When I Step on Stage in Front of a Piano… | Interview with Elizabeth Baker
Thanks to the efforts of sound maven Elizabeth A. Baker, who’s culmination of influences national and international has bestowed Florida with some quality avant-garde music programming, we have The New Music Conflagration Inc., and The Florida International Toy Piano Festival. “People these days want the weird stuff instead of the traditional concert piano stuff,” she said. Baker is continually planning new community events, touring all over the country or creating new works at residencies. You know what they say — if you want something done, ask a busy person.
But “busy” doesn’t even cut it — it’s more like obsession fueled by daily revivals and rebirths through canals of the creative spirit and endless exploration. She wrote the 198-page Toyager: Toy Piano Method, the world’s first toy piano theory book in less than two months. She humbly credits this achievement to having too much time on her hands because the few friends she has are often performing out of town.
She wrote another book that same year called Musings of a Young Composer: Selected Writings and Photographs. I suddenly felt like a giant loser from Lazy Town, but that’s old judgmental programming and not the right reaction. Good art, good work, inspires. I’m actually inspired!
Baker calls herself a New Renaissance Artist because she is engaged with so many forms of expression, from writing to playing many instruments to shifting forms of dance. She uses electronics to turn her movements into synthesizers so her body becomes an instrument. She has trained as an audio engineer (and hasmany types of sound engineering skills concert pianists don’t always have, she proudly mentions as an aside). She loves to write poetry, and sits on the Board of Directors for Rogue Dance.
At the time of our interview, she’s on her way to Boston for her week-long stay at the Co-incidence Residency “based on an expanded view of what constitutes art, music, and the traditional concert,” according to its website.
“It’s a pretty unique residency. It’s what they would call an experimental residency so a lot of the pieces and artists-in-residence are all writing pieces that are open-notation types of things,” Baker said. “I’m dealing with movement and toy piano, because I’ve been pigeon-holed into toy piano for the rest of my life.”
Is Boston a hub for classical music?
It is, indeed. Boston has one of the prime orchestras and they have the Boston Conservatory and the New England Conservatory is not far off from there. You have all of these major players as far as academic music is concerned. You have these opera companies and chamber music is everywhere.
Have you seen the TED Talk called Classical Music with Shining Eyes with Benjamin Zander, the conductor of the Boston Philharmonic?
No. I’ve actually shied away from TED talks. I did two when I was younger. I was opposed to the format. I feel like it’s too short, it’s asking too much to explain in such a short time frame which is one of the reasons the TED talks, as a person giving them, are not necessarily the best feeling.
How musical was your childhood?
My mother’s British, and so in Europe you introduce your children to the arts at a very early age so I was going to the symphony on a regular basis. My mom took me to see Peter and the Wolf. I then got Peter and the Wolf on cassette and wore out three tapes. I was obsessed with being a conductor and my mom put me on piano lessons when I was four. She didn’t make me do them, pretty much it was, “Ooh you have an interest in this, you can explore it.”
Once I started playing piano, I was improvising my own compositions and I had a crazy Russian piano teacher and she didn’t like that and she would hit my hands with a ruler and tell me I couldn’t do that.
So then at a certain point I stopped piano lessons but I was still playing piano. I took a break from that — it never really left my life. I would play piano in between, but I was dancing and doing track pretty heavily through my middle school years. I was doing ballet, traditional Russian ballet and modern dance. In high school I took the guitar and then I ended up doing a year of classical guitar performance. Then I finished with classical guitar performance and decided I’d go back into commercial music, so I went into the MIRA Program at SPC. The teachers never put me on a track I had to follow but I ended up taking all the classes. They were like, “Take what you think will make you a better musician overall.” I ended up doing piano performance, too. It was my first instrument, as well as cello.
How did you come to start The New Music Conflagration, Inc.?
I was traveling quite a bit to the West Coast at the time. I was noticing the new music programs they had in the community and realized there was a giant hole in the community here.
We didn’t have something well-curated, separate from the University and accessible to the person who hasn’t gone to a concert hall before or walked into the library in a Biggie Smalls t-shirt and hear some music he never heard before. He left, but for the first 15 minutes he was exposed to something he wasn’t exposed to before. We can’t expect the Florida orchestra to play avant garde music if they don’t have anyone to ask them about it. It shouldn’t only be for the upper echelon from New York coming down.
Pretty much all of our concerts are subsidized by the friends of the library. This summer we’re starting to do a new program — a series of music history classes and composition classes and at the end of it, there’ll be a recital of composers who’ve never composed before, writing pieces for electronics, whatever the instrumentation this summer will be. It involves a lot of putting the academic music into the hands of regular people and that’s the whole gist of the NMC – the New Music Conflagration.
You also founded The Florida International Toy Piano Festival and wrote a book about toy pianos.
The thing about toy piano is it is an instrument free from expectations. When somebody walks out in front of a concert grand piano, there’s 200 years of expectations of what that is supposed to sound like. As an African-American woman — even though my birth certificate says “other,” super mixed… — as a black woman in concerts, contemporary classical music, I also have a stigma cause there’s no one who looks like me, especially when I moved into works that were avant-garde and experimental. There’s one other classical concert pianist who is African American, Jade Simmons, she’s been a big sister to me, I almost want to cry talking about it.
When I step on the stage in front of a piano, everyone expects Nina Simone, Alicia Keys, Eryka Badu, they’re expecting me to be “black” for all intents and purposes and play black music. And because I’m in front of a toy piano and am incredibly tall, there’s a special aspect as well as a lot of psychological mind craziness that happens because I do a lot with electronics to change the sound of the toy piano. So your expectations of what you think that instrument should sound like and feel like are blown. It’s a very interesting thing and I’ve always loved psychological disconnect. There’s where the movement started — I realize how theatrical toy piano is, and I was a trained dancer so what better thing to do but incorporate movement. I’ll probably be doing another book —- musicians don’t think about the character embodiment of a piece very often. Because if you have very good technique you can get by with a pretty veneer of an understanding of a piece. If you look at Ravel’s Jeux d’eau, if you get through that you can make it sound like rain. There’s psychic energy between the performer, the audience and the piece being made in the ether.
How long did it take you to write these books?
The toy piano book, I had plans to work with two of my collaborators and then they were like, “I’m going to join a pop band” and the other was like, “I’m working on my Masters at Juilliard so I feel like we need to put a pause on this” and I was like, “That’s OK.” I had already figured out what we were going do for the year. This was the January 21st after the Toy Piano Festival. I was like “OK I guess I’m just going to write a toy piano method book,” and I published it March 7.
WHAT?!? From scratch? Or did you already have all the notes?
Completely from scratch, all the examples, the intervals on the stave, all the examples, all the pictures that weren’t the first pictures of my hands on the pianos, I made all of the illustrations. Susan Dixon did the cover for me. But everything else I did, all the illustrations, all the writing, yeah.
“It’s me on toy piano, bike parts from a bike co-op, Indian harmonium, theremin and synthesizer,” she said. “And a wind-up cymbal monkey named Mortimer James.”