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Ebertfest 2016: Interview with Renée Baker of the Chicago Modern Orchestra Project

Editor's Note: The following article was written by Ebert Fellow Shalayne Pulia of The Daily Illini.

Ebertfest 2016 closed on Sunday afternoon with the Chicago Modern Orchestra Project’s score to a screening of Oscar Micheaux’s 1925 silent film, “Body and Soul” led by founding music director and conductor Renée Baker.

The film is Paul Robeson’s cinematic debut where he assumes the role of two characters, an ex-convict posing as a preacher and the saintly Sylvester Jenkins. The former swindles the life savings away from an unsuspecting woman in his congregation while taking advantage of her daughter whom he is supposed to marry. Film critic Leonard Maltin introduced the film apologizing for its lack of sophistication preparing the audience to “meet the film on its own level.”

Chaz Ebert and Maltin moderated a Q&A after the film. However, Chaz argued with Maltin’s introduction. 

“I think this movie is as sophisticated as any other silent movie we’ve had here [at Ebertfest].” 

The audience and Baker agreed with Chaz, sounding off several cheers and a round of applause before the moderators turned their attention to the vivacious composer to talk about her music and process for scoring silent films.

“I see the music as a dialogue,” said Baker. “Since there is no dialogue [in silent film], I don’t have to play underneath voices. I can match what’s going on [with the music].”

Baker’s commitment to her unique sound is integral to what she creates, blending a classical music education with modern sensibilities.

“This is the way we bring them forward, is to marry them to current genres. And I think it’s entertaining.”

Entertaining the crowd at this year’s Ebertfest took some logistical determination as well. Baker managed to squeeze 16 musicians and vocalists into the Virginia Theatre pit that is made to fit only 10. She needed every single one of those sounds; however, she made it work—another testament to her commitment and strong personality. She also unabashedly described her desire to start her own orchestra as a narcissistic endeavor.

“I wanted to overcome the fear of playing non-traditional genres and non-traditional scores … I’ll be honest. I started this because I was a composer and did not want to wait until I was dead to have my stuff played.”

She believes her art stands on its own, entertaining a silent film audience via sound while they understand the basic storyline via sight. The two arts succeed in tandem as parallels but not essentially intertwined. There’s separation there that breathes new life into the accompaniment, letting the music speak freely on a higher level not simply as a live interpretation of exactly what is shown on screen.

“If a broom falls, I don’t have to go ‘pat!’ when the broom falls. You know the broom fell. I didn’t need to match it emotionally,” Baker said while the Virginia Theatre audience let out a collective laugh. “So I can keep the music and the mood flowing without leading you emotionally.”

However, Baker’s highly animated conducting style does lead her musicians who she hand-selects to join her orchestra. Some, she finds in unconventional ways like Yoseph Henry, whom she discovered in the back corner of a coffee shop when he walked past her humming. At the time, Henry was working for ADT. He now adds the hauntingly beautiful vocals, alongside Saalik Ziyad, for “Body and Soul’s” energetic yet melancholy score.

Baker’s composition is written in ink to preserve its original authenticity. It’s pure inspiration for her—a celebration of her style and clear artistic vision. If any musician in her orchestra, or anyone she works with for that matter, has an objection, they can take their leave.

“It ain’t personal. It’s about the music.”

And these musicians get that. Baker told me in an interview after her Q&A that conducting a live performance for a silent film is not more complicated than any other instance of conducting—if she is working with the right people.

“It’s about working with a group of people enough on a regular basis that no matter what the situation is they read my language they read my music. They have to understand the language.”

Baker speaks her own unique gestural conducting language where she can make the music sound like it has all been written down in advance. It’s a process she developed while studying non-traditional conducting languages.

“You have to be composing in your head along with watching the film the entire time. There’s no downtime.”

The assertive composer was also asked in the Q&A about her thoughts on the layered issues presented in “Body and Soul” related to race, religion and abuse of women, among others. But she prefers a purely artistic approach to what she creates choosing to zero in on the music instead of thinking about the issues.

“Whatever he was saying about male and female relationships, it was clear in the movie. I rarely turn these projects into political things, because for me it robs me of the creativity. I just want to do art. Once I’m done and I’ve scored, we can chat about it … [But] I just wanted to score what I think is a great film.”

For Baker, scoring these films is about developing authenticity and expanding beyond her classical collegiate training into a genre-bending style that excites, entertains and exceeds expectations.

She does recognize that she works in uncharted space as an African American, female composer for silent films like “Body and Soul.”

She addressed her orchestra during the Q&A when she was asked about her position:

“How many do you all know [who do what I do]?” which was followed by a resounding “none” from her musicians and a knowing laugh from the audience.

But those are not the labels that are important to Baker. She is, at heart, simply someone who is passionate about the authenticity of her music.

“I’m not just a black composer. I’m a composer. I’m not just a jazz composer. I’m a composer. I just want to focus on the creative side.”

For more information on Baker and her impending projects, visit: reneebakercomposer.net or chicagomodernorchestraproject.org.

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