy pieces he was famous for writing. The Toronto Dance Theater did a lovely classical ballet, called “Fountains” choreographed to this Concerto. As one of my most popular compositions, this Concerto has been performed many times in wide ranging venues. There is a stunning recording on the CBC “Music of Michael Conway Baker” disc with Marina Piccinini as the flute soloist and the CBC Chamber Orchestra. (Track 10)
7. Music for Six Players (1971)
This piece was commissioned by Joe Johannesen, the director of the Shawnigan Summer School of the arts. The music was written for six members of the Prague Symphony who were touring Europe and North America. The instrumentation was unusual: Violin, Viola, Cello, Flute, Oboe, & Harpsichord. This ensemble toured extensively and, because there were little or no existing musical works employing their particular instrumentation, this group was open to the idea of new music written specifically for them. Indeed, the only other piece I could find was a work by Manuel de Falla that used a clarinet instead of the oboe. When they came to Vancouver, I met with them to “discuss” the new music I had written. I use the word “discuss” advisedly because only one of them spoke some fractured English and I certainly didn’t speak Czech! It just goes to show that music is, indeed, a universal language. We managed very well, using the usual Italian expressions universally employed in most musical scores. They loved the music I had written and, indeed, when they returned after their tour of Europe, told me they had given over 70 performances in two months. “Surely you must have got tired of it,” I said to the “fractured English” member. “No, no, we never tire of it. We always discover new things in the music.” Later they came to my house and sat in my small living room listening to some of my recent compositions. At one point, while we sat drinking tea, they huddled together. There was a lot of nodding of heads until, finally, one of them, obviously the spokesperson who could speak a little English, solemnly got up, stood in front of me, and announced in a quiet voice, “You are a master.” I was quite overwhelmed and thought to myself, “How can I possibly deserve such praise from these wonderful musicians?” I thanked them all profusely and said I hoped that, someday, I would be able to visit Prague. (I never made it!)
During my studies with Malcolm Arnold in 1971, I asked him where he would suggest I go for further studies. He recommended I stay away from Academia. He said he would write me a recommendation to study with British composer Lennox Berkeley who lived in London. Of course, this meant a lot of expense to transport my wife, myself and two small children. I thought I could raise the money by giving a concert of my music in Vancouver. Some wonderful friends, John and Terry Harrison, said they would supplement my efforts if I could arrange the concert. I went to the CBC with my plans and, I hoped, an attractive program of my music. The CBC said they would record the concert for broadcast. (They certainly believed in my talent!) The concert was done in the Queen Elizabeth Playhouse, which held around 700 people. It was a great success but, after expenses, there wasn’t enough to pay for me and my family to travel to England. I applied for a Canada Council Travel Grant. (I was told such grants were always given in such cases as mine.) Of course, the grant was turned down. The head of the Canada Council music dept., Hugh Davidson, wrote me telling me he was “ashamed” my request was turned down. In his letter he enclosed his personal check to help me out. This, along with all my savings and help from my wife’s family, allowed us to go to London. The Vancouver School Board had given me a one year leave of absence which guaranteed a job if I returned within a year.
9. Counterplay & Contours (1971)
During the weeks I was studying with Malcolm Arnold , the famous British composer of concert and film music (Oscar for Bridge on the River Kwai) in the summers of 1970 and 1971, at the Shawnigan School of the Arts on Vancouver Island, I received a commission Malcolm commissioned two works from me: The first was for the extraordinary English violist, Roger Best, who was on the faculty of the school. The second was for the double bass player, Gary Karr, who was described by Time magazine as the greatest double bass player in the world. (When he auditioned, behind a curtain, for the New York Philharmonic, the judges did not believe that what they were hearing was a double bass. The curtain was removed, and there was Gary Karr with his double bass!) To compose music commissioned by another composer, especially one as world renowned as Malcolm Arnold, was a daunting prospect. I set to work knowing both works would be premiered the next summer. I was to write a piece for each solo instrument and a string orchestra made up of top rate string players drawn from the faculty and their best students. I knew I would get a good performance. I also knew that this same ensemble would perform these two pieces at a concert in Vancouver – and be recorded and broadcast by the CBC. Wow, what an opportunity! But a lot of pressure to come up with some really good music.
