HearTOGETHER Podcast

Claiming Space, Defying Expectations- The Honorable Elizabeth A. Baker

December 03, 2021 The Philadelphia Orchestra / Tori Marchiony Season 2 Episode 3
HearTOGETHER Podcast
Claiming Space, Defying Expectations- The Honorable Elizabeth A. Baker
Show Notes Transcript

How do you honor the multitudes you contain?  The Honorable Elizabeth A. Baker makes space for all that she is by eschewing conventional categorizations and creating art that follows her own curiosities, not the latest trends.

In this episode of HearTOGETHER, new renaissance artist The Honorable Elizabeth A. Baker joins host Tori Marchiony for a candid conversation about self-definition, collaborating with nature, what it takes to truly improvise, and more.

Music in this episode:

Thanks to 
Noel Dior & Tim German, Editorial Council 
Teng Chen, Audio Engineer 

MUSIC: Three Compositions for Piano and Electronics, I. Out of Season from {a series of strange narratives}

TORI MARCHIONY (Voiceover): Hello! And welcome back to the HearTOGETHER Podcast from The Philadelphia Orchestra. I’m your host, Tori Marchiony, and this is a space to hear from the artists and activists working to create a more equitable future- inside and outside the concert hall. You just heard a bit of Out of Season from the 2015 release, "a series of strange narratives" composed and performed by our guests today, The Honorable Elizabeth A. Baker. 

THE HONORABLE ELIZABETH A. BAKER:  It's like A Tribe Called Quest, you say the whole thing each time- The Honorable Elizabeth A. Baker. 

TORI MARCHIONY (Voiceover): The Honorable Elizabeth A. Baker.  calls herself a "new renaissance artist", a term, both vague and descriptive enough to contain the vast diversity of her constantly evolving practice. Growing up in St. Petersburg, Florida in the 1990s, her mother encouraged creative exploration in myriad forms- dance, acting, photography, music, poetry to name just a few. In college, she studied classical guitar, voice, piano, cello, and audio engineering. After that, she refused the cultural mandate to quote-unquote, pick a lane.

THE HONORABLE ELIZABETH A. BAKER: Most people don't know I really don't really care about big-name opportunities and things like that. I just want to make work and make work for myself. And if people like it, um, awesome. If they don't like it even more awesome because I've made them feel something viscerally that they're going to have a dialogue about. Um, actually like when people walk out of my concerts, I'm like, "yes! they felt something so severe they had to get up and leave!" I'm like, yeah, I got you. Um, you're going to go home and you're going to be like, this was horrible. And you're going to tell people, and then they're gonna have a whole dialogue about the whole thing. And that's what art's all about.

TORI MARCHIONY (Voiceover):  In 2016, she founded the Florida International Toy Piano Festival and released two books, Musings of a Young Composer and Toyager, which has become the definitive text on toy piano. 2018 brought Quadrivium, a double-disc digital release of minimalist solo, piano compositions, avant-garde prepared piano improvisations, meditative new age tracks, spoken word and electronics. It was accompanied by a 16-page scene that included her poetry and art as well as a manifesto condemning the narrow parameters in which much art is presented today. And when The Honorable Elizabeth A. Baker and I spoke in September, 2021, she sat in front of a striking abstract painting of her own creation, part of a multimedia exploration on voids. The rest of her space was filled with boxes- she was packing up to move to Boston as a Radcliffe Fellow at Harvard. So yes, there are many practical reasons The Honorable Elizabeth A Baker calls herself a new renaissance artist, but for her, self-definition is not only functional. It's a radical exercise of occupying her own identity and unapologetically claiming space.

