Renée Baker at Ebertfest
Photo by Shalayne Pulia
The Daily Illini
Editor’s note: The following article was written for an Ebert Fellowship in memory of the late Roger Ebert.The fellowship works with the forthcoming Roger Ebert Center at the College of Media. Chicago Tribune film critic Michael Phillips advises the Ebert fellows.
The film is Paul Robeson’s cinematic debut where he assumes the role of two characters, a sinful preacher and 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, so 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.