Thursday, January 21, 2010

Composer Regina Baiocchi and the Late Hale Smith, Part 4

["From Spirituals to Symphonies", Dr. Helen Walker-Hill]

(Part 3 ended with the recollection that there was nothing Regina wanted to do that Hale Smith could not help her do.)

Opera - was that "Good News Falls Gently?"
No. "Good News Falls Gently" was a piece that was actually written for soprano and orchestra. Patricia Morehead commissioned me to write the words. She actually set the words for piano and orchestra. Later I used the same piece within the context of my opera as a poem. The opera that I wrote is called "Gbeldahoven: No One's Child." When I was teaching I had the Summers off. So one Summer I said "Oh, I'm going to read everything by Zora Neale Hurston." Then the next Summer I said "Oh, I'm going to read all the works by Langston Hughes," and another Summer "I'm going to read everything by W.E.B. DuBois," et cetera!
I realized I had read so much about Hurston and Hughes and how their lives intersected, and they had a literary patroness, Charlotte Van der Veer Quick Mason, who was a doctor's wife and a socialite in Manhattan. She financed a lot of their productions. I had been commissioned by a group that I belong to called American Women Composers to write some music for soprano and piano. I actually wrote two pieces. One was called "How it feels to be Colored Me" and the other was "I Am Not Tragically Colored," based on a 1929 essay by Zora Neale Hurston. The piece was cast for mezzo soprano and cello. Whenever the pieces were performed, people said "Oh, what opera is this from?" I said "It's not an opera, I hate opera and have never written any opera in my life." Finally, I realized - "Duh!, if all these people are thinking it came from an opera, maybe it should be in an opera!" And so, that's when I started writing the opera. I think every composer should write at least one opera. It was a very humbling experience. One of the reasons that it was so valuable is because Hale made sure that I dotted every "i" and crossed every "t". I wrote the libretto as well as the music. When I would send it to him, we would discuss it during my lessons. Nothing escaped him! Ŧhere's a scene in the opera where one of the characters is driving and a song comes on the radio. He said to me "This is not going to ring true because radio was not invented in cars then." Of course I argued "Yes, it was!", having no knowledge that it was - I just love to argue!
Oh, I see!
And besides, I'm not going to back down that easily! So I did the research and I came back with the proof, and he said "Oh!" and I just made it! I can't remember the exact year, but the year that the opera takes place was just within a six-month period when radio had been introduced to cars!
That was close!
Yes, it was close! But I realized that I was studying music with a man who predated a lot of things I took for granted, like cable TV, computer, microwave oven. He might have used a microwave oven, but I know for a fact that he had great mistrust of computers, if not disdain. He just felt that there are so many people who misuse the computer that in short it was the tail wagging the dog. Especially when it comes to music engraving. Hale Smith, Sr., the father, was a printer. Because Hale Smith, Jr., the composer with whom I studied, worked at his father's printing office and the printing press, he had a great respect for the print, the printed word, machinery, typography, and so to have someone come along who has no foundation but they can learn a program like Finale or Sibelius or Cakewalk, and suddenly be able to copy or engrave music or even to write music, did not sit well with him. He felt that it was a shortcut that should not be taken by anyone.
Is that right?
Yes, he felt very strongly about that! Quite often he was called upon to be a judge in some of these music engraving competitions, and the matrix by which he judged the competitors was just light years ahead of what the other judges were doing! They often revamped the entire competition to reflect his particular matrix. He, as it turned out, knew more about printing and typography and copying, and did you ever see his handwriting? He was a master copyist.
I believe that his exposure to the music printing was a factor in his ending up at BMI?
Yes, it was. He brought all of that to the table. Not to mention that studying with Hale Smith is like being connected to so many other masters! Marcel Dick was his teacher, and through Marcel Dick he got to know intimate details about people who Marcel Dick knew, including Arnold Schoenberg and people of the Viennese School...
Is that right?
Absolutely! Because Marcel Dick knew so many people, and not in a name-dropping fashion. The world is very small and in the musical world, to be connected to a person like Hale Smith is to be connected to everyone they are connected to. We could sit here all night and follow the tributaries! One of my favorite singers in the world was Betty Carter. I remember once I had a Sony Walkman and I had CDs that I was listening to en route from Chicago to New York. I just happened to look at the credits, and she, Betty Carter, recorded a song called "I Love Music" and Hale Smith wrote it! I called him and I said "I didn't know that you wrote a piece for Betty Carter!" And of course he told me his Betty Carter story. I made discoveries like that throughout!
Sounds like fertile ground!
Oh, "fertile ground" is an understatement! Just even if I talked about what he brought to my opera, questioning everything, one of the most invaluable things that he told me is that "You have to become intimately acquainted with the biographies of each one of these characters, each instrument, each voice, you have to know every note inside and out, every rhythm, every gesture, every rest, why it's there, why it needs to be at that point, at that time, at that length, that duration. I never really had that challenge before!
That's quite a high standard!
I think the other teachers did it on an intuitive level, but a lot of them assumed a lot of knowledge that may or may not have been there. I'm not selling myself short. I don't think a lot of people do that, because they were not taught it themselves!
That was the kind of lesson that I learned from him. There's no way that you can be as intimately acquainted with the music that he demanded you to be without becoming a great musician! It's virtually impossible! I did a lot of work with organizations in Chicago where I produced concerts here, often with a group called American Women Composers, which I mentioned before.
We would do concerts of music, mostly if not exclusively by women, and Hale introduced me to Marilyn Harris, one of his prized students at the University of Connecticut...
She wrote a tribute to him at her website that is really glowing!
Oh, Marilyn is such a great person! She's a great composer, she's a great pianist and singer. I don't know if you are familiar with her work? Her husband's also a composer. He writes more orchestral stuff, but she was another one! She was at University of Connecticut and she felt like she was in a desert! Then she met Hale Smith; he was as much an oasis in her life as he was in mine! She and I talk about it often. I'm so glad that he introduced me to people like Marilyn Harris. He introduced me to Valerie Capers - she's going to be on the program on Jan. 18th. Her music will be represented; she won't be there at the radio program. He introduced me to Melba Liston and the list goes on. Just those three women alone, it's astronomical!
Did you have occasion to be introduced to the Chicago woman composer, Irene Britton Smith?
Yes, I met Irene at the end of her life. Unfortunately I did not know her that long, but...
It sounds as though Dr. Helen Walker-Hill basically rescued her from oblivion!
Yes, Helen Walker-Hill is another person who has championed so many musicians! She is responsible for me of course being on the cover of her book, "From Spirituals to Symphonies."
She's written extensively about me and about my work. I'm sure Helen is the person who introduced me to Irene Britton Smith. There again, that's another example of where musicology, musicianship, scholarship is the composer's best friend, because Irene Britton Smith certainly would not be as well known today had it not been for Helen, for her work.
Oh not at all, if she and Gregory had not recorded the Violin Sonata for the Kaleidoscope CD!
Yes, that's a beautiful piece. I'm very grateful to be on there. Those Etudes that they recorded are pieces that I wrote when I was an undergrad student, and they're still being performed by piano students and being taught by teachers in the Academy, and I'm grateful for that.
That must be nice to know!
It is! They're probably selling better than any music I've ever written!
Is that right?
Which is interesting because they're basically atonal pieces. T.J. Anderson and I talked about that when I was writing my opera. Before I wrote my opera I actually wrote a paper as part of my Master's Thesis called "Black Curtains Up" where I interviewed every living composer I could find who had written an opera. Part 5

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