HearTOGETHER Podcast

"Mennonites love music" with Theo Baer (aka iT Boy)

January 06, 2023 The Philadelphia Orchestra / Khadija Mbowe Season 3 Episode 4
HearTOGETHER Podcast
"Mennonites love music" with Theo Baer (aka iT Boy)
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Theo Baer aka iT Boy is a Brooklyn-based composer of music that has, at various times, been described as  "experimental," "thoughtful," and "cosmic." In this discussion with host Khadija Mbowe, Theo reflects on the influences that brought him here; starting with a childhood growing up as the adopted child of Mennonite missionaries, walking a tightrope between his prodigious musical gifts and the persistence of low expectations— all the while navigating an evolving queer identity.  

Chapters:

[2:04] The inextricability of music to Theo's identity   

[3:56] The good and bad of working with(in) musical institutions 

[5:18] Ever-unfolding lessons of queerness 

[8:48] Making music for magical moments

[10:56] Mennonites and musical influences 

[12:19] On "radicalizing" his parents 

[16:09] The catharsis of vulnerability 
[18:13] What success looks like today 

 
Music from this episode:

Links from this episode:

(KHADIJA MBOWE VOICEOVER): Hello and hi! Welcome back to the HearTOGETHER Podcast from The Philadelphia Orchestra and Kimmel Center Inc. This is a space where we hope you’ll find home in this art we all love. I’m your host, Khadija Mbowe and I describe myself as a socio-cultural content creator, classically trained soprano, and loving provocateur. And I’m here to facilitate some heartfelt, engaging, disruptive conversations with artists, activists, and everyone in between (that’s you!)

The music you heard in the intro was created by our guest today, Theo Baer — aka “iT boy”. The track, called Deities, features the violinist Zachary Paul and comes from Theo’s 2020 EP, “The Nail House.” 

A “Nail House” is a Chinese term for a home with tenants who refuse to leave to make space for real estate development, and it refers to Theo’s own experiences with gentrification. As he wrote and recorded this project, the place where he’d lived and worked for five years, itself became a Nail house. Shortly after completing the EP, the award-winning composer was evicted.

Today, he lives in Brooklyn with his cat, Dmitri (named after Theo’s favorite composer, Dmitri Shostakovich). iTBoy releases much of his work online through bandcamp— each track is an intimate reflection of both his diverse musical upbringing and his journey of emotional healing as a black, trans, and queer artist. 

As Theo’s understanding of his identity has unfolded over time, music has always remained an unshakeable pillar at the very foundation of who is.  

 

Theo BAER:

I was adopted at four weeks old and the, like, one of the requests of my biological mother to my adoptive family was that I received piano lessons at some point. And so I ended up at, I started piano lessons at age six and my teacher was this black woman, Alesana Morris at James Madison University. And I think she later became like Dean at like, uh, Peabody or something. Like she, you know, she like powerful woman, like drove a Jaguar convertible. I think I, yeah, age six I started piano lessons with her. She taught me how to read music, um, and everything. And you know, there's, there's such a pong game of confidence being, being maybe a little bit exceptional at music, at performance. And then I'm like this young black girl. So there's this like fine line between novelty and actually being respected and that has like, that is definitely permeated until now. Um, <laugh>.

Khadija MBOWE:

Yeah. I was gonna, I was gonna ask about that. Cause I, I know the feeling of, well it's like the, ‘am I really this good or are people just shocked that I'm here’?

Theo BAER:

Yeah, exactly. Exactly.

Khadija MBOWE:

Like that look of ‘how did you end up here’?

Theo BAER:

Yeah. And that and that's like this drastic, that can be one minute to the next like confidence cut down. Yeah. <laugh> like that is,

Khadija MBOWE:

It's an audio platform. I'm nodding vigorously. Yeah. <laugh> 

(KHADIJA MBOWE VOICEOVER): This uncertainty has loomed throughout Theo’s career. Largely self-taught, it’s only in the past few years that he’s started interacting with so-called “musical institutions.” In 2021, his piece, All Intentions, had its World Premier at the 

Bang on a Can LOUD Weekend at MASS MOCA (/Massachussett’s Museum of Contemporary Art). And in 2022, he completed a 2-week-long residency at the Anderson Center outside Minneapolis. Both were instructive, though in very different ways. 

