New Music, New Pathways: An Interview with James Baker

For the last two weeks, our Artistic Director Peggy Pearson has been working with and performing the new works of ten composition fellows at the Wellesley Composer’s Conference, one of the oldest and most prestigious conferences of its kind. Guided for nearly 40 years by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Mario Davidovsky, the Composers Conference & Chamber Music Workshops offer participants a unique two-fold experience. First, it provides a select number of emerging composers with an intense two-week program of seminars, public colloquia, and performances of their recent works. It also provides talented amateur chamber musicians with a stimulating workshop environment that includes coachings by nationally-renowned faculty, opportunities to attend masterclasses, concerts, and much more. The final concert will take place this Saturday, August 2nd at 8pm, in Houghton Chapel on the Wellesley College Campus (click here for directions and here for the complete program). 

James Baker is Music Director and Conductor of the Composers Conference at Wellesley College, Director of the Percussion Ensemble at the Mannes College of Music, and Principal Percussionist of the New York City Ballet Orchestra. Mr. Baker was the Conductor of the New York New Music Ensemble and is Principal Conductor of the Talea Ensemble. As instrumentalist or conductor he has premiered music by many of the great composers of the 20th and 21st centuries including: Boulez, Cage, Carter, Messiaen, Dillon, Harvey, Wourinen, Davidovsky, Glass, Aperghis, Reich, Reynolds, Henze, Crumb, Babbitt, Neuwirth, Furrer, Billone, Fernyhough and many, many others, often working closely with the composers. Through his work with his groups, at conferences, universities and festivals, he is an advocate for the music of a whole new generation of composers from around the world, premiering hundreds of new works over the course of his career. He very graciously took some time out of his jam-packed schedule at the Composers Conference this week to speak with us about his love of new music, his work at the conference, and his unique vantage point as a percussionist, conductor, and composer of electronic music.

What do you most look forward to at the Composers’ Conference every year?

I think the two things I look forward to most are: one, getting together with the amazing ensemble of musicians that we have here. The ensemble of twenty-seven players is an amazing group of people. I really look forward to working with them; they’re incredibly talented, incredibly giving, and generous with their time, both in rehearsal and in preparation; they’re very well prepared. Two, it’s very important for me to spend as much time as possible with Mario Davidovsky, and I look forward to being able to see him on a daily basis. In New York, we see each other often, but not daily, and it’s really great to be here with him. He’s one of the great masters and one of the really important people in my life, and I really love him, so it’s always a pleasure to be able to see him every day and talk to him about philosophy, music, architecture, religion, and a wide range of subjects on which he is an absolute authority. Those are the two things that I most look forward to. 

How did you become involved with the Composers’ Conference?

Mario Davidovsky, Composer and Conference Director

Mario Davidovsky, Composer and Conference Director

I was invited by Mario around seven years ago. The previous music director here, Efrain Guigui, was here for many, many years with Mario, and they basically established the paradigm that exists here, and were really responsible for how this place runs, and the ethos under which it operates. So Guigui was taken ill, and Mario just called me and asked me if I would want to substitute for Guigui for the summer, and I said sure. I had heard from a lot of people who came up here to play — I’d never come up here as a player myself — I had played and conducted a lot of Mario’s music in New York, so he knew me and invited me. Just before I arrived here, Maestro Guigui passed away, so I did the first summer here, and then was invited back for a second summer. After that second summer, they offered me the job as music director, which I gladly took because it’s such a special place, and that’s how I got here. 

What sets the Wellesley Composers’ Conference apart from others of its kind?

There are a couple of things. One is that there are a limited number of fellows — ten fellows —invited to write, and since there are only ten, they get a pretty good amount of attention from the musicians, from me, and from Mario, and the invited guest composers. We invite a distinguished guest every year to run the seminar with the composers. I also know from my contacts in the outside world who sit on panels adjudicating composers who have submitted their work for prizes — I hear that our recordings are some of the best that these young composers are submitting for adjudication. So not only are they getting personal attention, they get a very good performance. We provide them with a fully professional recording. We have a great recording engineer, Tony DiBartolo, he’s a super-great recording engineer, so the recordings are top-notch, and the performances are top-notch. Also, the fact that there are amateur participants here, the fact that it’s also a chamber music center sets us apart, as opposed to just a conference. So as well as a staff of unbelievably talented professional musicians and this group of [composition] fellows, we have a whole group of dedicated amateur players who just love to play. They come here every summer, they’re coached by the staff of professionals on traditional chamber music, and then my professional staff plays some traditional chamber music on every one of our concerts as well. So it’s a super mix of brand new and old, and a dedication to coaching the amateur players. There’s a very utopian atmosphere of professionals and amateurs getting together and working together and experiencing together as much as we can. It’s a really amazing place. At times, when it’s all clicking, the synergy is really fantastic. Everyone is co-existing musically, the coachings are going well, the pieces are going well, the records are going well, it can be just a fantastic experience. 

What sparked your interest in new music and working with composers?

