Richard Baker: The Tyranny of Fun

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Composer interviews / Uncategorized

Richard Baker’s The Tyranny of Fun, a 2012 work premiered by BCMG and Ryan Wigglesworth, has the outline of Balanchine’s Ravel ballet La Valse. But Baker’s musical material is also closely linked to the New York disco scene of the late 1970s. I talked to the composer about how he came to write this work. But first, here’s his programme note.

In 1994, as a student in Amsterdam, I read an interview in The Observer with theatre director Richard Eyre in which he described his childhood as “a tyranny of fun” – in particular, the way in which his parents tyrannised their friends and family with a ceaseless round of parties and amusements, as a distraction from their own ennui and desperation. This piece is my response to Eyre’s very resonant phrase, and the various musical and extra-musical thoughts it provoked as the century turned.

Structurally, the piece is a “cheap imitation” (in homage to John Cage) of George Balanchine’s great ballet La Valse. Pairing together Ravel’s Valses Nobles et Sentimentales and La Valse itself, Balanchine made explicit what many commentators had long suspected – that Ravel took inspiration for La Valse from Edgar Allan Poe’s short story The Masque of the Red Death. Ravel’s musical source material was the Viennese waltz tradition. Mine comes from more recent dance music, specifically late 70s and early 80s disco the sound of the great super-clubs of New York in their decadent heyday, just before the first wave of the AIDS epidemic hit as literal and terrifying a ‘red death’ as that which Poe had imagined.

“It’s a kind of archaeology, almost”

PK: One reason I find The Tyranny of Fun so interesting is that it takes a whole set of ideas – Balanchine, Ravel, Poe, and finally disco – yet they all seem to come together quite naturally, as if the connections are all really obvious.

Richard Baker conducting the Crash Ensemble in 2018*

RB: I hope so: there are all kinds of things connecting the elements. The Poe is a kind of queer artwork, I think; one could make a very persuasive queer reading of it; and the Balanchine is weirdly one of his more narratively straightforward pieces, particularly the second part of it: it has this character of Death, which is quite unusual for Balanchine.

And I think there’s something about the musical dramaturgy of La Valse – it’s a masterpiece, and extraordinarily clever. There’s a very good George Benjamin article about it in The Musical Times, which talks about the way in which the chromatic material gradually “infects” the diatonic material in the piece, until by the final pages it’s just chromatic scales moving up.

That was an idea I just reproduced completely. Actually, for the second movement of The Tyranny of Fun, every bass note of the Ravel is present in the piece, and every pedal – it’s constructed on pedal points. I think they’re transposed, and the whole thing is compressed slightly, but it’s basically all there, yet none of the actual material is there. The harmony that’s built on those pedal points is mine, but again, chromaticism gradually overruns the more diatonic material of the opening.

I was interested in that as an analogy for something dangerous and menacing, within a notionally hedonistic environment. And that takes one to the New York gay disco scene in the late 70s and early 80s. It just seemed like an incredibly obvious analogy to me.

PK: It fits so well. And it’s funny – in the first stages of the second movement, of course you can hear disco elements coming through, but they seem to recall the Ravel as well: they swirl a little bit, there’s a waltzing element. It makes those two worlds seem quite musically similar.

RB: Totally – my choice of material was often because it reminded me of things from the Ravel. I listened to lots of disco music from the period, and when I heard a coincidence or a correspondence, I just put it there. [listen to Richard’s playlist of related works here.]

I think this is such an odd impulse – I don’t understand it myself, honestly, I don’t understand the impulse to remake something with different material. I’ve done a similar thing in several other pieces: Gaming is modelled on Debussy’s Jeux, but uses chiptune-like material from very early arcade games, and Cofadail is modelled on the Prelude to Le Tombeau de Couperin, by Ravel again. The title is the Welsh for memorial or monument – like “Tombeau” – but literally in Welsh it means “memory structure” or “structure of memory”. Finding that out made me think, God, that’s what I’m doing, that’s what I’m making: they’re memory structures. It’s about my memory, my faulty memory, my obsessive memory; it’s a kind of archaeology, almost.

