James Baldwin is having a moment. Thirty years after his death, the author/activist has pushed his way once again to the forefront of national consciousness. The visionary behind the volumes Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953), The Fire Next Time (1963) and Just Above My Head (1979) is still fueling societal debate, as evidenced by the acclaimed exhibit “God Made My Face: A Collective Portrait of James Baldwin” at New York’s David Zwirner Gallery. Almost all of his catalog remains in print, and Little Man, Little Man: A Story of Childhood, his only children’s book, was reissued last year. His writings inspired two recent, Oscar-nominated films: the documentary “I Am Not Your Negro” (2016) and the drama “If Beale Street Could Talk” (2018).
But Chicago-based composer-polymath Renèe Baker is ahead of the curve. She’s mid-way through a trilogy sparked by Baldwin’s life and legacy. Part 1, The Baldwin Chronicles: Negro Ideologies, bowed last summer at the Arts Club of Chicago. And Part 2, The Baldwin Chronicles: Midnight Ramble, billed as a “neo-opera,” will receive its world premiere Feb. 16 as part of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra African American Network’s third annual Black History Month Celebration in Buntrock Hall.
Scored for a small orchestra, chorus and 12 vocalists, The Baldwin Chronicles expands “the conversation that his texts and speeches brought about,” Baker said. “Part 2 addresses his thought processes in his most fertile period, delving into his mind and how he wished things would be different … why things weren’t better for blacks in the United States” even after the advances of the civil-rights movement.
As in most of Baldwin’s works, the Chronicles conversations center on what many regard as America’s original sin: the issue of race. “James Baldwin never shied away from having the conversation,” Baker said. “He would talk with anyone who would engage. The conversation about race is hard to have, it’s hard to hear, and it’s hard to tell where you are on the spectrum.”
And in a divided America of 2019, Baldwin’s words seem even more timely than ever. “Baldwin holds a lot of answers for us,” Baker said. “Race is one of the few issues you have to come at in a non-confrontational way. This is a societal issue. But his way of looking at problems always involved looking for solutions. He’d say, ‘I see your point, I hope you see mine.’ In The Baldwin Chronicles, I’m processing all of this through text, music, film, art and sounds … it’s all in there.”
The composer of more than 2,000 works in a variety of genres, Baker began in the classical-music world but over time branched into other realms, including jazz, blues, film scores and new music, and then moved into other artistic avenues, including visual art, graphic novels and filmmaking. (Since 2008, she has been a member of the influential Chicago-based Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians.) All of these talents come into play for The Baldwin Chronicles, which employs her own artwork and video projections, along with her music and libretto. As for the “neo-opera” label, she explained, “The main thing we expect in opera is the continuous singing of text or libretto. I’m classically trained but have a strong affinity for new music. But in this work, the music does not follow the linear structure that most operas would. Most operas function by using music as accompaniment. In my operas, it doesn’t work that way. It’s true to classical, but also to my AACM, my new music associations.”
For some, the work’s subtitle, Midnight Ramble, might bring to mind the late Levon Helm’s side group, which grew out of sessions at his home studio in Woodstock, N.Y. Or the Rolling Stones’ “Midnight Rambler” (1969) — which the British rockers once called “a blues opera” — based on the exploits of serial killer Albert DeSalvo, known as the Boston Strangler.
However, the “midnight ramble” of Baker’s opera refers to a vestige of the Jim Crow era. The term refers to screenings for segregated audiences who would not have been admitted to cinemas otherwise. “Back then, blacks could go to movies and see movies only late at night,” she said. “For me, at night, when you’re hopefully at rest and your mind is rambling … the philosophy and the ideas that Baldwin ruminated on all the time come to the fore. If you reach a certain point in life, we all have those moments when we ask ourselves, are we doing it right? How do I fit in? Or do I?”
Though Midnight Ramble follows a plot, Baker explains that its narrative is not linear. “It unfolds the way that things would come to you in the night,” she said. “They come out of the same context. His writings have been filtered … I’ve distilled it like whiskey.”
Baker emphasizes that “there’s nothing directly lifted from his writings. Instead I distill his thoughts and offer ruminations. If you’re familiar with his works, you’ll hear references to The Fire Next Time or Go Tell It on the Mountain.” The poem Conundrum also provides a cornerstone for the work: Between holding on and letting go/I wonder how you know the difference.
Crucial among those ruminations is the impact of religion on Baldwin. As a teenager, he followed the example of his stepfather, a Baptist preacher, and at 14, became a junior minister in the Pentecostal Church. Eventually, disillusionment set in, and he turned away from the spiritual path. “But so much of his life was influenced by the church,” Baker said. “The idea of belief, faith and hope all figure into his psyche … blues, jazz, gospel, it’s all there, all part of his fabric.”
Accordingly, blues, jazz, gospel all figure into The Baldwin Chronicles. “When it comes to genre, I wasn’t trying to pick a particular one,” Baker said. “Genre is a marketing tool. There isn’t one music style that hasn’t been influenced by another sound. I just let my filter operate — if it comes out Mingus, Bach or whatever. Most of the vocal parts are non-operatic, and that’s on purpose, to capture the vernacular.”
For the AAN concert, Baker will lead her Chicago Modern Orchestra Project, along with vocalists Dee Alexander, Rae-Myra Hilliard, Vickie Johnson, Sheila Jones, Robert Sims, Julian Otis, Cornelius Johnson, Taalib-Din Ziyad, Saalik Ziyad, Yoseph Henry, Jeffrey Burish and the Keith Hampton Singers.
In a recent essay titled “Why James Baldwin Always Matters,” author Casey Gerald writes, “The question is not, what if everybody read James Baldwin? I think the question, at this hour in America, is, what if everybody believed James Baldwin? What if everybody understood what James Baldwin was trying to get us to see and, more importantly, trying to get us to do?”
That’s the message Baker aims to deliver with The Baldwin Chronicles. “He really went his own way and overcame the many obstacles in his path,” she said. “That he was able to keep writing and stay honest in his vision was amazing. Others ignore the signs that our society is in trouble if we don’t see each other as equals.
“In the end, the trajectory is linear in that we are going toward hope and illumination [in The Baldwin Chronicles]. I hope there is a future for us … that we realize these differences are manufactured. We’re all part of humankind, that’s the end thought.”
Note: After the performance, Renèe Baker and other guests will participate in a Q&A session.
TOP: A still from the documentary “James Baldwin: The Price of the Ticket.”