The Counterplay piece for Viola and Strings is, as the title suggests, full of counterpoint and is, in my estimation, one of the best compositions I ever wrote. The premier was a sensation! When it was done a few weeks later in Vancouver, one of my friends happened to be in the lobby when the critic for one of the weekly papers rushed out exclaiming “At last, a real composer!” He gave me a rave review. (This piece may be heard on the CBC album of all my music. It’s track #8.) (This same critic had been so unimpressed with a set of songs of mine, I performed at the Vancouver Art Gallery three years before, that he characterized my composing as “lacking growth”. I’m pretty certain this was no compliment!)
Like Counterplay, the Contours piece for Double Bass, Harpsichord and Strings created a similar sensation. Gary Karr wrote telling me I had written a “masterpiece”. Well, maybe, but it’s also, I think, among my best compositions. Both were recorded in England by the BBC Transcription Service during my time in England. There is a great recording by bassist Joel Quarrington which, in my view, surpasses the Gary Karr recording.
There is an unfortunate post script. Given the success of the double bass piece, Gary Karr commissioned another work which was to be for him on double bass and for harpsichord to be played by his partner, Harmon Lewis. The piece was a disaster. In my naivete, I thought I would try to create a balance in spotlighting both instruments equally. Mistake! Gary was the soloist in everything he and Harmon did and giving Harmon equal treatment meant that Gary had to bow to Harmon’s expert playing on his instrument, the harpsichord. After finishing the composition, I mailed the score and parts to Gary. There ensued an ominous silence. I had no response from Gary for weeks. Finally, he wrote to say I had written one of the worst pieces of music ever written! I was devastated. I put the score and parts away somewhere and tried to forget the whole experience.
I had searched for a flat in London that was cheap enough to house me and family. The flat was in Lancaster Gate, which was near Hyde Park. It turned out it was in the basement of a large apartment complex which was, unfortunately, rather cold and damp. But it had enough room, and that was all that was necessary. The day after arriving, I made my way to Lennox Berkley’s house where I received a very warm welcome. He had just been knighted, but when I addressed him as “Sir Lennox” he said, “No, no, my boy, just Lennox will do. We will listen to each other’s music and have a most enjoyable time.” Basically, this is what we did. (Although, I learned a lot from Sir Lennox’s comments about, not only my music, but music in general.) Lennox sent me to his publisher with a high recommendation. Unfortunately, his publisher said that publishing classical music was a losing proposition and pointed to a score by a very famous Canadian composer. “This score has been here for over 25 years and we have never sold one copy! “I got the message, and wondered what to do next. I had noticed, riding the tubes (subways) that there were a lot of posters advertising recitals and concerts by a wide variety of musicians. I also noted that a number were being sponsored by the embassy representing the performer’s country.
I went to Canada House, Canada’s embassy, and attended a recital by a young Canadian pianist. There was a very small group of people, but at least it was a nice venue. However, I noted that, although the embassy sponsored performers, there were no composers represented. I thought it would be worthwhile to try to find an embassy contact that might help. This proved to be fruitless. Because the CBC in Canada had been most receptive to broadcasting my music, I thought, in my naivete, I would approach the BBC. The head of the Canada Council Music dept. who had helped me get to England, had given me the name of a BBC producer, James Burnett, who was head of the BBC Transcription Service. Mr. Burnett said he really couldn’t help me but thought that the main part of BBC Music might be interested. I was disappointed, but felt I could, at least try, this other avenue. So, after yet more letter writing, I received a response from the head of BBC 2, the Classical Music division, asking me to come to Broadcasting House in two weeks time. I was told to bring tapes and scores as well as my proposed program. I put together a list of outstanding Canadian artists who had performed my music and who had agreed to perform on any recital that could be guaranteed. I couldn’t pay them but they all felt my project was very worthwhile. (I should point out that all the appointments, letter writing and search for a suitable venue, took months.) Time was running out and I was beginning to feel that I had made a terrible mistake in thinking I could pull off such an ambitious enterprise. I had to face the prospect of returning to Vancouver with very little to show for my efforts. The word “humiliation” kept coming to mind.