THE HONORABLE ELIZABETH A. BAKER: I want to say 2017, around 2016, 2017 was working extensively with dancers, um, because I have a background in dance. So it's easy to have a person who is in sound who also understands movers and is a mover themselves. And, uh, we were working with dance films a lot. And so, uh, there was, uh, uh, just, it would've seemed like a very casual incident to most people, but it was very, uh, it was a pivotal moment for me. And that was when the director introduced me to someone as this is the composer of the film. And when this incident happened, I felt viscerally and physically, like I had been put into a box and like, I couldn't breathe. And so I sort of just took note, didn't really make a big deal out of it, but took note in my mind, like this is not something we can do anymore. Um, because it feels disingenuine. And it feels like in that one word, I am turning away from the many other things that I am. So I, I, you know, most people would say, well, you're a multidisciplinary artist and that also felt wrong because you know, a lot of these terms have built up meaning there's expectations about what a composer is supposed to do, and also what they're supposed to look like. And I didn't subscribe to that. And it just so happened that on Facebook of all places, Laurie Anderson had an interview that I came across and she talked about how the biggest mistake young artists make is allowing themselves to be defined by a label for the purposes of marketing early on in their career that doesn't allow them to grow. And I was like, "oh, like an adult who's more adult than me has solved the problem!" So that's when I just started throwing ideas. And, and for some reason, new renaissance artist just came to me. Renaissance because, you know, there's a mentor of mine from college, Jeff Donnavick, And he said like one of the most true statements about me that anyone has ever said, which is "most people change their molecules every seven years, Elizabeth changes her molecules every seven months." And so that like rebirth, like moving on... and I've never been like other people that sort of find that groove of composition and then that's their signature style and then they stick to it. I absolutely hate that. Cause I'm like, it's becomes almost like a, like an assembly process and yeah, you can get famous doing that. Um, but I'd like to challenge myself and create work that is not necessarily better, but that's a deeper exploration than the time before and in a different direction.
So that's how I became a new renaissance artist, uh, and completely separate from that is the title of The Honorable Elizabeth A. Baker. And that comes because there's been this flurry of like women composer, women, festival, women, this... and the optics of every single one of those opportunities, workshops, whatever is white women. And then when I've been in those spaces, because you tend to be the only by POC human in that space, um, there's this weird tokenization or fetishization of like, "oh, you're here". And then when there is an issue and ultimately racist issue, because racist microaggressions happen all the time in new music, um, you either shut down because you don't have the energy to deal with it, or you're like looked to as the person who must solve this problem and speak for all non-white people. Um, and so it just felt like the definition of woman and even beyond the new music community, if you go to Instagram, you go look at the mommy blogs and stuff like that, it's all white women. Like it's very whitewashed. Um, and so everything about womanhood felt like it was stolen from me. Like I could never live up to that because I don't look like a white woman on Instagram. And so I do, you know, I am a cisgender female. And so how am I going to reclaim my power and like my femininity? Well, I'm going to just like I did with new renaissance artist, I'm going to give it my own title. And some people have pushed against it because they're like, "that's only for judges". And I'm like "Prince was a symbol for several years and none of y'all questioned it". Now, just because, you know, I come off as a Black woman, even though I do have Latina heritage as well as an Asian heritage. So I'm multiply mixed. Um, but you know, anytime a Black woman says something like, "Hey, I'd like to be respected," the world tends to be like, "yeah, no, but you're not human. So, uh, we're just not gonna allow you to do that." And I also chose The Honorable Elizabeth A. Baker um, because it requires white people to put respect on my name. Words are powerful. Um, when you start saying positive things about yourself, you believe those things. When you force other people to say positive things about you, they start to believe those things. They start to see you as a person instead of a machine or a tool for a diversity platform. Um, and there's a whole part of my practice that it was very influenced by the Nap Bishop and the Nap Ministry that Black people are constantly 100% tools of capitalism that are told that if you don't work 10 times harder, the white people will not respect you. And if you don't have that respect, then you mean nothing. So to rest as any person of color, but particularly as Black people in America is like one of the most revolutionary things that you can do.

TORI MARCHIONY: How have your experiences been with institutional leadership in the U S versus abroad? Cause I know that some of your films have been shown in the UK and Nigeria. Was there a profound difference in those experiences or kind of same, same?

