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Attending new music festivals or weekends is like gambling – sometimes you come away feeling depressed after hearing all the note-spinning jumbles that get put on, and sometimes you come away feeling agitated after hearing something truly remarkable – not necessarily life-changing, but something excellent enough to give you a sense of discovery, something that make you think, and best of all, something you want to go back and hear it again.

I have lost count of the former situation; as for the latter, hearing Richard Baker‘s Learning to Fly (1999) for basset clarinet and ensemble at the (now discontinued) State of the Nation weekend in 1999 at the South Bank was definitely one. Since then, when I got carried away by writing too many notes, I would look at what Richard did, came back, sat up, went over my drafts and crossed out all the fluffy bits, or sometimes just simply started again.

Aaron Copland once said he composed by subtraction, which in turn reminded me of what Antoine de Saint Exupéry said about perfection in design is achieved not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing more to take away. Every time when I think about Baker’s works, I could not stop but thinking about Copland and Saint Exupéry.

Baker’s music is unpredictable, carefully crafted, and most important of all, profound without being pretentious. Every time I hear his music I am amazed by the economy of mean and yet the immense emotional power the music carries – Huiusmodi sunt omnia (2003) and Angelus (2004) are the prime examples of his ‘less-is-more’ aesthetic tactic – something too easily labelled but very hard to achieve.

His collaboration with the poet Lavinia Greenlaw has resulted in two striking vocal works to date – Slow passage, low prospect (2004) for the baritone Christopher Purves and Written on a train (2006) for the mezzo-soprano Christianne Stotijn. Judging from the quality of these pieces, I think an opera from him is something worth waiting for.

Besides his career as a composer, Richard Baker is also a fine conductor – his performances of music by Gerald Barry have been universally praised for their precision and musicality; if you know Barry’s music, you would understand the implication …

August 2020
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