May 24, 2013

Renée Baker on Mark Rothko, Values, and Creating One's Life

Chicago Modern Orchestra Project founder and music director Renée Baker is an artist who defies categorization.    Indeed, she is very active in the cultural life of Chicago, having been a member of the Chicago Sinfonietta since 1987 and serves as the ensemble’s principal violist and also serves as Artistic Director of Mantra Blue Free Orchestra, an ensemble that performs both freely-improvised and through-composed music.    Ms. Baker is also a prolific composer whose works have been premiered by the Chicago Sinfonietta, The Joffrey Ballet Chamber Series, and as part of Chicago’s PianoForte Salon Series and the Umbria Jazz Festival (Italy.)

On Sunday, May 26, 2013, Ms. Baker and the Chicago Modern Orchestra Chamber Ensemble will present a concert titled "Spirit Matters", which features works inspired by Ms. Baker’s equal yet second love, visual art.     The four pieces on this program are inspired by the work of Mark Rothko and Joan Miró, two of the most important visual artists of the twentieth century.

When asked about her interest in and exploration of visual art, Ms. Baker replied with a very philosophical and refreshingly no-nonsense perspective on building both a life and a career as an artist of any kind:  “When I was younger, I found real interest in reading biographies and autobiographies of artists, and found in general that the models of the artists that I studied that were much more dedicated than many of the musicians with whom I was intimately engaged.”

Many of the great musicians of the last century, including violinist Nathan Milstein, encouraged having a healthy interest in one’s world, and Ms. Baker is no exception:  “It is important that musicians become and remain well-rounded and aware of all of the options available to them so that they can create a LIFE in music.” 

This upcoming concert features four works written by Ms. Baker and inspired by the paintings and life of the late Mark Rothko (1903-1970), one of the most famous postwar American artists alongside the late Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning.    Ms. Baker’s intellectual acuity and inexhaustible curiosity again became present when she spoke of the program, one in which many threads of twentieth century modern art are interwoven.  The Rothko Variations for Cello and brut Ensemble, which is inspired by French artist Jean Dubuffett and his collection of art by people with mental illness which he called art brut (“raw art” or “outsider art”).   “In this piece, the cello is used to portray Rothko’s melancholia,” Ms. Baker said, “and the ensemble itself – the ‘brut’ ensemble – is very raw:   unrefined and reactionary to what happens to the cello.” 


Paragraphs 2013 and Dark Paintings Solicit for a sign are works that explore Rothko’s later paintings and the last years of his life.    “Many of his later paintings have been characterized as paragraphs,” Renée shared.    Regarding Dark Paintings:   If you look at Mark Rothko’s last works, you will come away with the sense that he was still evaluating the validity of his work as things became very 'dark'.   The movements in Dark Paintings are named by plate”, done so in tandem with Rothko’s decision not to title many of his late works. 

Ms. Baker shared that she felt an “overwhelming sadness upon coming across Rothko’s later work,” and it is somewhat ironic that Rothko may have found himself weighing and evaluating the validity of his work during the later years of his life, as it was during this period (1958-1970) that he truly achieved critical, financial and international success, that success including a 1964 commission from Jean and Dominique de Menil to create the meditative space know known as the Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas.    While Rothko did not live to see the opening of the chapel – the artist committed suicide in 1970 after a long battle with depression – the chapel served as inspiration for Morton Feldman’s Rothko Chapel for soprano, alto, mixed choir and instruments.   The chapel itself contains fourteen large paintings in dark tones that are referred to as the “culmination of six years of Rothko's life, representing his gradually growing concern for the transcendent.”  While Rothko himself may have questioned both the effect of his work and the understanding of his work during his time, numerous musical works including Feldman’s 1971 masterpiece and Peter Gabriel’s Fourteen Black Paintings are visceral testaments to the profound effect that Rothko’s work has made upon the world.  

As many people have been and continue to be both moved and inspired by Mark Rothko, Rothko himself was inspired by and enjoyed many artists, including Spanish artist Joan Miró (1893-1983), whose 1970 sculpture Personage and Birds is coincidentally present outside of the Chase Tower in Houston (home of the Menil Foundation and the Rothko Chapel).    Miró London bluSpace, the fourth work on the program, is the culmination of very in-depth study of  Miró's work:  “I did a study of 200 Miró paintings for my painted score treatise,” Ms. Baker shared.   “After studying his work, I developed a vocabulary of seventy symbols that I reinterpreted by hand that I am turning into a graphic score.”  

With this being one of two programs taking place within two weeks, I found myself wondering how Renée Baker does it all.   Interestingly enough, our conversation turned again to both about values and exploration.     In her very no-nonsense yet broad perspective, she answered:   “You find time to eat, right?  For the things that are vital to our existence – that we identify as vital – we find time. “   

Ms. Baker also cites the advent of modern technology and means of communication as a vehicle for expanding her work.     All questions as to the isolation that can result from living through social media aside, “The impact that Facebook has had – the contacts that I have made with musicians and other composers - has been amazing.    The composer from Vermont that I brought in last weekend is someone that I met on Facebook.   He’s a very well-known composer:   a few years ago I was looking for a mentor and after finding him online, I contacted him and asked him if he would take a look at some of my compositions.   He said ‘Absolutely’, and his comments were very encouraging.  We met in Vermont last February, and after that visit we invited him to have a piece performed by the Chicago Modern Orchestra Project. “ 
Ms. Baker’s work continues to expand:   in November 2012 she traveled to Jakarta, Indonesia to participate in a composition residency, she has been invited to do a concert in Rome in September 2013 which will feature one of her compositions and a work from the standard classical repertoire, and is currently writing an opera trilogy which has garnered attention from art museums in both Chicago and the Netherlands.    

“What qualities do you want in your life?” she asked.     “This is all about quality of life – a life filled with art, creativity?   If you are a cultural creative, everything is open to you.      I’m beyond blessed, and having a good time.”

The Chicago Modern Orchestra Chamber Ensemble performs works 
by Renée Baker on Sunday, May 26, 2013 at 12:00pm at the  
Preston Bradley Center, 941 West Lawrence Avenue, Chicago.  

For more information on Ms. Baker and the Chicago Modern Orchestra Project, 
please visit

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