THE HONORABLE ELIZABETH A. BAKER: I mean, those were done through film festival submissions, so it was a totally different experience. Um, it was pretty simple, um, there, because there was already a system. But you know, I am pretty clear with people when I'm like," I don't think this is going to work out", um, from the jump. So I don't always get myself into situations. Though there have been situations that have been absolutely crazy, ridiculous. Um, especially during the pandemic and people's ideas of what is equitable for performers, putting themselves at risk, even if they're vaccinated, you know, there's a Delta variant going around and the Delta variant don't care about you, whether you've been vaccinated or not. Um, I've seen a lot of that. I've seen a lot of, like there should be there any performer should be able to walk off of a COVID performance at all at any time. Like if they feel unsafe for any reason, they should be able to walk off. And I feel like that's, you know, a provision that should exist somewhere. Unfortunately, we don't have unions and situations like that. So you, you end up in situations where you are advocating for yourself and the danger in advocating for yourself against a group of people is that they are more people to spin the story to say that you're unprofessional. And most often when that sort of thing happens, it is a non-white person who's trying to finally stand up for themselves and then a bunch of white people using white ideas of professionalism. And there's much speak among activists about whether our concept of professionalism is just another form of white supremacy and trying to, uh, exist and push people down. Um, so you have this, this danger that whenever you're a non-white person standing up for yourself and your mental health and your physical health in the midst of a global pandemic, which seems like a very realistic time to say, "Hey, I need to not be here". Um, there's this thing of like, you've let everyone down. And it's like, no, I haven't let everyone down. The only person that matters in this equation is me because if I'm dead, did I let everyone else down to you? Like, so I've noticed that when we're dealing with stuff on a domestic level, that has been a glaring situation. Um, and then there's also just, the people do not want to play Black artists for anything. Uh, and then, or if they pay them, they pay them less than the other artists. Um, and you just have to be aware of that. There's a lot to learn and I hope that, you know, I think that a lot of people are at the end of their rope, especially with the fourth wave happening and they're there more people saying, "oh, I'm not going to do that". And I just, I kind of hope it continues because that's the only way that organizations will learn that you cannot treat performers as just robots to get your stuff done. You have to think about the human side of the performer.

TORI MARCHIONY (Voiceover): The Honorable Elizabeth A Baker is a new music and equity advocate who defends the right of humans to their own humanity. At the same time, she's also keenly interested in de-centering humans in general, believing that our obsession with hierarchy stands at the very heart of oppression of racism and exploitation of perceived lower-order objects and organisms. One of her ongoing projects, Field Studies is a series of outdoor audio-visual recordings in which the artist collaborates with the surrounding elements.

MUSIC: Field Studies 20HPX from Field Studies 

THE HONORABLE ELIZABETH A. BAKER: My goal in Field Studies is not to just go play music outside and be the center of attention in a space. Um, and I think like if people go back and rewatch Field Studies pieces, they'll notice I'm not really performing to the camera, I'm really doing stuff. The camera's there, but I'm not performing to the camera. I'm really listening to the space and trying to tap into the energy of the space and everything in the space and figure out where I belong in that space and not make it about me. Um, and that really for me is at least for now, it's really fulfilling for me.