I finally received word that I was to meet with the head of the BBC music dept., the woman who I had met months before and to whom I had given my recordings and scores. Needless to say, I was shaking in my boots. She was very kind but explained that “We don’t do what you are asking for our own composers, never mind someone from outside England You are asking us to pay for 5 soloists, a string orchestra, and an expensive venue as well as rehearsal space.!” I gulped and replied that I hadn’t realized just what I was proposing. She did add that the BBC jury was very impressed with my music. But the reality was that my proposal had been rejected. I was totally deflated. As I was almost out the door of her office, she called to me: “Michael, you might try the BBC Transcription Service. They have autonomy in these matters.” Since the Transcription Service was the first BBC contact, I had made, and since they, too, had turned me down. I thought that all my efforts had been wasted. Then I realized I had nowhere else to go. What else could I do but return to the Transcription Service? Perhaps I could change their minds about my project. I wrote yet another letter to James Burnett, BBC producer with whom I had first made contact.
In the meantime, I thought I would, again, approach the Canadian Consulate. If they would, at least, sponsor me, I might have more credibility with the BBC. More letter writing. I received, two weeks later, a letter turning down my request for sponsorship. (I found out later that the reason was because they had never sponsored a composer and didn’t wish to break precedent.) The turndown infuriated me. I wasn’t asking for anything but some approval for what I was trying to do. It would have cost them nothing! I wrote, yet another letter to Canada House, saying I would be writing a letter of complaint to my MP back home. Twelve hours later I received a call from the Embassy. Had I sent my letter? Don’t send the letter! The Embassy will sponsor your concert!! Not only that, the Embassy will provide rehearsal space and, as well, a completely catered reception afterwards! (Ah, the power of politics!)
But now, I had to, somehow, find the money to put on my concert! Was there a remote possibility that, now having the sponsorship of the Canadian Consulate, the BBC Transcription Service might now be interested? I wrote, James Burnett, by now a sympathetic friend, but more importantly, the head of the BBC Transcription Service. Could I could take him to lunch? (I had given him all the details of what I was hoping to do.) He said he would be very pleased to have lunch outside the BBC as he was fed up with BBC cafeteria food. He suggested a Chinese restaurant on Queens Road, just off Piccadilly, called the “Fuk Yu”. (Only in England!) We met and I, practically having a nervous breakdown and barely able to eat my lunch, just didn’t seem able to bring up the subject of my proposed concert and my hopes for a broadcast recording. Having paid for our lunches, we made our way to the exit to Queens Road. We stood at the entrance in, for me, a most uncomfortable silence. Finally, I scrunched up my courage and blurted out, “Well, Jimmy, what do you think?” With a very wry smile he looked at me, paused (I was in agony) and said, “We’ll do it!” Whereupon he waved goodbye. I went home in a daze, practically dancing.
The concert, in St. James Smith Church, where the BBC did all its recordings, was a huge success. Months later I was driving down Granville Street in Vancouver listening to the CBC when I heard the announcer say, “We will now hear a 90 minute concert of music by Canadian composer, Michael Conway Baker, recorded in St John’s Smith’s Square in London England, and brought to you by the BBC Transcription Service”.
Post Script: A few weeks later I received a very generous check for my services as a composer. I was astounded! Not only did the BBC pay for all the musicians, I received a further check for royalties collected by my performing rights organization for the BBC broadcast.
11. Piano Sonata (1974)
During the time I was in England having lessons with Lennox Berkeley and trying to get the BBC to accept my proposal for a concert of my music, I worked on two major works: My Piano Sonata and Piano Concerto. The Piano Sonata was written for pianist, Gary Arbour and my Piano Concerto, commissioned by the CBC, was written for pianist Robert Silverman and the CBC Chamber Orchestra. This last work was to be recorded and broadcast by the CBC. Both works bear a resemblance to one another. When I finished the Piano Sonata, I sent it off to Gary Arbour hoping he would like what I had written. Gary, being quite flamboyant would, I hoped, find the bravura piano writing a challenge, but also fun to play. I was quite stunned by the letter he wrote in response. He said he read through the work with tears streaming down his face. I guess he liked it. Later, he performed it as accompaniment for a dance, choreographed by the Toronto Dance Theater, for five of its dancers. This Sonata has had quite a long life and was even put on the Toronto Conservatory list for its final degree program. The Sonata was published by Frederick Harris as was the Piano Concerto, the latter published in a two-piano version. Currently, 2017, there are two performances that can be seen and heard on YouTube.