It goes back pretty far. When I was a young kid in high school, I started listening to a lot of jazz, I was playing a lot of jazz music. At that time, I was listening to progressive jazz, Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis, post-bebops, and then I started getting more into experimental jazz. At the same time, I had a teacher, I was was maybe fourteen or fifteen years old, and my percussion teacher also taught at Albany State University, so I used to go down there with him to take my percussion lessons and also to play in an ensemble there. At that time, there was an experimental studio for electronic music at Albany State. It was run by Joel Chadabe, and I think John Gibson was one of the guys that was there; these guys were doing some amazing, early experiments in electronic music. I used to just watch these guys wire stuff up and put things together, and I played in a couple of pieces were they were mixing live and electronic performances, and I was just completely fascinated by it. So I started getting really interested in new composition and new ideas about how to make music, and then at the same time I had a crazy record store in my town, a small town in upstate New York. When I would go to the record store to buy jazz records, all of a sudden I was finding these records by Elliott Carter and Pierre Boulez, and I didn’t really know who they were, but I started talking to my teacher about them, and he started telling me who they were, and I started listening to these records as a sixteen year old. That was it, it changed my life forever when I started hearing Boulez and Carter and Charles Wourinen and guys like that, I just knew that’s what I wanted to do. I’m really in love with classical music, and I still love jazz, but I’ve had a long love affair with living composers and contemporary music. 

With that background, it seems like you’re a great fit for the Composers Conference and Chamber Music Center!

I learn a lot, especially from the staff players; they’re so giving. I’ve been working with many of these people for most of my life, I learn a tremendous amount from them, and they’ve been very helpful in making me a better musician, no question. 

Have you tried your hand at composition yourself? 

I write music, I do. I don’t write as much as I make music. I make electronic music. I write things out that need to be performed by live players that I will then transform electronically. I have written things for live musicians and electronics, but these days I’m writing mostly electronics. I write a lot of music for dance. I’ve been commissioned by the NextWave festival at BAM, the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, I’ve had stuff performed all over the world, as relates to music for dance. It’s not something I advertise. I don’t consider myself to be the level of composer that we get here. I’d be completely mortified to play any of my music for Mario; I want him to love me! If he listened to any of my music, he wouldn’t love me anymore. It’s not that I’m ashamed of it; I’m like any composer in some ways, although I’m not as diligent. My work comes and goes. I just do a big chunk and then I won’t do it for a long time. I don’t consider myself a composer in that way, sitting down at a desk every day and working out issues. I like electronic music and I like experimenting with ways to produce it.

And I’m sure that it influences your work with the composers and musicians who are writing and performing this new music; your work must give you some insights into what they’re doing.

Yeah, it does, certainly. There are a lot of conductors who are not necessarily composer-friendly, and they can make the process very difficult because they can get angry about a lot of things that I would never get angry about. I really love composers and I give them a lot of leeway because I know how hard it is, and I give the players a lot of leeway because I know how hard it is to play! I’m always striving for the most collaborative process possible. I like to surround myself with people that are equal collaborators. 

That’s a nice transition into my next question. You have the perspective from your composition work when working with composers, and as a very active performing musician you have that perspective when working with the musicians, so how did you transition into conducting from percussion?

I started a long time ago. In high school, I had a music teacher in high school, not one of my private instrumental teachers, but a choral director, a very smart, sensitive musician named Wesley Sandberg. He took a real interest in me, tried to cultivate my talents and encourage me as much as possible. He said to me one day: “You should conduct some stuff!” I said okay, so I started out conducting some choral pieces, and I was bitten by the bug back then, and then as I went away to music school, I started conducting lots of ensemble pieces that I put together myself. I never studied conducting. I went to school to study playing, but I conducted a lot, because I loved new music and I was trying to do as much as possible. There wasn’t always so much offered by the school, especially at Juilliard. We really had to make our own way, because there was not a lot of contemporary music at Juilliard at the time when I was there. It was post-Luciano Berio; when he was there, he had an ensemble and they did a lot more, but when he left, the whole contemporary music scene there went sour. It was a pretty conservative place. So I had a lot of opportunities to conduct there, just putting stuff together. I just segued into it because I liked contemporary music and I just wanted to do it. I had some desire, it’s hard to identify what those desires are when you’re young, but there was something in me… I just felt like waving my arms! And then people pointed out to me later, you know, you have a lot of the required skills for this sort of thing: I could hear well, I could move my arms well from being a percussionist, all of those tactile parts of it were not that hard for me. I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of music, of harmony and counterpoint and pitch… I’m really fascinated by that stuff, and the organization of music. It’s a great way to be an organizer, being a conductor. I still love playing and I still play all the time, it’s kind of a split life. I would never turn my back on playing, I really love it, and I love being with other players, playing chamber music, playing in the orchestra, too, it’s all really great. 

Facsimile of  Le marteau sans maître  by Pierre Boulez, available for purchase at Schott Music (click to view)

Facsimile of Le marteau sans maître by Pierre Boulez, available for purchase at Schott Music (click to view)

What piece of new music has had the most impact on your life/outlook/career?

That’s a hard one. One would probably be the Boulez Le marteau sans maître; when I first heard that piece down at the record store, I think it was the old recording by Robert Craft. I was just blown away by that. That, and there was a Stockhausen score of Gruppen when I was in high school. I used to play in an orchestra at Williams College, in Williams, MA, right across the border from my home town — I grew up in Troy, New York — I used to drive across and play, and I had time off I’d go to the Williams College library, and they had all of these scores there, and I remember looking at Gruppen and thinking “Wow.” That blew my mind too. Those two pieces really did it. There was something about the European avant garde… it was weird, I discovered the post-war European avant garde, then the American movement, it was kind of backwards. And how that happened to me in a backwater town in New York State, that I would be drawn into post-World War II European music as my first real love for new music… don’t ask me, it’s crazy. I don’t know how that happened.

A touch of fate?

Perhaps. That’s my earliest consciousness of something changing how I thought about music, those two pieces.