“We’re dancing on it”

RB: My former teacher Louis Andriessen does this as well, in one piece, Dancing on the Bones, which is based on Saint-Saëns’s Danse macabre. It sort of uses the same metrical pattern, and he does use a motif that is derived from the Saint-Saëns – but in a very different kind of way. Mostly the material is just original. But it’s the ordering of events – it’s about the narrative, the gestural and rhetorical narrative.

Sometimes when I talk about this piece, the reaction is very much, “But why though” – people have said it’s odd because there’s no quotation; the original isn’t there. But that’s the point, that the original isn’t there. It’s for me, it’s about what the original does to me.

PK: When you think about all of the composers who are engaging with the past in other ways, whether they’re rewriting pieces, or making “responses to” whatever, your method feels like quite an original way to do it.

RB: I was at conservatoire with Richard Ayres, and I’m a contemporary of Tom Adès’, and we’re all just dealing with the reality of living at a moment when the entirety of music history is present. In a sense you either just get a migrane and go to bed and never do anything, or you problematize that in your art; your art becomes about that.

And mercifully, I had teachers for whom it was never an issue. I think I was just exactly the right age not to have modernist angst. So I want to make things that speak to the problem of making music in the early 21st century, but not as an angsty problem. That’s where the dancing comes in, right? We’re dancing on it.

“The very, very close relationship between desire and death”

PK: One particular moment in The Tyranny of Fun, I found really disconcerting, and also interesting if we’re thinking about narrative. There’s a sample in the second movement that is basically heavy breathing…

RB: It’s a really schlocky moment! I’ve always been totally happy about embracing the kitch. The only critic who picked up on it was Geoff Brown in the Times, I think because he used to be a film critic. He referred to it as “a film monster”.

PK: I guess there’s a bit of Darth Vader about it…

RB: Completely. It’s absolutely Darth Vader. In my notes, I think I wrote “sick breathing”.

PK: That’s in the score.

RB: Yeah. Nye Parry, who helped me make the electronics, thought I was crazy. It’s my breathing, and we worked together on how to get it sounding sick. It’s a slippage between something erotic and sensual on the dancefloor, and a kind of drug-infused disco moment, and also a zeitgeist notion of encroaching menace – this thing in the Edgar Allen Poe, the notion of the Red Death being somehow present all along, and the notion of HIV/AIDS being present at these moments of jouissance – someone’s high as a kite on whatever, but they are probably dying, unknown to them…

And that cultural moment, which I’m old enough to remember, was dominated by Star Wars! We find out at the end of the trilogy that Darth Vader makes this sound because he’s profoundly unwell. So this is two things: it’s Darth Vader, and it’s also the sound of a drug-infused moment on a dancefloor at five in the morning, maybe that’s also sexual in some way – and the very, very close relationship between desire and death, which for gay men of that generation, and indeed my generation, is very present.

PK: The first thing it made me think of was death.

RB: Well, good, absolutely. And the reason it comes at the moment it does, is that that’s the moment in the Balanchine choreography where the figure of Death appears. This is the point I was making earlier about this Balanchine choreography: it’s weirdly literal for him; I think it’s kind of bad! I remember seeing it when I was a student in Holland, at the Dutch National Ballet, and thinking, God that’s tasteless. It’s as kitsch a moment in the choreography as that sound moment is in my piece. Because Balanchine is this fantastic classicist, it’s all very clean, and then suddenly you’ve got someone literally in black on the stage, stalking the dancers. So I was looking for an analogue for that. But it’s an analogue that has these other attendant meanings, for me, and in the context of the piece. If that makes sense.

PK: It does, totally. I think it’s very resonant – after thinking about death, I then realized, we’re in the context of a really busy New York club, and so all of the other connotations you’ve mentioned came to me – plus the Poe, the idea of this spectral figure standing behind you, and suddenly realizing someone’s there, breathing down your neck…

RB: That’s the thing: it’s the authentic sound of being so high that you stop experiencing your environment, and momentarily all you hear is what’s very close to your ear, and all you hear is someone breathing down your neck, perhaps in an erotic way – but it’s also the sense that this might be lethal. There’s an erotic charge, but it is an erotic charge that comes with danger.