Theo BAER:

The first residency was the Bang On A Can, uh, summer festival at Mass MoCa, which is something I've wanted to do since I was in high school, you know. And I first of all ended up finally being accepted and brought there like clearly as a token, which I knew going in. And I was like, you know what, I'll go and just had a really hard experience. Like, I mean, not even like, not directly at the, like some days not directly at the fault of the institution, which was like at the end of my first week was like at this like weird racist encounter on the street. It, you know, that's like small town mass whatever. And it kind of tainted the next, you know, my experience there also, but to be one of only like two, three black people, still.

Um, and there's that like huge slope of right like sitting in a session with some of my like heroes and then just like the confidence can be cut down in a second. Um, and then cut to this, this year I had a residency which was very, was like exactly what I needed to, needed it to be restorative. Like two weeks where you don't, like you can do what you want and here's food and here's a beautiful room and here's four other weirdly perfect cohorts. Yeah. Um, I really saw kinda this like range of what residencies can be and me and

Khadija MBOWE:

So I wanted to talk to you. Firstly, just as another queer person listening to your music and someone just trying to kind of find my own identity and queerness. I tend to think of it in this sort of bell hooks way of, it's not just one thing. Queerness is in not just orientation but a constant becoming or a constant unraveling. And I wanted to ask you how, if you've even thought of words for it, you would define queerness for yourself?

Theo BAER:

That's a good question. I mean, in line with becoming, its always been like a freedom or growth to me. But also in this way that like… I never put expectations on what thats going to mean five years from now? That’s what i really identify with as the generic, blanket term of queer cause i don’t need to put extra conditions on it. I don’t know what or how I'm going to feel about my sexuality tomorrow. 

Khadija MBOWE:

All of it. Any and all of it. It's okay. It's unfolding thoughts.

Theo BAER:

Yeah.

Khadija MBOWE:

Has anything surprised you recently that you've learned about yourself?

Theo BAER:

I mean maybe I think just say like the next step to confidence in my identity to almost the point of not thinking about it so much or like, definitely not caring, like I don't care really what other thing people thinking about my identity that's kinda like low on the list of like what's at the forefront of my mind every day day, which was not the case when I was, you know, first coming out 19 and worried about the way I look all the time, the way I sound all the time. Um, and so like kind finally reaching a new plateau of comfort in queerness. That's been like a nice, I dunno, that's been a nice feeling to like learn how to accept. It's kinda scary there. There was like a doubt that like I grew up with or like, I don't know, it was like a black, like female identified person in a very white world. There’s a lot of confidence to gained. Um, like you can do this thing that is kind of against the grain or like kind out out of the norm and that can be right, like this confidence that, you know, was suppressed in me for a long time. So

Khadija MBOWE:

Would you say music helped build that confidence?

Theo BAER:

Definitely. Yeah. 

(KHADIJA MBOWE VOICEOVER): This is Tempting (for Richard Maxfield) from Theo Baer’s 2017 EP, “Euphoric Recall”. 

<MUSIC> 

(KHADIJA MBOWE VOICEOVER):  Theo Baer is a thoroughly contemporary composer. Not only does he revel in electronics, cassette looping, and cosmic sounds, his approach to writing music is itself a sign of the changing times. Where many composers of the past are known for being extremely didactic — concerned with controlling exactly how their works rise off the page — Theo is one of a growing cohort of young composers who generously invite musicians and audience members into an unrepeatable improvisational experience with every performance. 

Khadija MBOWE:

There's something we found in research and I wanted to ask you about this too. Uh, and I don't know if this is something you started doing more recently of leaving room for others to play around with your music when it comes to performance and the way the audience will come in, too. Can you just talk about that kind of process or experience?

Theo BAER:

I feel like that's really integral to my music because it's like, to me the most profound thing you can kind of experience maybe, I mean maybe that's from the jazz background of like improv that was like, I grew up doing that for a long time. But when that hits, right, that is the most amazing thing and that is the most amazing thing to an audience member to see that. And that is the most amazing thing to like, facilitate that as a composer and then like pair that I feel what's really, you know, goes right in line with that is chance, which like maybe we come from these or we, like, I take that from kind of like two different, you know, like there's Miles Davis and there's John Cage to be kind of basic, but like those are, you know, those are actually really two important people. And there's like the, you know, jazz improv and like chance, like experimental whatever to kind of meet and give you that kind of same feeling of also like the beauty of something that can only happen once and

Khadija MBOWE:

The magic of the moment.