12. Returning to Vancouver As I Search for Jobs (1975)
Having succeeded with the BBC Transcription Service, and having run out of money, I had no choice but to return to my teaching job in Vancouver. Unfortunately, 1975 was a tough time for getting employment, especially for teachers. There were simply no jobs in the Vancouver School District. The only jobs available in the Province were in towns quite some distance from Vancouver. With two small, by now, school age children, I was desperate. I went to the school board and sought out the office of the music dept. When I inquired about teaching jobs, all the secretary could offer was that I put my name down on a long waiting list. Realizing I couldn’t survive the waiting period of over 12 months, I desperately asked to see the school board music coordinator, Dennis Tupman. The secretary didn’t want to let me in to see him, but at that moment he came out of his office. He saw me and immediately asked me into his office. He said he had seen me teaching my string program in a West Vancouver school and was very impressed. (I had composed string arrangements which made the beginning strings sound really good.) He said that a vacancy had opened up in a ghetto school because the music teacher had suddenly quit. (I found out, later, that the students had harassed him to the point of his having a nervous breakdown! He took his family back to New Zealand.) Dennis Tupman warned me that this particular school had a reputation for driving teachers out of the school system. Indeed, this school had lost ALL its teaching staff, as well as its Principal. (Wow, I thought, this has to be a pretty bad place to teach!) He said I could have the job, as long as I knew what I was getting into! I had, virtually, no choice. I was dead broke and I had a family to support, so I accepted his offer.
The school was situated in an area of Vancouver which could be charitably characterized as “low income”. The houses were dilapidated, many businesses had been closed and a good portion of the population lived in subsidized housing in the form of tenements. I found out a few months into the first term, that a good many of the students were “latch key” kids. These were children living with one parent who was working and had to leave their child or children to their own devices until they came home from work. A good many of these children were poorly fed. Many got involved with gangs. I didn’t really want to find out too much but, sadly, I found out a lot.
The first day I was shown to my classroom, which had been hastily vacated by the previous teacher. I was to teach English, Social Studies, Math, and Music (to all the other classes in the school.) My first meeting with my home room students didn’t bode well. I had returned to find myself teaching in “The Black Board Jungle”. A girl of 12 (or 13, it was hard to tell) announced to me that she might not be able to get to class every day because she was hiding her boyfriend, who had broken out of prison! She, like so many in the class, seemed undernourished. I later found out many of these students ate their way through grocery stores. This was, of course, theft, but these kids didn’t have any alternative if they were to survive. Realizing that teaching them in any kind of “traditional” way would be futile, I resorted to simply asking them to write about their lives. “Can we write ANYTHING, Mr. Baker? Can we use swear words?” “Yes, but I promise anything you write will be confidential and no one has the right to read what you’ve written without your permission.” They took me at my word and certainly tested me in this regard. Their early efforts were, of course, littered with profanity and spelling and grammar mistakes. It didn’t matter. They were writing and, I hoped, learning. After they were certain I meant what I said about confidentiality, the flood gates opened. They told me some really horrific stories which gave me a real appreciation of what their lives were like. Just before the Easter break, the Principal came to me to ask if I could take a girl, age 12, into my home for two weeks. It seemed that her mother had tried to kill her by throwing her out of their 5th floor apartment building. My wife agreed but hoped it would not be longer than two weeks.
