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Tom Baker’s Merger of Electronic Music, Jazz, and Dance

Tom Baker’s Merger of Electronic Music, Jazz, and Dance

: Photo by Courtesy of the artist..

In his ambitious musical practice, Tom Baker has long sought distinctive forms and fresh expression, often in the company of artists of kindred imagination.

By Peter Monaghan

In his ambitious musical practice, Tom Baker has long sought distinctive forms and fresh expression, often in the company of artists of kindred imagination. His range and reach are ideally showcased in a mixed program of electronic music of the kind he presents this spring at Cornish College of the Arts.

A representative Baker showcase is one where he deploys a rich complement of artistic tools and raw materials–one where, for example, he accompanies a dancer, queries aphorisms, and pushes ahead opera and jazz. Such an evening finds him dialing in assorted electronic devices but also calling on tried-and-true instruments of classical performance such as strings and voice, as well as some standard jazz gear–guitar, saxophone, bass, and drums. The magic of a Baker performance is in the distinctly nonstandard ways he and his colleagues make wholes of the parts.
A program of mixed styles and even kinds of performance might threaten to be diffuse, but Baker gears all his pieces towards encounters of electronic and analog sound, on the fly: pas de deux across a high wire with barely a twig’s length of balance beam.

In “Imaginary Aphorisms, he prods and pokes such well-known aphorisms as “a watched pot never boils,” and “no good can come from it…” Are these saws even true? asked Baker, as he constructed his suite, and worked with choreographer and dancer–and Cornish alumna–Corrie Befort, on her component of the work.

To evoke the questioning, Baker uses computer-generated sounds as well as the ethereal swirls of the theremin, an uncanny instrument from the dawn of electronic music. Of course, to crank up a theremin is to risk evoking the score of a wacky cartoon; it’s all the more credit to Baker, then, that he draws thoroughly modern expression from the device.

That typifies Baker’s use of sound sources. Whatever his techniques, his interest is in artistic outcomes, not mere innovation. This is true, for example, of the earlier works–from a 2009 Tom Baker Quartet album, Save–that he transforms in Imaginary Aphorisms by subjecting them to “granular synthesis.” In that process, sounds are broken down to their smallest components to produce raw materials for composing and performance.

Cornish College’s dynamic founder Nellie Cornish, inspired Baker’s Traces: Nellie, a 2013 composition. Nellie Cornish directed the college for many years, and brought enlightened education in music, dance, and eurhythmics to Seattle. But for his violin-and-cello homage to her, Baker concentrates on the echoes of her that he imagines still resound in the corridors of the old Cornish building on Harvard Avenue, and from the rooms at the top where she lived out her life.

Baker has been working on what will eventually be an “electric opera” called Holos. It addresses the curious modern-day preoccupation with making the self “whole.” He plans six acts; in the one he has now completed, he incorporates a Johns Hopkins University surgeon’s thoughts on whether humans would want wings. With those, two sopranos, and electronics, his music takes flight.

The variety of components Baker combines and recombines expands into visual media in works like Sagamihara, for electronics and dance images, and The Cage Elegies, for fretless electric guitar and electronics.

Among Baker’s longtime musical collaborations in Seattle has been Triptet. There, he performs on theremin, fretless guitar, and electronics. With him are two stalwarts of free jazz and improvised music in Seattle: Michael Monhart, on saxophones and electronics, and Greg Campbell, who in addition to percussion and electronics, plays French horn. Sometimes he plays all at once; don’t try it at home.

Triptet’s second CD, Figure in the Carpet, is at times energetic, at times wistful, and nuanced throughout. Its repertoire resembles Baker’s non-jazz-infused work not with instrumentation, but through the unfettered, forthright exploration of sounds and concepts he brings to all his forms of composing. That certainly is what emerges from Triptet’s quasi-jazz alchemy of composed and thrillingly improvised elements. His bandmates’ vast experience in such settings ensures electric engagement.

With some semesters of teaching at Cornish under his belt, Baker reports that he is thrilled by what he has found there: “It is still a place for experimentation.” That is, he notes, the college’s great legacy to art in Seattle, and far afield. Along Cornish hallways, he says, he finds faculty members of vast experience and continuing evolution – he collaborates with faculty members like soprano Natalie Lerch.

Also gratifying, he says, is the enthusiasm of Cornish students, some of whom he has similarly joined in collaboration. “I get a great deal of inspiration from students here,” he says. “They’re very dedicated and really open to new ideas.” He says his hope is that just as students have long been drawn to the college by superior vocal and instrumental programs, they will soon seek Cornish out as a hub of electronic-music practice.

“Some kids come in and can understand right away the aesthetics of modern music,” he says. “They’re already composing on laptops, or mashing from iTunes, and at the fringes where they go, things are not that different from what I listen to–Iannis Xenakis… Sonic Youth… There are sonic qualities that are similar. The students might not know all the electronic-music vocabulary, but these days they are digital natives, and they recognize that elements of what they’re listening to are right within electronic music’s wheelhouse.”


Peter Monaghan writes frequently about creative improvised music and the arts for a number of publications.

Tom Baker performs at Cornish College of the Arts’ PONCHO Concert Hall on Friday, April 12th at 8:00 pm. Tickets: $20 general; $15 seniors; $10 students and Cornish alumni.


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