Movies » Fall Preview

Renée Baker on the challenges of scoring silent race films

This fall the musician will provide live accompaniment to two mid-1920s pictures.

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Live music has helped keep the silent cinema alive, and Chicago is such a rich music town that revivals of silent features often rank among the more promising events on the fall arts calendar. On October 2 the University of Chicago Film Studies Center will welcome the inventive Alloy Orchestra to Logan Center for the Arts to premiere its score for Varieté (1925), a German melodrama starring Emil Jannings as a middle-aged carnival barker who falls for a beautiful young trapeze artist. The ever-reliable Silent Film Society of Chicago will present a series of Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton classics at city and suburban venues, accompanied by organist Jay Warren. And Renée Baker will conduct her adventurous Chicago Modern Orchestra Project ensemble as it performs two of her scores for "race films" of the silent era: the Oscar Micheaux classic Body and Soul (1925) at Music Box on September 18, and the aviation adventure The Flying Ace (1926) at Logan Center on October 22.

A founder of the Chicago Sinfonietta, Baker spent nearly 25 years focusing on a classical-music career as the group's violist before she joined the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians and began to explore other musical avenues, first with her Mantra Blue Free Orchestra and then with the Modern Orchestra Project. "Once I became a member of the AACM, I discovered another vocabulary that I really wasn't aware of," she recalls. "It was a creative vocabulary that enabled me to access creative music, free improv, contemporary classical music—it just all came together." Though she's a longtime film buff, scoring silent movies is a relatively new experience for her. She credits New York composer and producer Don DiNicola with urging her to create a score for Body and Soul, which she premiered at the Museum of Contemporary Art last year and has since released on DVD.

Race films occupy a strange place in our cinematic legacy: shot on the cheap and screened in segregated theaters, they nevertheless remain a source of racial pride and a window into the black culture of their time. Micheaux was the most distinguished artist to emerge from this commercial ghetto, and Body and Soul, despite its old-fashioned plot contrivances, touches on complex family and religious feeling with its story of a mother who tries to derail her daughter's engagement to a local loser (Paul Robeson in his screen debut) and instead marry her off to a golden-tongued minister (Robeson again). "If I had to pick one character that I found convoluted and hard to understand at first, it was the mom," Baker recalls. "Because even though this daughter had a suitor that she very much loved and wanted to marry, her mom—and this is very reminiscent of my family and my grandparents—wanted her to marry this man of God, regardless of what she was telling her mom about his character."

Baker takes an eclectic approach to the story, shifting from classical sounds to jazz rhythms to free improvisation and back again. Her approach is more impressionistic than narrative. "In today's films, the music leads you and provides accompaniment to the mood and dialogue," she says. "I think much more abstractly. I approach these films as pieces of art, sometimes even without thinking about the plot." When the preacher and the daughter are caught in a storm, a trombone mimics the accelerating fall of raindrops before it's elbowed aside by a snare attack and frantic free-form clarinet. When the mother slips into one of her spiritual funks, the instruments give way to the vocalizing of the CMOP women, all working around a sighing single note. "Dry Bones in the Desert," the hellfire sermon delivered by the preacher at the climax, opens with vigorous scat singing before a rock number begins to drive the vocal tumult.

The Flying Ace, whose score is still a work in progress, presents a different kind of challenge. Produced by the Norman Studios in Jacksonville, Florida, it's a lightweight entertainment in which a decorated flying ace returns to his hometown and investigates the mysterious disappearance of a railroad paymaster. Despite the title, it contains no aerial footage, though director Richard E. Norman does stage an absurd barnstorming stunt for the climax: when a rival pilot kidnaps the heroine in his prop plane, the hero flies over them and drops a rope ladder so that she can climb to safety. "It will have to be very different than Body and Soul," Baker says of her score, "because it's not pulling the same emotional content out of me. It may be a little more on the contemporary-classical side, with a nod to some jazz." The movie's shortcomings aren't something she wants to exploit, though. "One thing I don't ever like to do is to use music to cheapen something," she says. "That's just not my way."

Baker's calendar for next year is already filling up: in winter 2017 she'll conduct the CMOP for a trio of Micheaux films at Indiana University: Body and Soul, Within Our Gates, and The Symbol of the Unconquered. The last two films, released in 1920, both involve the Ku Klux Klan, which presents an emotionally freighted topic to any composer. "It's kinda hard now, because of our political miasma that we have going on," she says. "You want to think positively about history, because it is what was." Baker points to the silent classics of D.W. Griffith, which can be racist as well as beautiful. "I had to look at those films in light of history and in light of what racial relations were or weren't at that time, and then relate it to what race relations are or are not today. That's the comparison I made when I first came to Body and Soul: How was this received, and how would it be received now? It's an artistic conundrum." It is, and it lies at the heart of silent-film accompaniment, an art form in which the past is constantly being thrust into the present.  v

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