Realizing that many would probably drop out of school and most certainly not go on to high school, I launched a program of discussing ways for them to earn a living. I took my class to the Motor Vehicle Dept. where we got the forms for getting a “commercial” driving license. This would allow them, when they reached the age of 16, to drive commercial vehicles, taxi cabs, etc. One of the boys in the class, who was hopeless academically, showed an interest in repairing appliances. I brought a whole lot of broken toasters, radios, etc. and gave him the assignment to do what he could to fix them. Years later, after delivering some things in his neighborhood, this same boy, now much older, came running up to me to tell me he now had a great job in a local repair shop! One evening, after a concert, sharing a coffee with friends in a local restaurant, one of the waitresses came over to me holding a very small baby. I didn’t recognize her until she said she had told me about hiding her boyfriend who had escaped from jail. “Of course, I remember. How is your boy friend?” “Oh, he’s in jail, she replied so I’m raising her (points to the baby) by myself.” Needless to say, I gave her far too much as a tip! A friend of mine, who was volunteering at the Vancouver Art Gallery, was explaining some of the paintings to a class of school students. When he got to paintings from the Baroque period, one of the students said, “I know about the Baroque period. We learned about that in music class.” When my friend asked who had taught her such an esoteric subject in music class, she replied, “Michael Conway Baker”. When I was teaching music classes at UBC, a number of the students came up to me to thank me for teaching them so much about music when they were in Elementary School. Sometimes, however, I may have gone overboard with my efforts to make music “relevant”. I told the older students, in the higher elementary grades, that there had always been “super stars” in music from ages past. “Oh, Sir, who are they?” “Well, these were men who could sing incredibly high notes: They were called ‘Castrati’.” Well, of course, they all had to know why these men were called Castrati. I explained that boys, who were particularly good singers, were highly prized. A lot of money was to be made if the boys, who then became men, could keep singing in high registers. The parents knew that, once a boy reached puberty, his voice would “break” and his career as a singer would be over. The answer was to have the boy in question castrated or “fixed”. Without testicles, a boy could sing very high notes well into manhood. Such singers were considered the super stars of their day and many became very famous and rich– just like some of the male rock and roll stars of today. (And, no, our rock and roll male singers have NOT had to have such drastic measures taken to sing high notes!) One of the boys in the class wanted to know how long this practice of “fixing” lasted. “The practice of castration came to a halt because the birth rate went down, and the Pope had to decree that the practice had to stop.” Even though the class was horrified that this had been done in a previous time, they accepted that, indeed, it was a fact of history. The next day, over the school loudspeaker came the voice of the Principal requesting that, at recess, “Would Mr. Baker please come to the Principal’s office.” “Oh, Oh, I thought. I’m for it!” The Principal motioned to the chair across from his desk and said, “Now, Michael, tell me about this story you have been telling the students about boys having their balls cut off!!” I gulped and tried not to lose my composure. After I explained the history (very briefly) of the Castrati, he grinned and said, “The only reason I’m asking is that I got a call from one father asking if the story was actually true! Aside from that, we’ve heard nothing else. Relax!” And that was the end of the matter. But here’s a follow up on the same subject. The University of B.C. had hired a young female teacher to teach music history. When the history of the Castrati came up, one of the University students asked, “Why, exactly, were they given this name??” The teacher turned red with embarrassment and stammered “Ah, these were boy singers who had had operations on their throats.” The whole class burst out laughing and this poor young woman had to try to survive the rest of the year without turning red at the mention of the Castrati.
13. PIANO CONCERTO (1975)
I worked on my Piano Concerto during the rest of my stay in England in 1974 -75. The Concerto won a Juno Award for best composition in 1991. (It took only 17 years to be recognized as anything worthy of consideration by the Canadian Academy!) My favorite story about the reaction to the music was told to me by one of the adjudicators who, upon hearing the first movement, said she jumped up and yelled to her husband “You’ve got to hear this!” Later, when I played this same recording for film maker, Phil Borsos, he too jumped up with his reaction being “You’ve got to write something like this for my film”. This film called “Nails”, earned a lot of Canadian film awards, and was even a nominated for an Academy Award. The Los Angeles Times singled out the score. I never expected to win anything for my work on this film. Initially, Borsos, wanted an orchestral score for his film. When I expressed my doubts about the National Film Board agreeing to give him the extra funds needed, Borsos asked if I would plead the case for the extra money. However, when I went to the Film Board to request more money, they told me that would be impossible. The budget was for 5 musicians, period!! The orchestra I would need would be far too expensive. “How many musicians