Thursday, January 14, 2010

Composer Regina Baiocchi and the Late Hale Smith, Part 3

(Part 2 ended with Regina's departure from the post of Director of Public Relations at Chicago Theological Union, when she won a composition grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.)

I gather you never went back?
No, I haven't been back there. But they've hired me on occasion to do free lance work, which I enjoy doing, but I've never gone back there as a permanent, full-time employee.
From there I was working on two projects. One was a piece for African hand drums, an orchestral work, which was what the National Endowment of the Arts grant was.
That was the Percussion Concerto?
It's actually a hand drum concerto.
Because it's all African hand drums. It's for Ashiko, Bata, Conga and Djembe, those four families of African drums. Of course each instrument represents a particular country and a particular sound, but as in most instrument families, there's a soprano, alto, tenor and baritone version of each drum. The performer is called upon to perform those four families of instruments within the context of an orchestral setting.
The piece has been performed a couple of times by the Seattle Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of Marsha Mabrey. She is someone who I met at the Detroit Symphony Orchestra around the same time that I met Hale Smith.
Did you meet him there also?
Yes, I met him actually in Detroit. The Detroit Symphony Orchestra was performing a piece of mine, and interestingly, he came up to me and said "That's a very attractive piece that you've written!" I thought that was a choice word for it, "attractive."
You thought that was code?
Yes, and it was! Of course I probed him and it was interesting because I got many accolades for the piece. It's called "Orchestral Suite," and most of the people in the audience really loved the piece. It was something that I wrote in reaction to "Operation Desert Storm." I don't fare well when it comes to all wars. I just think they're senseless and unnecessary and I feel that if two countries are at odds, if those two leaders of those countries got in a ring with boxing gloves on, war would never happen, because most heads of state are either cowards or definitely not fighters. It's always easier to send somebody else's kid to take a bullet for you, but...
So there was a strong ideological reason for the composition?
It was. I had a friend who was teaching at St. Thomas. He sent me a note saying he came across a list of young men who were stationed in Operation Desert Storm. They did not have families. Either they were orphaned or had lost track of their families or were estranged from their families. They wanted people to write to these young men. I chose a couple of names and I started writing to them. One of the young men I wrote to was Native American, I found out. He was 19 years old and he unfortunately lost his life there.
But I had come to know him through his letters. I thought it was senseless that this child really who was brought into the world and then orphaned, and then further abandoned by his country, to be dropped off someplace that he probably couldn't even point out on a map, to lose his life, and he probably did not know why...
So your relationship with him drew you further into your awareness?
Absolutely! I think one of the reasons that war is so prevalent is that we don't have a personal face that we can put on it. You know it's something that's happening somewhere else, with some other people. Of course people who have sons and daughters who are in military service are aware of it; they have first-hand knowledge of it. But people like myself - I've really had no family member who's ever fought in a war in my lifetime. Having these young men as pen pals really kind of brought things home. In each case I noticed that they really had no idea what they were in for. The recruiters are very persuasive. You think that it's a way for you to go to school or to see the world, and of course you realize very early that you're basically a hired killer and unless you're very, very good at it, and very lucky, you usually end up being killed yourself. So I wrote this piece, "Orchestral Suite." It's a three-movement piece. I. "Against the ODS" (Operation Desert Storm/Shield), II."Mother to Nique" (A lullaby), III. "Thunder," which is probably the most-performed movement of that piece. As the name implies, it's a very loud, bombastic piece that includes a thunder sheet and a lot of percussion, a lot of brass. Anyway, I finally discovered what Hale meant by "This is an attractive piece." Interestingly enough, he made comments about the strength and weakness of the music, never having seen the score, and was able to pinpoint some strengths and weaknesses. Of course I as composer knew exactly where they were. To have someone who has an ear that's keen enough to hear it, who has the wherewithall to discuss that in detail...
The diagnosis of a master!
Absolutely! On the first hearing! It kind of reminds me of things I have read about Leonard Bernstein where he would go to a musical or a play or some opera, a premiere, and he'd come home and play the whole thing from memory!
Having gone to a premiere, hearing it one time! That's the kind of talent and training I think people in Hale's generation got, that people of my generation did not necessarily get. So I was very interested in talking to him because the teachers that I studied with in undergrad did not really understand Regina Harris Biaocchi, the artist. They wanted me to be in a box really! I was often told, "You know this is a conservatory, we teach people how to write this type of music. I was not able to express myself as a popular musician, a jazz musician, as a classical musician.
