Larry Baker, Composer


Larry Baker was at the height of his creative career in 1994 when he abruptly dropped out of music. For more than a decade, he did not write a note. But while he pursued other interests, his music took on a life of its own, thanks to performances and recordings by percussionist Cornelia Monske in Hamburg and organist Karel Paukert (winner in 1995 of the Cleveland Arts Prize’s Special Citation for Dstinguished Service to the Arts). In 2006, Baker resumed composing after learning from ASCAP that a couple of his works had been recorded.

Born in Fort Smith, Arkansas, on September 7, 1948, Larry Baker literally grew up in the cradle of country-western music. Because his parents could not afford a baby sitter, he sometimes slept in his father’s steel guitar case. When his family got a piano, he began writing music. Later, he studied composition with Spencer Norton and Charles Hoag at the University of Oklahoma and with 1966 Cleveland Arts Prize winner Donald Erb at the Cleveland Institute of Music.

Baker received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, Ohio Arts Council and Bascom Little Fund. He was commissioned to compose works for the Cleveland Chamber Symphony, Cleveland Philharmonic, Tower Brass Quintet and Fortnightly Musical Club of Cleveland. His music was also performed by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Indiana Chamber Orchestra and numerous vocal and instrumental soloists.

Like many composers, Baker became a conductor to take care of his own music onstage. During his 20-year tenure as a theory and composition teacher at the Cleveland Institute of Music, he led performances by the CIM Contemporary Chamber Ensemble and the new music ensembles Performance Group and Reconnaissance. Passionate about staying in the present, he urged his students to write music that related to their birth dates. His own compositions speak a contemporary language of angular melodies, dissonant harmonies, driving rhythms and sparse textures. Employing theatrical gestures and non-traditional techniques, he creates abstract works that challenge performers and listeners. “I collect experiences,” he says. “They go through me and come out of me as a piece of music that reflects what is going on now.”

Rainmusic (1983), a showpiece for marimba, creates the illusion of a musical juggler playing minimalist patterns at breakneck speed. Coil (2007), a solo written for flutist Tim Lane, explores circular breathing techniques. Chairs (1979), a surreal theater piece, involves five chairs, a chamber ensemble, a ghostly soprano and a distraught speaker who frantically searches for words.  Hommage Dali (1975) requires the conductor to play a metronome and distribute balloons while a soprano climbs on a chair, recites nonsense verses and sings German lieder.

Baker’s comic opera, Haydn’s Head (1987), takes its title from the historic fact that Franz Josef Haydn’s skull was stolen shortly after the Austrian composer was buried. “There are intricate ensembles, elaborate musical parodies (including a page or two of ‘Salome’ for connoisseurs of severed-head music) and bursts of lyricism,” Plain Dealer music critic Robert Finn wrote of the one-act work, which was commissioned and premiered by Lyric Opera Cleveland. To Baker, who wrote the libretto as well as the score, the work is “absurd” rather than “creepy or spooky” and involves “no blood and gore whatsoever.”

—Wilma Salisbury


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