would you need?” was the question posed by Peter Jones, the head of the National Film Board for the West Coast. I said, “At least 40.” “Impossible!” was the response. “But this film needs a lot of music.”, I pleaded. “There is no dialogue, just sound effects. The music will have to drive the action of the film.” Peter Jones hemmed and hawed and looked at the figures for the budget. “Ok,” he finally said, “We can give you 19!” I went away wondering if I was up to making 19 sound like 90. Apparently, I did manage because, at the first screening of the film with my score, Mr. Jones was heard to say, “With regard to the music, it’s sort of gilding the lily, don’t you think?” I was devastated and thought I had totally failed. Phil Borsos put his arm around me and said, “Don’t listen to them, they don’t know anything!” I went back to my classroom thoroughly depressed. About a month later, I was astonished to learn my score had been nominated for a “Genie”, the Canadian Academy Award, for best music score. The secretary in my school came rushing into my classroom saying the Academy wanted to talk to me on the phone. They wanted me to attend the ceremonies. I explained I couldn’t afford the trip, much to their disappointment. About a month later the awards ceremony was held in Toronto. I couldn’t go, of course, but the filmmaker went because he had been nominated as best director. He later told me that, when my name was called as the winner of best music for a short film, the Toronto contingent was stunned. Apparently, a Toronto composer had been picked as a “sure winner.” Now it was time for another phone call to Vancouver from the Academy and for the second time the poor secretary of my school had to rush into my classroom to make an announcement: I had won the award for best music for a short film. My grade 7 kids erupted with cheers. Somehow, their reaction was better than the award. At the very least my class seemed to pay more attention to me during their classes.
14. Washington Square - A Full Length Ballet Score (1977)
The genesis of this major work began in England in 1974 during the time I was studying with British composer, Lennox Berkeley. I learned that the National Ballet of Canada would be arriving to do a show at Convent Garden. I thought this might be an opportunity for me to meet the conductor of the ballet orchestra, George Crum, so I phoned the hotel where the company was staying. I left a message at the hotel asking if he would like to come for tea. He phoned back saying he would be delighted and came a day later to our humble flat in Lancaster Gate. We spent the afternoon chatting about music and the dance. As he was leaving, I gave him a cassette recording of my Piano Concerto. He later told me he put it in his suit pocket and forgot about it until, one day when he was back at the National Ballet studios, he was walking down a hallway and as he was passing choreographer, Ann Ditchburn, put his hand in his pocket, and finding my cassette, handed it to Ann with the comment, “You might have a listen to this.” Ann was passing a room with stereo equipment so she put the tape on. Apparently, when the music began, she got very excited. A number of dancers and choreographers, hearing the music rushed in to listen. One of Ann’s competitors wanted the tape, saying he wanted to use it. There was an argument, but Ann kept the tape.
This was my music’s introduction to the National Ballet and the genesis of Washington Square. At this time, one of the rising stars of the National Ballet was James Kudelka, who was being considered as the possible choreographer of a full- length ballet which was to be mounted by the company. James would have to do a workshop for senior members of the company to determine if he had the talent for such an ambitious undertaking. James did the workshop, using the music of Brahms, and was given the green light to find a composer for the proposed new ballet. The hope was that James would find a Canadian composer who he felt he could work with. Because of the reaction by Ann Ditchburn to my Piano Concerto, James listened to the concerto and decided he wanted to meet me. He flew to Vancouver from Toronto and came to my house where he listened to a number of my other orchestral compositions. (The new work would have to be orchestral!) James was very musically literate and knew what he wanted. He seemed more than pleased with what he heard, went back to Toronto, and made his decision to put my name forward. The result was a commission for me to compose the music for the story of Washington Square by Henry James. Once the commission was finalized, James took another trip to Vancouver to discuss his idea of setting Henry James’ novel. He sat on my couch with his “book” of how he envisioned the story, scene by scene.
I took a leave of absence from my school and went to Toronto where I was set up in a hotel which offered suites with kitchens. The hotel was pretty run down, but I didn’t care, I was going to work on the biggest project of my musical career. I was composing music for the National Ballet of Canada, my music would be performed by the best Toronto musicians available, and the production would be first rate. What more could I ask? During the airplane trip to Toronto, I got an idea for the theme for the main character in the ballet, Catherine. As I was being driven to the National Ballet’s studios, I said I needed a piano so I could work out Catherine’s music. The dancers were all amused that I was so keen. They took me to a studio with a piano where I subsequently played Catherine’s theme for them. Whether they were just being polite I don’t know, but they seemed pleased. The music for this important ballet had begun!