Theo BAER:

Yeah. That's, that's like the best thing about music to me. <laugh>. Um, as someone who's played a lot in like bands and ensembles too, it's like you have a bunch of different people and sometimes like something loud happens. So I mean that kinda goes into like the social aspect of music that I love, which is like choosing or bringing in people that, cause they're, there again is like dictation and chance or like, I know this person, but I don't know exactly what they're gonna do, but I know that if I put them in this environment, something great is gonna happen. And usually those are people that I, that relate to other levels, not just music.

Khadija MBOWE:

So you were saying that Jazz was one of those genres that you grew up with. What other kinds of music did you listen to growing up?

Theo BAER:

So much? Uh, that was kind of a weird kid, but I think also like growing up in like a kinda Christian background and having my parents kind a little more, you know, censor what kind music I was allowed to listen to. I ended up listening to a lot of instrumental music because I think lyrics are a very like, polarizing part of

Khadija MBOWE:

Just, just for the audience, your parents were Methodist missionaries? Correct?

Theo BAER:

Mennonite

Khadija MBOWE:

Missionaries. Mennonite, okay. Okay. So very sorry, I don't mean to, but you said strict with the music and I'm gonna take your word for it.

Theo BAER:

Um, but also like Mennonites love music, that's another thing. Like

Khadija MBOWE:

What type of of music would you find in, in the Mennonite religion? Is that the right way? I,

Theo BAER:

Yeah, I mean just a lot of like hidden singing, like shape notes. So like, I grew up singing a lot and like even just that like family functions, like they would just get together and sing acapella. There's like this, like my mom doesn't necessarily know how to read music but can like do four-part harmony, like no problem, you know, can like follow a line and that's just like standard and that, and we just had a lot of like classical music, uh, around, especially you, a lot of, a lot of music, you know, our parents would take me to a lot of things. But um, you know, there's very, very traditional Mennonites and not so traditional Mennonites are more, you know, like

Khadija MBOWE:

What were y’all?

Theo BAER:

Dress a certain way and you know, Mennonites that look like we right now. Um, and I think, you know, my parents grew up pretty traditional and have grown. It's like, yeah, the way they have grown, um, into, you know, what my mom believes now is kinda incredible and partly my fault I say. But, um,

Khadija MBOWE:

How, how have you radicalized your parents?

Theo BAER:

Goodness.

Khadija MBOWE:

I, I you please. Because I feel like as well sometimes, especially when you grow up in a super religious background, like I grew up Muslim and my parents have come so far and I'm like, it's my fault. But also I'm really proud of them. So definitely speak to that cuz I think a lot of people love to hear when parents <laugh>, you know, come around.

Theo BAER:

Yeah, no, for sure. I mean, my parents, I think even before I was born, like always reading books and learning and like meeting people, which is not the case for a lot of like really religious, you know, they just very insular. But my parents have always explored and gone outward and been curious and you know, they, you know, my, my mom was 42 when they adopted me and like they, you know, they did some work coming into that, like adopting a black child into a white family in Tennessee in 1991. You know, they, they, they did some work, but you know, you can't do enough work to like know what

Khadija MBOWE:

Yeah, unfortunately,

Theo BAER:

It's, it's an experience. Um, and I really, you know, I'm grateful for them, you know, but going from being Mennonite missionaries to like having a black trans son is different things. <laugh>,

Khadija MBOWE:

You like paused and went ‘it’s differen’t’

Theo BAER:

<laugh>

Khadija MBOWE:

So I know queerness is always evolving. We talk about it kind of unfolding, but was there a time – not a time, it's coming out, it's called coming out, Khadija – When did you, when did you feel comfortable enough to come out to your parents?

Theo BAER:

Well, the first time I came out, I guess as a lesbian was in high school. Uh,

Khadija MBOWE:

Thank you for that clarification on the first because yes, the first time,

Theo BAER:

Um, and like they are, they knew already, like my mom was like, do you have something to tell us? I was like, get it. Um,

Khadija MBOWE:

They always know <laugh>.