That was not welcomed then?
No, it really wasn't. It's interesting, I did an interview once with the "Chicago Reader," a newspaper.
They talked extensively about that, but I've since spoken to my teachers, so I think initially when the "Reader" piece came out they were a little hurt by my comments, because I was very candid. I was the only Black student and the only female student in the Composition and Theory Department at Roosevelt University at the time I came there. It's not like I was the first Black student, because they had had other Black students before me, and then once I got there there were other people who came, but most of those people were interested in studying European Classical Music. I was interested in studying European Classical Music, but I also wanted to study Jazz, Gospel, Blues and Popular Music because I have respect for all genres but it was not necessarily...
Well you had different paradigms!
Yes! And there was no mutual respect. I was told that "We do not teach popular music here," so for me to write a popular tune and submit it as my lesson or my piece for the week, it was unacceptable. So I learned how to write what I called "head music" and "heart music." "Head music" is music that I wrote for my grade and "heart music" is music that I heard, music that I felt in my heart and I learned to leave that on the piano stand at home.
Well that was an accomplishment in itself!
It was, and I cannot take the credit for it because I've always been very close to my parents and when I told my father what was happening to me at Roosevelt University, he is the one who made the suggestion. He was saying "If you write the music that you don't feel or that you don't hear, and you suppress the other stuff, you are going to basically commit artistic suicide!"
That's interesting!
Yes it is! Rather than commit artistic suicide, he suggested that I learn how to write "head music" and "heart music." So that's what I did. I don't think it's anything different, because I think Black people in America have always been bilingual, bicultural. We've always had to - Dunbar talks about our wearing a mask, having a public persona...
And a private persona. I think that was an extension of that.
I see.
So I have my Dad to thank for that!
Was your Dad musically inclined?
My mother always sang in the choir and I think that's why she put us in choir. She always wanted to learn piano. She did study organ for a while as an adult, but she never really got proficient at it. My father played Bluegrass fiddle and harmonica. He is from Kentucky, and my mother is from Tennessee. Their musical exposure is a reflection of the culture in the state in which they lived.
Sounds like authentic folk music!
It definitely was! As kids, we were embarrassed that our Dad played harmonica and Bluegrass fiddle -versus violin - those instruments were not popular in our circle at that time. Motown was all the rage! Of course now I have a great love for blues, and I think it's one of my most favorite genres, if not my favorite genre! And I realize this is from listening to it as a child in my home. Of course it's the foundation for jazz, so related to spirituals and work songs and all of the other Black American music!
It was interesting that Hale Smith was courageous enough to say what he said to me, because I think if someone else had said it or the wrong person had said it the wrong way, I would have taken it as hurtful or some sort of attack on me as a composer. To say that on my opening night, that kind of thing really took a lot of courage.
It did!
And I'm glad he did, because it was the beginning of a very long relationship and Hale Smith was the first teacher I've had who had the interest, the capacity and the stamina to teach Regina Baiocchi the complete artist! He understood how I can be a poet, a writer and a composer. Every other teacher that I've had has either suggested that I choose or insisted that I choose one or the other. He never did.
So he was not insisting on the type of specialization that others did?
No. Just like my parents, he said "Write what you hear." So if you wake up this morning and you hear a poem,you should go with that. If you wake up and you hear fiction, or you have a burning desire to write a nonfiction piece or to write an opera, a blues tune or a jazz tune. I think one of the reasons he was able to do that was because he lived that himself. If you look at his canon, he's written music that was performed by people like Eric Dolphy, Betty Carter, alongside of music that was performed by the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra.
That's true!
There are very few people in the world who can say that! In his case he did all of them equally well! There are so many discoveries that I made after I met him, I felt cheated that I had not met him before!
Is that right?
Yes, I really did! I wish I had met him when I first started in music. I would be a much, much better musician than I am today!
That's interesting!
Yes, I do. He and I talked about it and he would always blow it off and say "Oh, don't worry about that! This is where I am now; work from here."
I worked on my opera with him, I worked on my novel with him; there was nothing that I was interested in doing that he could not help me with! Part 4

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