Renee Baker on Film and Film Music
Albert Lamorisse's Le Ballon Rouge (The Red Balloon, 1956) is a must-see film for everyone. During the thirty-five minutes of Lamorisse's Oscar-winning film, one watches young Pascal discover a huge red balloon and then follows the pair as they remain inseparable through a series of adventures throughout the Belleville area of Paris as it existed before slum clearance efforts (also known as gentrification) undertaken by the Parisian government in the 1960s. The film is compelling for many reasons, the primary reason being the presence of an anthropomorphic red balloon as a central character. There is no narrative: all of the action is “told” through the actions of the characters and underscored by a delightful and sometimes haunting score by French composer Maurice Le Roux.
The contrast between the darkness of post World War II Paris and the presence first of Pascal's companion and (in the tremendous finale) the colors of the balloon cluster that comes to Pascal's rescue is also significant: as films serve as documents, Le Ballon Rouge is a “color-record” of the Belleville region of Paris before the phenomenon of urban renewal made its way through the neighborhood.
La Ballon Rouge is just one film that made a profound impression on Chicago Modern Orchestra Project founder and artistic director Renée Baker, who presents the 1926 Japanese avant-garde film
A Page of Madness with live music score and chamber ensemble at the Museum of Fine Arts in
St. Petersburg, Florida on Saturday, July 28, 2018.
“I have been a voracious consumer of musicals and non-American cinema since childhood, and have been absolutely obsessed with animation,” Renée shared. In addition to La Ballon Rouge, both the stage musicals and film versions of West Side Story and Oliver fueled Ms. Baker's fascination with film and film music. “When you have those kinds of cinematic experiences, you can't let them go. Knowing that I could have the opportunity to combine films like those with my compositions actually changed the way that I see film.”
It is clear that the combination of early wonder, adult responsibility, curiosity and intellectual acuity has resulted in her phenomenal involvement in film music composition. The early broadening of her perspective has resulted in Renée having both knowledge of and involvement in all aspects of film production, that including keen insight into how one can move film audiences through music. “The easiest way for modern audiences is with a modern score,” Ms. Baker said. “Everything is recorded live by the Chicago Modern Orchestra Project, and I also watch the movies so many times that I have deep knowledge of the frames themselves.”
Heralded as “a dynamic force in the creative music scene in Chicago” by contemporary classical music magazine I Care if You Listen, Renée Baker is an incredibly multifaceted and prolific artist.
In addition to her work as a founding member and principal violist of the Chicago Sinfonietta,
Ms. Baker is a member of the internationally acclaimed Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). Renee is also the founder of both the Mantra Blue FreeOrchestra and Chicago Modern Orchestra Project, both ensembles being dedicated to performing and recording works of living composers. An established visual artist, Ms. Baker's work has been exhibited in museums and art galleries across the world.
What started as an MFA project has turned into yet another fantastic and ever-expanding facet of
Ms. Baker's highly creative career. Baker's foray into film music composition began while finishing her Master of Fine Arts in Composition at Vermont College of Fine Arts. “The seed was first planted by a mentor, because I wasn't 'looking' in that direction,” she said. “Don DiNicola, a mentor in the program, approached me about doing a film project while I was concentrating on contemporary classical music. Our first project was Oscar Micheaux's Body and Soul. At the time I said I would score the entire movie – and I did.”
Known as the most successful African-American filmmaker of the early twentieth century, Oscar Micheaux (1884-1951) produced over forty films between 1919 and 1948, those films including 1925's Body and Soul. “I call Micheaux 'the original DIY guy',” Ms. Baker said. “He was truly an inspiration for my film scoring and company, because he did everything.”
Renée Baker's interest in and exploration of early twentieth-century African-American silent film is profoundly mission-driven. Understanding that a lot of early twentieth-century African-American history has been captured in many films, Ms. Baker feels the important need for twenty-first century audiences to explore those films. “I am working to bring honor to the fact that there is world cinema in a historical context that needs to be seen again,” she said.
“After Body and Soul was premiered at the Museum of Contemporary Arts Chicago, I was asked close Ebertfest with the Chicago Modern Orchestra Project and the score, and in February 2018 I did a second film at Symphony Center called The Scar of Shame.” To date, there have been over thirty screenings of Body and Soul throughout the world, both with live orchestra and recorded score. In 2019, Ms. Baker will take Body and Soul to the Gateways Music Festival in Rochester, New York.
After their initial success, DiNicola and Baker formed Dirigent Media and scored three films, including the Japanese horror film A Page of Madness and the 1915 silent German horror film Der Golem. “I decided that I wanted to learn about the business on my own, and founded WabiHouse Media in 2016, under which we have scored over 200 movies,” Renée said. “I then formed Relinquish Media and started making my own experimental films.”
In addition to scoring both German and Japanese expressionist films and becoming a true filmmaker, Ms. Baker's foray into filmmaking includes a recent presentation of a new version of D. W. Griffith's controversial Birth of a Nation (1914/15). “Griffith's version of Birth of a Nation was the first feature film shown in the White House, and this exploration definitely put things into perspective. Many of Micheaux's films were made in response to Birth of a Nation, and he was not the only filmmaker who decided that the images presented in Griffith's film would not be the only images people saw of African-Americans.” This timely screening of Birth of a Nation was titled “The Conundrum Conversation” and featured both a dinner and an introduction from the American Civil Liberties Union (“The audience had a good time,” Renée said.).
When asked about the level of seriousness that she shows in all of her work, Renee said simply “I am simply a believer in my product and following my leanings.” “This matter-of-factness has been hallmark of Renée Baker's approach to all aspects of her career. “I am an abstract thinker on a journey, and what I do is honor that journey by doing my homework.” That sense of responsibility and curiosity has led to exploring the Black Center Film Archives at Indiana University (“They were so gracious in allowing me to visit and have full access to the available resources.”).
While Renée does indeed carry a seriousness into her work, she has maintained a sense of humor and no-nonsense perspective on the business of film scoring and musicmaking. “A lot of people call me wanting meetings and shortcuts – I wish that I could take everyone to the tubs and bins that I have studied. Don't wait for CliffNotes – do your homework!”
# # #
Renee Baker conducts an original music score to the 1926 avant-garde film A Page of Madness with chamber ensemble as a part of Magnetic Fields: Sonic Abstraction at the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg, Florida on Saturday, July 28, 2018. An afternoon of abstract sonic work by female African-American composers, this event was curated to complement Magnetic Fields: Expanding American Abstraction, 1960s to Today.
Magnetic Fields: Expanding American Abstraction, 1960s to Today is the first U.S. presentation dedicated to the formal and historical dialogue of abstraction by women artists of color. Organized by the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, Kansas City, Missouri, Magnetic Fields was also shown at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington DC.
©Samuel Thompson, 2018