Theo BAER:

I mean it was like fine. I mean, you know, there's things you gotta deal with still, but like ultimately it was fine. So I was like 17 and then I came out the second time as trans, what was it, 19 or 20? 20. And that was like maybe hard, like maybe a little harder, but um, again, like my parents are always growing cut too. My mom with the like trans flag in her front yard.

Khadija MBOWE:

That's so, ugh. That feels really good cuz that I guess that also we're spending this whole time talking about confidence and validation and it's important when the people in your life validate who you are simply by accepting and believing you when you say this about yourself. A lot of that goes into building up one's confidence. 

(KHADIJA MBOWE VOICEOVER): Like so many of us, Theo’s journey to confidence has been complicated and often painful. The excerpt you’re about to hear is part of the track,“Habits,” in which Theo reflects on his own struggles with mental health and addiction — its only lyrics are (the haunting phrase), “love is hard to kill.” 

<MUSIC>

Khadija MBOWE:

I listened to habits and I don't know, I kind of felt it. You're smiling, you know, you might have a feeling of what I'm gonna say. <laugh>, I just, can you talk me through what it was like creating something that honest without words, even though there's, there are words in it, but very minimal.

Theo BAER:

I mean, I think like my initial response to that question is just like, I, that is that like, I joked about a sequel, but like for that song is not done and that <laugh>, um, I dunno, it's like wow, you were able to like, like I felt like I felt sneaky about that, but also I wanna be very honest about

Khadija MBOWE:

Yeah, how, how did it feel creating that one and then how did it feel getting people's responses to it?

Theo BAER:

<laugh> I mean, it's definitely therapeutic and a relief or a way of like putting down these words in some sense, like communicative or, and like solidifying this, you know, something that can still be reinterpreted and still be, still be relevant at different stages. I think what's different now is like, is my maybe comfort in like, you know, what, you know, seeking help and talking about this stuff. Um, cuz you're right, like the, the, the vocals of the lyrics and that track are kinda like tucked in or hidden in this way. And I think that's really, uh, indicative of like stigma or Yeah. How, you know, being open about what's going on. I mean, clearly I'm still a little <laugh>.

Khadija MBOWE:

It's hard. It's, that's why I ask if, if you even want to, cause sometimes it is hard to, to talk about because our minds are, it feels like something separate from us. But, uh, I think it's Sonya Renee Taylor who says that like, our minds live in our bodies and we act like they're two separate things, but they're one thing and it, it affects a lot. So Yeah. Yeah.

Theo BAER:

No, that's real. The like minds versus body has been as someone who's not not identified with my body or like, don't feel so much a, like I am very much my mind.

Khadija MBOWE:

Same. A home. A home in the body is is weird. Sensationally, <laugh>. Theo, what does success look like to you now?

Theo BAER:

Wow. Um, <laugh>, it feels close or like in that sense of like, it also feels very different than when I was like younger where I'm like, if I can just pay rent and have some space, some windows, the food I want.

Khadija MBOWE:

Basically the basics. <laugh> Yeah, you were describing uh, the basics of living. That's okay. We both in there

Theo BAER:

<laugh>, but still do my heart.

Khadija MBOWE:

It's funny cuz it's all of

Theo BAER:

Us like telling of millennials. So this time and place that

Khadija MBOWE:

We are all broke. <laugh>. All right, thanks for listening this month y'all. We'll see you as you'll imagine. I,

Theo BAER:

I mean, just to say that also it looks a lot different and I think that's, or it looks a lot different to me now or I, I can feel like satisfied and comfortable and unhappy in these ways that, you know, seem like basic but mean a lot more. You know, I love my, my family and my chosen family and those who really show up and it's always in the end they just want like to care for you and they want what's best for you. Um, so like I still dream about having a huge house and

Khadija MBOWE:

Yeah,

Theo BAER:

That would be great, but like, you know, like that whatever that, that, that's gonna physically be whatever it is. And if I have good people by me, the most important things are just more like subtle to me now. You know, I've, I've had, there's like a full length album that's been in talks for a while now, uh, for me, but a personally am kind of focused on other fragments of my like life and like getting those right. There's like definitely an album in me. Like I think about it every day, it's gonna happen, but I'm not scared. I'm not so worried about physical, financial, logistical manifestations of what that's actually gonna look like it. I'll just upload it to whatever if it comes to that. But you know, like <laugh> <laugh>, I have confidence. That's something it, you know, it'll appear. 

