Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Samuel Thompson: Renée Baker's "Baldwin Chronicles: Midnight Ramble"

Renée Baker

Samuel Thompson writes:

Chicago Modern Orchestra Project Founding Director's Third Outing at Chicago's Symphony Center features a multimedia exploration of 
the work of James Baldwin

The past eight months have been tremendously fruitful for Chicago Modern Orchestra Project founding director Renée Baker. In July 2018, Ms. Baker was one of three female African-American composers to participate in Magnetic Fields: Sonic Abstraction at the Museum of Fine Arts of St. Petersburg, Florida. It was also during the month of July that the first of her Baldwin Chronicles was presented to the world.

Described as “a multimedia work of operatic proportions based on texts by James Baldwin” by
Chicago's The Visualist, The Baldwin Chronicles: Negro Ideologies was presented in July 2018 and immediately considered for presentation at Symphony Center by the CSO African-American Network. “While I was initially approached by Symphony Center with an invitation to present Negro Ideologies, I made the choice to create a larger production to further explore James Baldwin's work,” Ms. Baker said during a telephone interview.

This new work, titled The Baldwin Chronicles: Midnight Ramble receives its world premiere in Buntrock Hall at Chicago's Symphony Center on Saturday, February 16, 2019 at 5:00pm. This is Ms. Baker's third presentation as Visiting Resident Artist for the Chicago Symphony African-American Network (AAN) at Symphony Center since the successful presentation of Oscar Micheaux's silent movie Body and Soul in 2017 featuring Ms. Baker's vibrant score for jazz orchestra, which was followed by last year's screening of the 1927 race film The Scar of Shame which also included a new version of the musical score.

The world “prolific” is used to describe those whose output in their chosen fields has been incredibly fruitful and productive. One can definitely include Renée Baker in this category, as she has composed over 2,000 works including symphonies, chamber music, ballets, film scores and operas. She has also published sixteen graphic novels and received commissions from the Chicago Sinfonietta, Joffrey Ballet, Berlin's International Brass, Chicago's Sheds Aquarium and Indiana University's Cinema and Black Film Center Archive. Blue Sonapoeme, Ms. Baker's first opera, was premiered in 2012 at Chicago's South Shore Jazz Festival, and subsequent works have been presented at both the INTUIT Museum the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, Kulhspot (Berlin), and the Destijlik Museum in Zwolle, the Netherlands – thus making her the first African-American to have premiered a significant series of successful operas.

The task of delving deeply into the life and work of James Baldwin could be seen as daunting as he was one of the leading writers, intellectuals and activists of the twentieth century. His output, which included novels, essays, poems, articles and sermons, “serve to remind the American public of our full humanity,” Renée said. “James Baldwin was undoubtedly brilliant, but had he been a White man, there would have been a very different reaction and response to his work. Much of his thought process included finding his 'place', even with being a brilliant man of letters who was able to debate anyone.”

This 'finding of place' manifested itself in Baldwin's move to France from the United States at the age of twenty-four. Baldwin wrote about this move in the essay “The Discovery of What it Means to be an American”, describing the decision as the conscious removal of himself from American prejudice and to have his writing understood on its own merit.

Baldwin's decision to live in France, however, was neither an abandoning of the United States nor of himself. In 1957 he returned to the United States and became deeply involved in the Civil Rights movement (while personally eschewing the title of “Civil Rights activist”), his involvement and observation resulting in a series of articles and essays written between 1957 and 1963 about which Time Magazine said “there is not another writer who expresses with such poignancy and abrasiveness the dark realities of the racial ferment in North and South”.

The thoughts included in Baldwin's essays about race in the United States have maintained their relevance through the present day, and equally compelling are the profound, impossible-to-answer questions that appear throughout all of his work. Despite the relationship between James and his father being harsh, the experiences of religion and spirituality pervade Baldwin's writing, as do questions surrounding sexuality, color, relationships, and the sense of 'rootlessness' felt by African-Americans as described by Pulitzer Prize winning playwright August Wilson who also experienced the racism and segregation of the early twentieth-century when true equality was just outside of the fingertips of millions of African-Americans.

After a profound exploration of and immersion into Baldwin's work, Renée chose the poem “Conundrum” as the centerpiece of Midnight Ramble. “Midnight ramble is a term once used to talk about late-night movies, Ms. Baker said. “In this context, I use the phrase to describe what had to be James Baldwin's thoughts in some of his darkest moments – dark illuminations inside the Black mind.” Included in the 2014 publication Jimmy's Blues and Other Poems, “Conundrum” confronts the question of acceptance. “How do you tell the difference between what's yours and what's not? Those questions are still faced today,” Ms. Baker said. “Fortunately for us, Baldwin confronted these questions in an incredibly straightforward and succinct manner.”

Threading ideas from essays, novels, the love letter, filmed debates and stitching images and feeling into music, Renée 's intention with The Baldwin Chronicles: Midnight Ramble is to “plant the listener and viewer into James Baldwin's imagination.” One manner of accomplishing this is the inclusion of the Keith Hampton Singers to signify Baldwin's constant return to the church and the ideals with which he was raisedIn addition to the chorus, The Baldwin Chronicles: Midnight Ramble incorporates performing forces including eleven soloists and the Chicago Modern Orchestra Project. Ms. Baker's work as a modern artist and filmmaker is also included in this production, as all of the set pieces are original creations. Additionally, the set includes a twenty-four foot wide screen on which film, graphics and paintings will be projected including scenes from both New York and Paris in the 1950s and 1960s.

“Beauty and life for Baldwin stem from the precariousness of terror, the sublime moments of the blues, rhythm and stops of improvisation, and the simultaneity of Black life and life in America,” Renée said. “As a storyteller and intellectual, Baldwin occupies a position as a cultural icon and truth-teller for us all, and The Baldwin Chronicles: Midnight Ramble is a unique space for stitching together music and his poetic imagination.”

Renée Baker's The Baldwin Chronicles: Midnight Ramble is being produced by and presented at Symphony Center Chicago on Sunday, February 16, 2018 at 5:00 pm. With music and libretto by Ms. Baker, the creative team includes concept direction by Bibiana Maite' and set design by Aghijana Daru. Performs include featured vocalists Dee Alexander, Rae-Myra Hilliard, Vickie Johnson, Sheila Jones, Robert Sims, Julian Otis, Cornelius Johnson, Taalib-Din Ziyad, Saalik Ziyad, Yoseph Henry and Jeffrey Burish; the Keith Hampton Singers, and the Chicago Modern Orchestra Project.
For tickets and more information, please visit https://cso.org/ticketsandevents/.

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