Message in a Bottle
Tom Baker’s Hunger

Though we’re booksellers first, last, and always, we do like to draw attention on occasion to the great music that we also offer in the store. Especially when that music relates in some way to literature, and even more so when it’s written and performed by a local artist. Tom Baker (not to be confused with the actor who played the fourth Doctor Who) is a composer and performer who’s worn many hats  as an integral part of Seattle’s new music scene since the mid-90s, co-founding Seattle EXperimental Opera (SEXO) and acting as the artistic director for the Seattle Composers’ Salon. He also taught composition for over a decade at the University of Washington before moving to Cornish College of the Arts, where he has just won the Teaching Excellence Award in their music department.

Baker has recorded many CDs as a solo artist and with various bands, but his latest operatic release, which you can find at our front counter, is Hunger, an “operatorio” that tells the tragic tale of the Donner Party through the eyes of Tamsen Donner, the matriarch of that ill-fated group of pioneers. It’s a moving combination of music and poetry that re-imagines an almost unbelievable story of struggle and survival.


Island Books: Tell us about your musical background. At what point did you expand from performing into composing? Or were you creating your own music from the very beginning? Are there epic jazz odysseys or embarrassingly romantic pop songs that date from your high school years?

Tom Baker: I started playing the guitar at age five, after a mostly unsuccessful year on the accordion. Growing up in the southern deserts of Idaho, I played mostly bluegrass and country music until I was 12 or so, then I got an electric guitar (a red Univox hollow body guitar) and started a rock band. I learned to read music very early, and started writing songs at seven or eight. Our band was mostly interested in other groups’ music, but we did do a couple of my songs as well. As for embarrassing musical tastes, there are some photos of bands I was in, both high school and college, that will never see the light of day, but I can tell you that I had a serious case of Robert Plant hair. I think when they bring me an iPod in the retirement village and play the music of my synapse-building years, it will be a heavy dose of Journey, Van Halen and Kiss.

I moved away (but not too far) for college, and began a very unsuccessful academic career as a business major. I was still playing in bands, and happened to meet the guitar instructor at the college. We hit it off, and I became a classical guitar performance major. This required about a year of serious practice and long, long nights. But once I realized that one could actually make a life out of making music, I was all in. It was here that I started to listen to music more carefully and more closely, and began to understand the complexities of classical music and jazz, and what a limited palette I had worked with so far. I moved on to a Master’s degree in performance, and I thought that a classical guitar concert career was my future, but I began to work with a Cambodian/American composer named Chinary Ung, who changed my life and trajectory. I started to understand that a life as a performer, though possible, was not the most profound experience I could have musically. It was composing music, creating things where there was nothing before, that became my clear pathway to a musical life. I finished my performance degree, but it was composing that then took hold of my attention full-time. I still perform in various groups, but they are mostly vehicles for writing and exploring compositional ideas, even the more freely improvised groups.

IB: What do you call the kind of music you’re writing and playing as a solo artist and in your various bands? Different categories for each outlet? Are the labels, whatever they are, useful at all?

TB: If you were going to buy a Tom Baker Quartet CD at Silver Platters, you would probably find it in the Jazz section, or New-Jazz or Avant-Jazz if they have such a thing. My band Triptet would fall under the Electronic label, or maybe Free Jazz. My solo work is mostly electronic, probably in the experimental bin (which is usually half-off!!). I am unsure of labels for genres of music, I tend to see most music on a double continuum. Left to Right: Improvised to Composed. Top to Bottom (this one is harder): Popular to ? (Serious, Concert?). I try to find on this x-y axis the place where a certain music comes in, in my opinion, and then I have a reference for which listening “gear” I need to be in to enjoy/understand/appreciate it.

IB: The Donner Party would seem to be a rather morbid topic for an opera. How did you come to create Hunger? Did you dig through musty archives to do research or are there good capsule histories to read?

TB: I have been interested in the Donner Party since I was young. Growing up in the west, that story is part of the history curriculum in school. My dad would stop at the monument in Donner Pass when we would take car trips to California, and give his own spin on the gruesome tale. I saw a movie when I was 10 or 11, and it had a profound affect on my conception of this opera. I read all the books I could find on the subject, including diaries and historical accounts (often contradictory). When I understood that this story would be an opera, I found all sorts of resources. One of the descendants of George and Tamsen Donner came to the opening night show in Seattle.

I think the idea for the opera really began to get going when I found Tamsen Donner: A Woman’s Journey by Ruth Whitman. Whitman was a feminist poet who, in the 1970s, took a year-long car trip following the same route and time as the Donners and wrote a re-imagined journal in the voice of Tamsen Donner. The first time I read this book (part poetry, part diary, part songs) I knew I had found my libretto. And this story was the perfect vehicle for this opera, the second in a three-part cycle of operas about American women—more precisely, strong and independent women who find themselves in a horrible situation not entirely of their own making. It is the struggle and the human reaction to these situations where I find the drama for these works.