(KHADIJA MBOWE VOICEOVER): Theo Baer is so inspiring and thought-provoking…  and I’m just really looking forward to seeing what he comes out with next. 

If you’d like to join me in keeping up with Theo, check out the links in our description to his bandcamp and IG. Also, go listen to our in-depth lightning round with Theo, and please please please remember to rate and review our sweet lil podcast — it really helps us out and also, we’d just love to hear what you think about everything we’re doing over here.   

So until next month, I’m Khadija Mbowe and this has been the HearTOGETHER Podcast from The Philadelphia Orchestra and Kimmel Center Inc. As we close, you’ll hear a taste of a track called Lodge which Theo released by itself in May 2019. Honestly, the description Theo wrote is worded perfectly so I’m just going to read you the little backstory...

Years ago I unearthed a case full of cassettes in my parents closet. I’d been saving a certain one for the right time. A recorded letter, “To Ron” written on the label. It would have been sent to my father in Costa Rica from his family in Ohio. Upon pressing play I hear who I think is my grandmother as the initial hiss of the tape settles and soon the voice of my young uncle.


My Mother and Father met while they were both serving as Mennonite missionaries in Costa Rica during the 1970s.

He sang love songs outside her window. He rode an old Yamaha motorcycle up through Central America. He loved to tell those stories.


While on my third stay in the psychiatric hospital I started sketching out a short piece. The new season of Twin Peaks was airing at the time and the adult unit I was housed in is known as “Lodge”.


It was during my fourth and most recent stay that my father fell ill and passed away. I experienced his last days through second-hand phone calls in my own hospital room miles apart. Such a physical disconnect and heightened reality complicates my ability to grieve.


I returned home and had to finish the piece. The sample finally had a purpose.


<MUSIC>



BONUS

—-------------------------------—-------------------------------—-------------------------------—------------

Hello and hi! This your host Khadija Mbowe, and you’re listening to our special BONUS segment I like to call “in-depth lightning round”. It’s pretty much exactly what it sounds like! Each and every one of our guests will be asked the same set questions in the hopes that they’ll reveal a bit more about what they value, and how they think. Also because, it’s just really fun. So without further ado…here’s our in-depth lightning round with Theo Baer, aka iT Boy 


Khadija MBOWE:

So first one, who makes you laugh?

Theo BAER:

Uh… my cat?

Khadija MBOWE:

<laugh>, Dmitri, it is. This next one's a bit big but also small. It's called a Cataclysm sentence. If the world was to completely all human beings right now were to disappear, they know *snap*, you know, we're all gone and we're supposed to leave advice for the next batch of human beings that are gonna inhabit the earth. What piece of advice would you give them?

Theo BAER:

Uh, don't do capitalism,

Khadija MBOWE:

<laugh>. Besides being a musician, what is a skill that you wish you had? Like do you wish you could pogo or like write a un cycle or something? Like what's a random skill you wish you had?

Theo BAER:

Oh, like probably skateboarding. I like to watch a lot of skateboarding videos vicariously.

Khadija MBOWE:

Okay. Okay. Too scary for me but okay. A song you wish you wrote?

Theo BAER:

Maybe Dreams, by Fleetwood Mac. 

Khadija MBOWE:

Okay. Okay, last one. What is the worst advice you've ever gotten?

Theo BAER:

That there is a strict hierarchy in the orchestra to composer, to audience and composers are at the bottom.

Khadija MBOWE:

Dang. What, <laugh>. Okay. Well on that, uh, uplifting note. Thank you so much Theo!



“Dictation and chance”

“Mennonites love music” 

“(I am) very much my mind”


LINKS FROM EPISODE: 


ig: @itboytpb 

https://itboytpb.bandcamp.com/

Richard marxfield

Bang on a can loud (e???)

Anderson center residency (??) - send for promo 



The inextricability of music to Theo's identity   
The good and bad of working with(in) musical institutions 
Ever-unfolding lessons of queerness 
Making music for magical moments
Mennonites and musical influences 
On "radicalizing" his parents 
The catharsis of vulnerability 
What success looks like today