MUSIC: Blips, Beeps, Breeze, Tweet from Field Studies

THE HONORABLE ELIZABETH A. BAKER: I really hate human narrative. And wanting to sort of escape into that comes from, uh, unfortunately, because I've kind of always been the same way since I was a childm um, I was not well understood. And if you think about a child, who's asking questions, like "why do we have best friends? That seems weird because everyone brings something different to the table". When a child's asking that like fifth grade and maybe even possibly younger, I might've asked that or had that conversation with my mom when I was like fourth grade. That's someone who is dealing with a lot of trauma, but whatever, we'll, we're gonna ice over that for a second. But that's also someone who is clearly aware that their voice doesn't matter. And my voice didn't matter, even though I was intelligent and got good grades, it was a constant battle because I can tell you, I remember, you know, being in like first or second grade, I've always written very well. You know, I've always had a good command of the English language. My mother is British, um, and the way she spoke to me was never in baby talk. It was always like I was an adult. We would listen to like talk radio. And my dad is an ex-professional football player who was a motivational speaker and owned his own business, a very, very boring business, selling copiers, fax machines, and printers. And so I had a very different childhood from other people and my command of the English language and my ability to write and speak was like an adult from early age. But in public school in America, in the south, that doesn't make sense. And so I can tell you multiple times I got pulled into offices, principals' offices- "There was no way you could have written this. Um, this is not you, you must have had somebody else write it for you." And then I would have to write in front of the principal and the teacher to prove that this was my own way of writing. I mean, and that's straight-up systemic racism. We don't talk about it, but if you make a child do that enough, they start silencing their true selves. And I take an inordinate amount of time for somebody who works as a performer and other things to actually go to schools and interface with children. One of the many things I do when I work with students is we do sort of listening, um, exercises. And I, depending on what their age is, you know like you can draw or write whatever this makes you feel and how you think it might've been made. Um, and I tell them there's no right or wrong answer, you know? And then when they start talking with each other about how they think something was made or what they think it was about, or- and I also don't have the make a story, there's always the "make a story". No, just tell me, like, what does this make you feel? Um, sometimes guidance counselors get called cause it's a good way to open up trauma in children. Um, there was definitely one experience I had where I was at an elementary school that was not in a very safe neighborhood and I was playing Indian harmonium for them. And uh, all of a sudden, like one child just started crying. Another child started crying, but this was not like a crying of like, oh, "I don't like it" crying. This was like, they're clearly processing something crying. And then I stopped because now, like I'm not kidding, over half the class was crying. And I was like, "I'm not, I can't. Um, Nope, Nope." And so their guidance counselor like came to rescue me and the kids would say, "that sound reminded me of the one time when my uncle got shot and he died". And I was like, "this is too much to process". But the guidance counselor was like,"yes, yes! We've had a breakthrough! Now we can have a grief counseling session!" I'm like, "that is great. And I'm so glad that this allowed the children to open up so that you could do the grief counseling session that they obviously need, but I was not prepared for that". So, uh, it's an unintentional music therapy, I guess. But it's always interesting to see, like, you know, I think everyone really underestimates the cognitive powers of children because those kids were about third grade

MUSIC: Command Voices from Quadrivium 

TORI MARCHIONY (Voiceover): That was an excerpt of Command Voices a 2017 compositional series by The Honorable Elizabeth A. Baker named for the intrusive voices that instruct patients experiencing psychosis to do destructive things or behave in a certain manner. But whether you knew the context or not, you probably felt something visceral when you heard it. And this ability to conjure physical sensation in listeners is one of her superpowers.

THE HONORABLE ELIZABETH A. BAKER:  I have a lot of friends that work as energy healers or, um, they are, shall we say, partial to the other side that most people have become blind to with age. Um, and most of them say that what I do is pretty similar to it, even though I'm not really necessarily consciously being like, "Hey, let's go on an energy journey today. Did you have trauma to unpack? Let's unpack the trauma together". Um, it's not really like, I mean, that's, I'm glad when people have that happen. Um, and because I think I'm not very, you know, I'll have musicians that even worked with me and they're like, "oh, but is this your vision?" And I'm like, a"re you experiencing things? Are you feeling like S... like grounded with this? Are you feeling, what are you feeling with this piece?" And it for a classically trained artist that just flips it on their head for them, because especially in the West, in the global north, that requires so much self-trust. Where did that come from? There's this weird obsession with like musical proficiency is being able to replicate something without mistakes- that's perfection. Um, that's not the case in many other cultures, but that is certainly the case here. And for me, I think that the brain and its adaptability is a really beautiful thing. So a lot of my work I do as a performer deals a lot with improvisation and there's things happening on stage that only recently I've started explaining to people like the not process- process, which is that, especially with my electronics rigs, I always put something in there that could go catastrophically wrong. Um, like a piece of gear that's like not working properly, um, like working with a patch where the volume level is late. You just, you have just like a tiny little bit of playroom before, you know, feedback could happen and the entire patch could crash. Um, and so I liked that...and I had a long conversation, actually, probably several conversations, the good friend of mine who is a jazz pianist, but he also has, um, a degree in experience in neuroscience. And we talked a lot about cellular memory and how, when you're improvising, you have your things that you automatically sort of go-to in specific situations. And you also have things from your ancestors in yourself that cause you to make certain choices, specific situations. And this goes back to my whole theory that I've said multiple times, there is no such thing as free improvisation because you're always pulling from known neural networks. And the only way would be if you had some weird amnesia, but then still remembered how to play your instrument. And then I would still argue that it's a known neural network. Point is, how do you break out of a known neural network? You have to basically present a mountain lion, because that's the only time humans like break from known neural network is when a mountain lion is right in front of you. You have no context of what to do in that situation. And so you are really improvising, um, like 100% free improvisation happens in that place. So by having something that can go catastrophically wrong at an unknown juncture, it breaks you out of that, "we're going on the path, the normal path". And then the digital mountain lion appears, and you now must solve things, but you must also solve things in front of other humans, um, so that they don't know that there is a crisis happening on stage, um, that you are troubleshooting. 