IB: Strains of traditional American folk tunes recur throughout the recording, but that’s just one small element of the whole. What other influences are at work here?

TB: Well, there is a strong influence of the American composer Charles Ives, whose music also contains strains of traditional American music. I think that there is an element of American Jazz in there as well. There are hymn settings, played on harmonium, which is kind of a small, portable pump-organ. The folk tunes that are woven into the work are also used as improvisatory material for the musicians in certain songs, which lends a kind of improvised feel to the whole piece. And all the performers are required to play harmonicas during the piece, again a nod to early American music. I would also cite the operas of Stravinsky, the music of George Crumb and Morton Feldman, the harmonic freedom of Arnold Schoenberg, and the stylized vocal music of Robert Ashley.

IB: Speaking of influences, I know you have some that are extra-musical. Could you say something about the role of books and writing on some of your other work? Any favorite books or authors that haven’t yet made an appearance in your music?

TB: I am often influenced by literature, not always directly (as in an opera or song) but sometimes on a more deeply formal level. I have begun a cycle of string quartets (there will be 11 in total) each of five movements. Each of these movements is inspired by a chapter from a book called Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino. These magical descriptions of imaginary cities are so moving and poignant; I have tried to exploit their essence in a musical version. The book is also an “open work,” at least in its author’s conception, so that you can read it in any order, at any time. This will be the form when all 55 movements are complete as well—a quartet can choose to play the movements in any order. 

I love the writing of [Kazuo] Ishiguro and [Haruki] Murakami. The Unconsoled by Ishiguro is maybe my favorite piece of modern fiction (though I am kind of on an island with that choice, I think). I also love Richard Russo and the poetry of Margaret Atwood. And I am working my way this summer through David Foster Wallace (whose craftsmanship alone is enough to make any artist shudder).

IB: Be honest now: Has any success you’ve had in your career made you feel as good as you did when Marshawn Lynch ran for that touchdown against the Saints or Edgar Martinez hit his double against the Yankees?

TB: Those are both important moments for sure, especially because they are shared by a community of true believers. I have had some amazing things happen to me because I chose this life; sometimes I like to list them because it can be a hard and somewhat lonely path. I also have a file cabinet drawer full of rejection letters, which I for some reason keep. I like to hope that I can metaphorically hit .312 lifetime, with 309 homers and 514 doubles…Lord knows I won’t get close to that on the softball field.


Legislators Are the Unacknowledged Poets of the World

On June 16th, while catching up with the news of the week, I read several articles about a not-so-minor political flap in Michigan. While the state legislature was debating a bill that would ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy unless a woman’s life was in danger, two female representatives were chastised by the Speaker of the House for “failing to maintain…decorum” and had their speaking rights suspended for the following day. One of the women had pushed for an amendment requiring that men prove their lives were in danger before obtaining vasectomies, while the other had concluded her remarks by sarcastically saying she was “flattered that you’re all so interested in my vagina.”

The idea that it was inappropriate to say “vagina” while discussing issues involving human reproduction struck many observers the wrong way, and an outcry was heard across the nation. Was this mere prudish neo-Victorianism or was it Orwellian political oppression? (Note to self: Is it sexist to cite Orwell instead of Atwood here?) Others insisted it was the legislator’s tone, not her use of the word, that was being censured. There’s surely some truth to that, but I’m just as sure that far less decorous comments have been made by other politicians without gags being applied.

The incident reminded me of the brouhaha over the book that won the 2007 Newbery Prize. The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron stars a 10-year-old protagonist named Lucky Trimble, who on the first page of the novel overhears a conversation she doesn’t fully understand. A former ne’er-do-well is regaling his buddies with an anecdote about the moment his life hit rock bottom, and it involves his dog being bitten “on the scrotum” by a rattlesnake. Many people (few of whom had actually read the book) objected to the very specific anatomical reference and claimed that there was no place in children’s literature for such vocabulary. Those who did read it knew that Patron had more than shock value in mind when she chose to employ it; Lucky’s development as a character is closely tied to a search for a loving, trustworthy adult who can explain things she knows she’s not equipped to deal with on her own. The message sent by the book as a whole was not that the word or the subject was fit for casual preteen use, but that kids need guidance as they grow older and confront adult topics. Patron, a children’s librarian when not wearing her author’s cap, agreed that parents should make their own judgments about whether the story was suitable for their kids, and encouraged discussion about the topic. Seems to me that this was the right response in that situation, and that more discussion, not less, was what was needed in the Michigan case.