I remember when that Times review came out, someone said, “Oh god, what a stupid thing to say” – but actually he was completely right. And I was quite glad that he had accurately semiotized that moment in the piece. I thought, it’s clear. It needs to be clear, otherwise it won’t work.

“I’ve never felt answerable to anybody”

PK: You’ve spoken in detail about Balanchine – is ballet a frequent source of inspiration for you?

RB: My childhood was not that culturally privileged; I came from working-class parents. My father was a really interesting guy who left school at 14 to become an engineering draughtsman, but he had a desire for self-improvement, so took himself to art appreciation classes, and music appreciation classes, and went to the ballet, and listened to Wagner. I think it was through the Workers’ Educational Association – that working-class notion that high culture was for everyone. Without that, I wouldn’t be talking to you now; without my father’s intrinsic sense of that, in the 1950s, 60s, I wouldn’t have grown up with records of ballet music which I was given for my first record player, which I used to play at high volume. Some of my first records were things like Coppélia and Les Sylphides. I went on to be a chorister, then to a local independent grammar, and afterwards to Oxford of course. But my earliest interest in music came from my father.

And my mother sat me down when I was about seven, and said: “There’s a brilliant film on television, we’re going to watch this film.” It was the Powell and Pressberger, The Red Shoes – it’s a superb film, and it’s melodramatic but actually in many ways very accurate as a portrayal of the world of the Ballets Russes in its later years. And it has real choreographers, real Russian dancers, Robert Helpmann is in it, Massine is in it… I just remember thinking, this. I want this. But not even knowing what the this was. And then watching Birtwistle and Maxwell Davies and Michael Berkeley talking about contemporary music on BBC Two or Channel 4 – that was it, that was my entrée into the world of serious art music, or just serious art.

It was so unlikely. To put it in perspective, not a single member of my extended family has ever come to see me perform or to hear a piece of my music. They’re incredibly lovely, my family – really kind, very nice people, and it’s not out of any kind of lack of interest: it’s a chronic lack of entitlement. They think, “This isn’t for the likes of us; I wouldn’t know what to do.” It’s a source of sadness. But it’s been a source of liberation, because I’ve never felt answerable to anybody. I’ve never been a disappointment, except insofar as I didn’t become a barrister, which is what my father wanted me to do.

PK: I did read the VAN article that featured you about “first-generation classical musicians” – it’s a fascinating piece. And it’s interesting: for instrumental performers maybe it’s a problem if they don’t have that understanding of classical musical technique ingrained from an early age – but for a composer, you’re saying there’s an advantageous aspect to that; it makes you create your own musical world.

RB: Absolutely. I was a very lonely teenager. There’s that wonderful quote from Feldman: he was asked what advice he had for young composers, and he said, “All I could wish them in life is to be lonely.” It’s so true.

And it’s interesting that now in my middle age I’ve reproduced totally the environment of my adolescence – I’m living in a house, in the middle of nowhere, about four miles from a village, about fifteen miles from the nearest town. I moved to the closest thing to nowhere I could find – rural Ceredigion – it takes me six hours to get to London; it’s like going to the Highlands. I want to be left alone in a very profound sense.

PK: It feels like a long way away from the New York disco scene…

RB: Yeah. I kind of did that – not New York, but London and Berlin – and I did that, a lot, heavily, enthusiastically. It’s an extraordinarily rich musical culture. Liam Cagney, who’s one of my favourite writers on music, is writing on the Berlin techno scene, and I’m really looking forward to seeing what he writes. I’m in awe sometimes at the sophistication and subtlety and art of really good people in that world.

But, yeah – to each thing there is a season; I’m nearly 50, I’ve hung up my dancing trousers. My life is different now, but it’s very happily different. I disappear into my shed and I disappear into my piece, and that’s great – it’s just mine.

Read more about Richard Baker on his website.

*We’re not sure who took this photo. If it’s you, please get in touch!

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