A film with orchestra accompaniment nowadays usually means a Hollywood blockbuster, with the live soundtrack timed down to the millisecond. But when Renée Baker resurrects a silent-era movie as a jumping-off point for her musical ideas, the result is quite different.
Her original score for the 1927 film “Siren of the Tropics” will be performed Feb. 29 in Buntrock Hall as part of the CSO’s African-American Network observance of Black History Month. The film features Josephine Baker, the African-American dancer and singer who gained worldwide fame as a cabaret performer in Paris in the 1920s and ’30s, and the AAN’s event is titled “A Sovereign Pout: Le Tumulte Noir of Josephine Baker.” The event will be Baker’s fourth consecutive Black History Month celebration at Symphony Center. “Who doesn’t want to be embraced by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra?” she said.
A prolific composer and the founding music director of the Chicago Modern Orchestra Project, Baker has given other movies a similar treatment, with help from research centers such as the Black Film Center Archive at Indiana University, a trove of nearly forgotten features from the early days of the motion-picture industry. For “Siren of the Tropics,” she also went to Paris to research the entertainer’s life, to “write the score with the feel of her life of so-called freedom in Paris, as much as I could imagine.”
African-Americans in Paris between the wars enjoyed more freedoms than they did at home, “but the fact that she was a person of color was never far from her mind,” said Baker (no relation to her subject). “The world wouldn’t let it be.” But Josephine Baker “was so multi-faceted, and her art was not separate from her life,” she said. The performer in later years was also known for working with the French Resistance during World War II and for adopting 12 children of different nationalities.
But before that, she was a star of stage and also of film. And today, Renée Baker is “helping an audience from 2020 embrace the art of 100 years ago,” she said. “A new score for an old film is kind of my M.O.”
Films from the silent era usually did have accompaniment from a live pianist or organist, but the accompanists were usually working from books of music for stock situations, such as love scenes and chase scenes. For Baker, writing a 21st-century score to an early 20th-century film is “augmenting someone else’s art.” When she watches a film from an archive, “I’m looking at the state of our world, building awareness of film as a vivid picture of history” roughly a century ago, and also noting “how film directors influences each other’s work, film values, historic values. This is history and culture.”
She also has found her own way of synchronizing music with film, which is more flexible than what audiences expect from a movie they already know. “As a composer, I can give myself a few seconds on one side or the other of a cue,” she said. “If a ball hits the ground, I provide sound, but it might not be on a dime. It might be as the ball falls, or bounces away.”
Providing a general sound background works, she said, because “we’re smarter than people think we are. It synchronizes in your brain.” She cited Philip Glass’ score for the experimental film “Koyaanisqatsi” as an influence, noting that it provides “sonic arenas for a spectacular set of images.”
Baker writes her film scores for full orchestra, and performs them with her Chicago Modern Orchestra Project. “We play under my vision, with my orchestra,” she said. “It’s kind of a mission for me, a way to make my compositional voice heard.”
Speaking of the ongoing commitment to her work and to the African-American community, she said, “There’s nothing like it, I can say that. There are not a lot of orchestras doing this kind of thing, recognizing out-of-the-box talent in their own community.”