I found an irony in reading about that conflict when I did, because of a much earlier controversy over the appropriateness of various words. James Joyce’s encyclopedic masterpiece Ulysses was published in 1922, but wasn’t legal for sale in the US until a landmark ruling in 1933 that declared it a serious work of art despite its more than occasional crudeness. Its characters—Stephen Dedalus, Leopold and Molly Bloom, and many others—get up to all sorts of mischief in the course of the novel, and virtually all the proper (and improper) names for bodily parts and functions come into play at some point (“vagina” makes but a lone appearance, so far as I can tell). All the thoughts and actions in the book, base or exalted, famously take place on June 16th, a date that’s celebrated every year by Joyce fans who call it “Bloomsday.” It was on that date in 1904 that the fictional Buck Mulligan stood on the frigid Irish shore and violated taboo by referring to “[t]he snotgreen sea. The scrotumtightening sea.” The Martello tower withstood the utterance of this vivid and accurate description, and so will our republic weather any storm of words from the pens of our authors or the mouths of our elected representatives.


Image of mute Justice by Miel Prudencio Ma.

New Nobel Laureate

The latest winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature was announced yesterday in Stockholm, and poet Tomas Tranströmer is the lucky fella (it’s almost always a fella, as only 12 of the 108 prize-takers have been women). Hey, you’re saying, isn’t he Swedish? The fix was in! Well, it has been almost forty years since the Swedish Academy awarded the Nobel to one of their own, so I guess you could say they were due. The best way to see if they were right would be to read his poetry, of course, and the best book to pick imageis probably The Great Enigma: New Collected Poems. As is inevitable in these cases, copies of his work have immediately disappeared from bookstore shelves and warehouses, so it’ll be a little while before this one comes back into stock. In the meanwhile, we at least have news accounts to suggest he’s an interesting figure. According to the Guardian, “[h]e suffered a stroke in 1990 which affected his ability to talk, but has continued to write …  At a recent appearance in London, his words were read by others, while the poet, who is a keen amateur musician, contributed by playing pieces specially composed for him to play on the piano with only his left hand.”

I make a prediction every year about who I think is going to get the award, but I haven’t been right yet. One thing that makes the winners so hard to predict is that there are so many credible nominees. Even restricting the options to writers from the US, we have Philip Roth, Joyce Carol Oates, Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, and Cormac McCarthy, all of whom have had their names bandied about as serious candidates. I’m not sure it’s possible to bandy anything seriously, but you know what I mean. North of the border there’s a pair of big-leaguers, Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro, and we haven’t begun to touch on the many dozens of authors outside North America who usually form the group from which the winners get tapped. A whole world of authors exists who deserve attention, and at the rate of one Nobel laureate a year, there isn’t time to give them all proper credit.

I’ve been trying to drop hints to the Swedish Academy for a long time about who should get that credit next, but so far they haven’t been listening. If you know anyone in Scandinavia, pass this link along—it couldn’t hurt.

imageMy first dark horse in the race is Ismail Kadare from Albania. Much of his work was produced while that country was controlled by the Communist dictatorship of Enver Hoxha, so his novels are often set in the distant past. As such, they discuss various forms of political oppression in the only way they can, allegorically rather than directly. The Three-Arched Bridge is set in the 14th century on the eve of an Ottoman invasion, The Pyramid describes the vast (and unnecessary) construction project launched by the Pharaoh Cheops, The Palace of Dreams takes place in a surreal 19th-century bureaucracy where even sleep is no refuge from the watchful eye of the government, and so on. The restrictions under which Kadare labored served to deepen his writing, forcing him to make his books function on at least two levels. As historical fiction, they’re vibrant and realistic pictures of fascinating times and places, and as covert commentary, they resonate even more powerfully. Born in 1936 with nearly fifty novels behind him, he’s exactly the kind of late-career author the Nobel usually honors. 

imageSomeone in the running who may need to get a few more miles under his belt is Javier Marías (b. 1951). He spent a substantial amount of time in the US growing up and has translated many American writers into Spanish, but has also found the time to write
fourteen novels of his own. He started early, publishing his first book before he was twenty, and is now smack-dab in his prime, probably the most respected literary name in Spain. One of his most characteristic and accessible novels is Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me, about a man who embarks on an affair with a married woman only to have her die in his arms on their first night together. He spends the rest of book trying to balance his feelings of responsibility against a desire to keep from being exposed, with sometimes comic and sometimes intense results. Marías recently completed what may be his most significant work, the three-part novel Your Face Tomorrow. There’s an enormous amount that goes on between its covers, but imagining James Bond if Proust had created him will give you the idea. In the barest description of the plot, the narrator, a Spaniard living in England, is recruited into a hyper-secret intelligence organization, falls for a colleague, and eventually finds himself in over his head, but that hardly does the book justice. Threads go back to British military snafus in World War II and betrayals during the Spanish Civil War; the meanings of words shift as they’re translated fromimage language to language; the psychology of marriage and estrangement is examined; and the philosophy of violence is investigated from all angles. It’s kind of an exploded diagram of a spy novel where every action actually has a thought behind it, part of an entire stream of consciousness. You won’t tear through it in a weekend, but if you have a season to spend with it, you’ll be well rewarded. 

These two aren’t the only worthies who may someday wear the crown (note to self: check to see if there’s an actual laurel wreath involved) but I’ll save them for another day. Remember, if you hear either of these author names pronounced on the radio in a Swedish accent in years to come, you heard them here first.


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