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.

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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.

—James

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