The two weeks in the hotel were very intense for me. I seemed to write day and night. I cooked most of my meals in the tiny kitchen, but acquiesced to going out with my, now, new friends. I was in heaven! I was taken to the set designer’s house to see a mock up of the set. I was shown pictures of the dresses and met Veronica Tenant, who was to dance Catherine, the central character in the story. I found the whole experience to be fascinating. All was illusion and was brilliantly conceived. I felt honored to be asked to provide the music for such an ambitious endeavor, the first of its kind commissioned by the National Ballet. I was inspired to work as hard as possible to show that everyone who trusted me was vindicated in their choice of me as their composer.
Despite all the intense work, there was one most amusing incident. One late evening I returned, from a very late dinner, to my hotel. It was near Christmas and the hotel seemed virtually empty so I was surprised to see that the elevator had stopped on my floor. There were no other hotel guests but me on that floor. Presently, the elevator came down, the doors opened, and an attractive “lady” came out. She smiled at me, but of course, I had no idea why! I went up to my suite where I had my music scores spread out on the floor, got into my “composing outfit” which consisted of heavy fur-lined boots (my feet were always cold and this was December in Toronto), pajamas and bathrobe, got down on the floor to go over my scores, when there was a knock on the door. (This was about 2:00 a.m.) I opened the door and a rather trashy looking woman barged in and gave me the once over. She took in my boots, bathrobe, pajamas, and looked at me. “This IS 1114 East, isn’t it?” I could barely answer her except to say, “No, this is 1114 West.” She acted as if she didn’t believe me but finally huffed, “Oh, I guess I got the wrong building. You sure you didn’t phone?” I adamantly assured her that, no, I hadn’t phoned. She looked disappointed and left in a huff. After she left, I wondered, if when she saw me in my night clothes and wearing heavy boots, she thought I was some kind of pervert who was into S&M.
I went to the studios to watch the dancers, but mainly to hear Gary Arbour play ballet music. The procedure with new ballet music is to always have a piano score done first. This is given to the ballet pianist who would then play the music for the choreographer. The choreographer would, over a period of time, work out the dance steps. When he/she was satisfied, the new choreography would be worked out with the dancers. There would always be a lot of stopping and starting, and the pianist had to be pretty good to accommodate both the choreographer and the dancers in the process. It would be Gary who would be the “go between” between me and James Kudelka. It was more than fortunate that Gary and I had worked together on the Toronto Dance Theater’s production of “The Letter”. (See Toronto Dance Theater memoire.)
I returned to Vancouver and my school teaching duties, and spent every spare minute composing the piano score of Washington Square. Sometimes my school kids would ask me what I was working on and I would play them a bit of my score. Many were keenly interested, especially the girls. As in “The Letter” I received directions as to mood, length of time for each scene, general tempo, and anything else that would help me get a handle on the musical needs of the ballet. I would send completed scenes of my piano score to Gary, who would then play what I had written for James. Then I had to wait for the “verdict” from James as to whether or not my music worked for him. Often it was “NOT”. (Gary told me later that, after hearing what I had written, James would sometimes stand in the middle of the dance studio exclaiming, “What am I supposed to do with THAT?!!” And Gary would phone me to tell me that “Perhaps, you could change the music a bit?” And I would scream, “I’m not changing a note!!”, but of course I did, and the process would continue. Gary, fully understanding that he was dealing with two very stubborn “creative types”, always remained calm and patient. Thank heavens for Gary. Back and forth we would go, until, finally, the day came when I was given the go ahead to orchestrate the piano music.