TORI MARCHIONY: That requires so much self-trust. Where did that come from? 

THE HONORABLE ELIZABETH A. BAKER: Because I've always had, uh, a tie to energy and was very aware of it. So, you know, most people that come into a music school or music industry, they're very, uh, there's a lot of competition, a lot of backstabbing, a lot of sherlocking. And that's a term that was created just for when apple scoops up your app idea and is like, now it's in IOS. Um, so there's a lot of that that exists. And this from a very early time and very combatively in music school, I find people that are, they're so insecure about not having something that somebody else has, that they make themselves miserable and they're make everyone else around them miserable. And, you know, with rejection and things like that. So many people they get so caught up in rejection and they're like, "it hurts so bad. And I should have gotten that" And I'm like, no, what is meant to be yours will always be yours. Um, and I definitely feel like my ancestors look out for me, you know, um, I don't have the same fears that other people have then that, that I'm not going to get what I need. My father, ever the one for African Proverbs, was always like "if there is no fear within the fear from outside can do you no harm". And at some point in my life like that just made sense. Like he'd been telling me that for years and years and years, and I understood it at varying degrees. And I think in my twenties, my early twenties, or maybe even my teens, I really just didn't, I didn't care what people think. And I don't really desire things that are not mine to have. Um, and I release a lot of expectation and live in the beauty of like the moment, uh, granted have a ton of backup plans, you know, where it's like, "oh, if this goes wrong, we can solve it this way." Um, that's anxiety, superpowers. Um, and yeah, and I think that I, I, I would want everyone else in the world to really feel that freedom, you know, because I'm not worried about what other people are doing, because I mind my own business. I really can throw myself into my own world of stuff. And I don't feel all of these extra unnecessary, bad feelings, because I feel like I haven't been given everything. I just feel like, "cool, like we're here, we're experiencing the thing". Um, and you don't have to capture that experience every time either because every experience can be different. Humans love to capture things. And in particular, like modern humans love to sort of take something, put it in a box and look at it. I mean, if you think about like a flower and people are like," oh, I love it, love flowers". And then they cut them and then they die. Like, if you love something, you can leave it. If you truly love it, you can leave it and let it grow. But if you just want to own things, then you just go around, collecting them and putting them on shelves.

TORI MARCHIONY (Voiceover): What an awesome conversation with The Honorable Elizabeth A. Baker. Thank you so much for tuning into the HearTOGETHER Podcast from The Philadelphia Orchestra. I'm Tori Marchiony, and we'll be back next month with more conversations about music, social justice, and all the life in between. In the meantime, please also remember to subscribe, rate, review, and recommend to your friends, to play us out I hope you'll enjoy this excerpt from The Honorable Elizabeth A. Baker's latest EP entitled remain calm. this is just a test.

MUSIC: Remain Calm from REMAIN CALM. This is just a test.