Harry Baker is a jazz and classical pianist and composer currently studying for a master’s degree in jazz at The Royal Academy of Music. Samuel Norris spoke to him about his upcoming release, The Floating Boy, a suite for big band and voices:
London Jazz News: Where are you from and how did you get started playing music?
Harry Baker: I’m from South West London, and I started playing music through piano lessons, which I began having at the age of six. I was pretty quickly hooked, and was committed to exploring the instrument for a while until I got a PlayStation and that commitment slightly lessened. It picked up again in my late teens though!
LJN: What inspired you to get into composing music?
HB: I think that, particularly during those early years when I was playing through lots of classical pieces and trying to get better at sight reading, I would like to try out different things in the pieces and improvise with the material. From that, I guess naturally I wanted to explore composing my own music, and my dad gave me Sibelius on our home computer when I was 12, I think. More than anything I liked playing with the software, I must have so many incomplete nine- or 10-bar pieces on there… but I loved playing with different combinations of instruments, from big orchestras to solo piano, and I think that was the seed which really inspired me to get composing.
LJN: Leading on from that, what was it that first inspired you to write The Floating Boy?
HB: In July 2018 I was approached by the new committee for the Oxford University Jazz Orchestra (OUJO) and they asked me if I wanted to write them a piece. The original thought was maybe a five-minute piece for them and the Oxford Gargoyles, the university’s jazz vocal ensemble, as a way of bringing together these ensembles that hadn’t really collaborated previously. Anyway, I got a bit carried away, and I thought I’d use it as a way to explore large-scale composition.
LJN: You studied music at Oxford, and the piece combines the OUJO and the Oxford Gargoyles as you’ve just mentioned. Are these ensembles you were heavily involved in writing for and performing with while you were at the University?
HB: So I wasn’t actually involved with either writing or performing for the jazz orchestra, but I was heavily involved with the jazz vocal group, the Gargoyles. I joined in my first year as a bass and arranged a few things and then in my second year I became the musical director and was heavily involved in arranging for them. I really got into the intricacies of writing for voices through doing that, and how they differ from instruments, and how chromatic music is really hard to sing… that was a big learning curve.
LJN: Each of the work’s four parts (The Floating Boy, A Girl, Last Hope and My Triumph) is based around a different poem set to music, telling the story of a boy’s journey into manhood and ultimately old age. What made you choose these poems, especially given the contrasting styles and eras of the poets?
HB: When I was researching what poem to use, I asked my school friend Max Thomas, a poet who won a few competitions while he was still at school, to send me some poems of his. One was called The Floating Boy and it captured this great sense of both the naivety of a young boy and the foreboding pressures of adulthood. There was a really nice sense of simultaneous contrast at play that I thought would lend itself to an interesting musical setting. That was kind of the initial idea, and then I realised that actually I would need a few more poems to base the other movements around, so I ended up having great fun trying to create a coherent narrative out of several disparate pieces of writing. The poetry goes between the third person and the first person, but I’m trying to create one description of one boy throughout. I chose the poems because they encapsulated the theme of the piece but I can’t deny it was also useful to work with poetry that was out of copyright!
LJN: In your programme notes you mention the challenge of setting Max Thomas’s poem The Floating Boy to music due to the contrast between its raw, direct use of language and the classical ideals of beauty and elegance. Is this subversion of the form something you set out to achieve with the piece?
HB: I think the subversion of the poetic form was definitely an inspiration, but actually I found that once I got to writing it wasn’t the rebellious seed that I thought it would be. I think it was a nice inspiration for the compositional identity of the piece, but not so much for an all-guns-blazing, riotous attack on the conventional choral or big band compositional format.
LJN: The piece reflects several different musical interests which to my ears range from 20th-century classical music to contemporary big band writing. Tell us more about the specific influences on the suite.