A date for the premiere was set in December, just before Christmas. What with all my duties teaching school, I knew that I needed help with the copying of the orchestral parts. I had heard that, Abe Manheim, the music librarian for the Vancouver Symphony, was a great copyist. I took my full orchestral score to him. I impressed on him the fact that the orchestra needed all the orchestral parts by a certain date. He assured me that he would have all the parts done well in time. I went back to my teaching but began to get more and more concerned when I didn’t hear from Abe. Also, by now I was getting messages from the conductor, George Crum, that he needed the parts for rehearsals. I finally phoned Abe and said I just HAD to send the parts to Toronto –immediately! I went to Abe’s tiny work room in the Orpheum Theater and was appalled to see pages of my orchestral score hanging on clothes lines. The pages were drying out! Apparently, Abe had left my score in his brief case, in his car. Someone had stolen his brief case and, seeing there was nothing of value (yeah right!) threw the brief case into some bushes. This was during many days of typical Vancouver downpours. After two weeks, the police found Abe’s brief case and returned it to him. The pages in his brief case were soaked. “But Abe,” I said, “you should have told me. I had a copy made!” Poor Abe just groaned. Because he had, after finally getting my score back, so little time, he madly copied the parts which were, of course, full of his copy mistakes. At one point he put all four French horns on one stave when he should have put them on two. George Crum had a fit and a hell of a time “fixing” the parts in time for rehearsals. At this point I should point out that no one cares to hear excuses: Either the music/sets/costumes, etc., are ready or they’re not. Typically, I felt responsible for the orchestral parts not being done on time. I felt that somehow, I had let my end down. I was, after all, the composer and, ultimately, it was my responsibility to see that the music was done on time and ready for rehearsals. I thought that, had I lived in Toronto, I could have addressed all the problems in a better and more direct way. Despite all this, rehearsals took place on time and I was invited to the dress rehearsal and premier performances in the O’Keefe Center.
The reviews of Washington Square were mixed. There were criticisms of the choreography which James didn’t take very well. Afterwards, we had a post mortem to try and figure out if anything could be done. There was to be another performance. This would give us a possible chance to “fix” the ballet. At one point I had a revelation: I knew what was missing. There should have been a very emotional duet celebrating the betrothal between the two principal characters, Catherine and Morris. I immediately said I would write this music in time for the next rehearsal. I worked like mad to complete this, very fully scored, duet so as to be in time for the next and last performance. As the music for the duet unfolded at the rehearsal where it was first heard, I saw a delighted grin come over the conductor’s face. He looked at me and we both knew this was the answer. The emotional center of the ballet was what had been missing. This new music filled that missing element. I knew I had “nailed” it. And sure enough, the review of the next performance was like night and day. The Toronto dance critic who had expressed his reservations, said he felt he had to revise his opinion. “For whatever reason,” he said, “this performance was so much better.” We never told him why! So, I left Toronto feeling that we had, after all, succeeded. Washington Square was a great success and subsequent performances went on to receive wonderful reviews and great audience response. Many National Ballet board members have told me since that Washington Square is their favourite ballet.
Washington Square was toured by the National Ballet and finally arrived in Vancouver. The reception was terrific and when I went on the stage, there was a huge increase in applause. I walked the full length of the Queen Elizabeth stage bowing and applauding and yelling my thanks to the orchestra who beamed their approval of me from the pit. Many musicians since then have told me this was the best ballet music they have ever played. The Vancouver Sun music critic, who was known for his acerbic reviews, thanked me, in his New Year’s column, for writing Washington Square.
Post Script: Years later, after marrying my wife, Penny, I took her to Toronto to see a live production of Washington Square. Penny had loved ballet all her life and to see a major ballet with her husband’s music was a thrill for her. We were seated in the third row from the stage with James Kudelka. Imagine our surprise when we were strictly told by James that, under no circumstances, was I to be recognized. We, and in particular, me, was to remain seated at the end of the production. At the finish of the ballet, there was a huge response from the audience. The dancers took their bows to great acclaim. Finally, it was the turn of the orchestra to be recognized. James gripped my arm to keep me in my seat. The conductor entered and the audience enthusiastically responded. He looked out into the audience, obviously looking for the composer. However, the composer’s arm was being tightly held by the choreographer in order to keep him in his seat. To say this was terribly embarrassing for me, especially in front of my wife, was an understatement. We had flown thousands of miles from the west coast to the east coast of Canada to see the production. The only explanation that was offered by those who knew James Kudelka was that he couldn’t deal with the success of the music. To this day, I harbor ill feelings about this affair. We could have accepted the audience’s enthusiastic response together, but James could not share the wonderful moment with me. Of course, he was able to take bows for his role in all the other productions but seemed unable to share this one time. James later became head of the National Ballet and saw to it that Washington Square was never produced again.