HB: Gil Evans has been a massive influence on me for many years. I think I’ve always admired the way in which his pieces are almost like clockwork in that everything seems to be connected in this amazing, intricate, pristine way, whilst retaining this rawness that characterises so much jazz. So there are definitely elements of Gil Evans in there. Through writing I got into the more conventional big band styles of Thad Jones and Bob Brookmeyer, and on the classical side I’m really inspired by the sound worlds of a lot of 20th-century composers. I guess the harmony of Henri Dutilleux, the French composer, was a big influence; I transcribed some of his pieces and that was a really interesting means of seeing how he makes the most out of a small amount of material. Also, the Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu writes with a kind of stillness and focus on sound without being too harmonically adventurous. I think those two were influential on my large-scale writing.
LJN: Parts of the music remind me of Mirrors, Kenny Wheeler’s album with the London Vocal Project which features several poems set to music by Kenny and Pete Churchill. I know you study with Pete at RAM as part of your master’s, does his compositional method inform your writing?
HB: I haven’t heard that album! Pete is a very inspirational guy and worked very closely with Kenny, and teaches a lot of his compositional methods. Some of them have undoubtedly seeped into my writing, as they’re really useful tools which can get you out of scrapes in a very elegant way.
LJN: Tell us about your compositional process; did you start with the choral arrangement and then add the big band, or vice versa, or did they develop alongside one another?
HB: It was definitely more scattered than formulaic. Having said that, as the piece went on I became more organised and coherent in the way I wrote. It was more like a short score conception, so I would use six staves; a two-stave piano part for the voices, two staves for the brass and two staves for both saxes and rhythm section. It was pretty reduced, but it was great for me using A3 landscape paper because it meant I could fit a lot of music on one page and hence see a lot of information at any one time. I did a lot of writing on paper by hand, and I found for something as long and as largescale as The Floating Boy that it was useful to get away from composition software. I think that using Sibelius the whole time would have been quite migraine-inducing!
LJN: The work is largely through-composed, with improvisation not being a huge feature. Was that something that you consciously decided before you started to write?
HB: I knew which soloists I wanted to write for, as I had a quite detailed description of who were the most keen and comfortable improvisers in the band. So that was lead alto, first tenor, and the drummer, who has a long feature in the third part. Their solos checkpoint the piece quite sparsely, but I wouldn’t say it was so much of a conscious decision to be quite dry on the improvisational front; potentially it evolved through the fact that the narrative is so crucial to the piece that it doesn’t really make tonnes of sense if you don’t know it. Therefore it’s quite hard to place the structural direction of the piece in the hands of an improviser, and so the way I tended to use improvisation was in response to something relatively explosive that’s just happened in the text. For example, the tenor player has clearly checked out a lot of Coltrane, and that fitted really well in response to the text right before his solo in the first part.
LJN: The music seems alive and constantly evolving throughout the suite, dealing with stillness and turbulence in equal measure. Do you think that the same energy would have been captured had you done a studio recording? (The work was recorded at Magdalen College Auditorium).
HB: I’m no whiz at audio engineering, but I think it’s really hard when you enter the studio and you’re doing individual tracking of parts to retain that sense of rawness. We’re really fortunate in that we got to work with a sound engineer called Will Biggs, who’s very experienced and knew exactly the kind of sound that would work really well. So the combination of the live performance, which was inevitably going to have the odd squeak, with a really well recorded and mixed track, was great as it meant we could capture that perception of rawness in a super pristine format.
LJN: Do you have any plans to perform the music again, or are you moving on to more large-scale works? What’s in the pipeline for Harry Baker?
HB: No immediate plans to perform it again yet, although I’d love to at some point! I’m currently writing a piece for piano and orchestra for me to perform with my friend’s great orchestra based in Birmingham called the Ripieno Players. I’ll be playing piano in that, and I’ll be doing a lot of improvisation, kind of working on the concerto idiom but in a way that allows the piano to be really free and to respond to the orchestra. It’s a much smaller-scale piece than The Floating Boy, only about five minutes, and I’ll be performing it in February which I’m very excited about.
The Floating Boy is out on 10 January 2020.