Recently, I spoke with the performer, composer, dancer, and musician Elizabeth A. Baker over Skype, from her home in Florida. A large fold-out picture of Schubert and some of her own paintings hung on the walls behind her. We talked about commercial music, the discourse on diversity, and going to the sex shop for composition supplies.
VAN: How did you get into music?
Elizabeth A. Baker: My mom is British, and Europeans introduce their children to music at a very early age. I was obsessed with “Peter and the Wolf.” We had some pretty far out classical records; “The Firebird” and “The Rite of Spring” were my jams as a small child, when I was like five or six.
When did you start playing piano?
When I was four. I saw “Peter and the Wolf,” and I was like, “I wanna be the dude with the stick!” They said, “you should probably start piano lessons, so you can get the basics of music.” I had a crazy Russian piano teacher who would always hit my hand if I played a wrong note. But I was also improvising pretty much as soon as I figured out what notes were, making up my own melodies and composing tiny things. Then I would get in trouble with my teacher, because she was like, “No, play what’s on the page.”
In high school I started playing guitar, and then I went to school for classical guitar performance in college, at Florida Southern, a conservative Christian school. My entire track was different. Everyone was upstairs rehearsing in chorus, orchestra, or band, and I was reading all the John Cage books in my dorm room. I got really into musique concrète, Milton Babbitt became my homeboy [laughs].
No one around me understood what the heck I was doing. I actually have some great recordings of me doing my early musique concrète, when I was getting real experimental, and I have my classmates laughing audibly in the background. I tried those recordings, and that’s how you know you’re doing something right—when nobody understands it and they’re laughing.
Reading through your blog, I got the feeling that you kind of hate pop music.
After Florida Southern I went to commercial music school, for a very logical reason—most classical musicians have no clue about the other side of the glass. They come into the studio, and they’re like, “My instrument doesn’t sound like my instrument.” I’m like, “What you’re asking for is more reverb. That’s what you want. Just say that.” But they don’t know to say that, because they didn’t learn. I decided to go to commercial music school and learn all the things.
I got my fill of the full gamut of pop music there. I had to learn to mix and master, and I died on the inside a lot. We had critical listening class, where we had to identify different compressors and processes that were going on, and again, I died on the inside a lot. And finally, for our main projects, we had two semesters where we basically had to pretend to be record executives, and then producers, and then pitch to the “record executive,” who was our teacher. We had to listen to everyone else’s tracks in order to facilitate that. I’d lie on the floor of the studio with my phone, texting my friends with my real thoughts about the pieces.
Was it the simplicity of the music that made you “die on the inside”?
I’m all for simplicity. I love minimalism. But I hate grid-based music with the fiery passion of a thousand suns. I can’t deal with it. And everything there was snapped to a grid.
I look at music in a very philosophical way, as a reflection of the world we inhabit, and as theoretical worlds. And no world is perfect. In Japanese culture, when a pot breaks, you fill the cracks with gold. To me, those little bits where you’re just off are the cracks being filled with gold. When you take that away, it just seems stark and robotic.
Elizabeth A. Baker, “meditation for water, wind, and metal”
You drive yourself and do gigs in smaller places. It seems to me like there are a lot of classical musicians who wouldn’t be willing to do that: either they fly and have a decent hotel, or they don’t play.
I love to go to random little towns. Huntsville, Alabama is one of my favorite places to tour. I do all my driving by myself. I love going to places where they don’t have access to well-done, well-curated music in the genre of what I’m doing. I think everyone should have access to music that’s beyond the old dead white dudes.
Even though I moved into a different realm of music, I didn’t lose that “let’s go tour” attitude. I’ve gotten a lot of strange living experiences from that. And I think it makes you a better musician. I purposefully chose to remove myself from the academic world as much as possible—you get lost in a world that isn’t accessible to the common person. You have to remember that music isn’t just for you and your people, who understand your high-level thinking about things.
My dad is an ex-professional football player, he did a lot of motivational speaking when I was younger. He’d drive me along, and it was a lot of inner cities. I saw what they did and didn’t have access to.
In an interview with VAN, the composer Matthew Evan Taylor said, “It’s always black men that get to break the barrier of race, and then white women get to break the barrier of gender.”
Yeah. I recently said to a friend of mine, “If I read another article by a cisgender white female about hard it is for them in music, I may just lose my mind.” Because they have no clue what it’s like. I’ve had organizers saying that maybe I should go to the black venue down the way and see if they’ll take my music: “I’m not sure they will, because it’s a little too weird for them.” I’ve had black venues say, “Your music isn’t really black, it isn’t going to do well here.” [White women] will never know what that conversation feels like—when you feel cast out by your own race and then the other race, and you’re just like, “Well, OK, what am I going to do?”
And then there’s the unspoken stuff that happens. You look around the room and you’re like, “I’m the only person my shade here.” Why is that? How many black girls are taught that there are other role models besides Beyoncé? I do a lot of stuff to try and empower young people in general. But I have a distain for the discussion of cisgender white females, because we don’t live in a binary society. I’m a cisgender woman, but there are all these creative transgender individuals who you can’t name in that discussion. We should probably stop having that [binary] conversation and start trying figure out how to be inclusive.
Recently somebody asked me, “Do you think things are going to change for black females?” I said no. I want to be optimistic, but everything is systemic—and until you can break the mold of that system, it’s going to continue perpetuating the same things.
What does the toy piano mean to you?
I have seven toy pianos [laughs]. I keep saying, “I need one more.” I love that each one has its own identity, even if it’s from the same run. I also love that the expectations, sonically, are removed. I’m in a pretty different place from most pianists. I am an African-American woman, in a predominantly white world, where the moment I step on the stage, people expect me to be like Alicia Keys and play R’n’B and hip hop. I don’t want to do that! That’s not my voice. It was another way to pull me away from the expectations when I walk on stage.
I also love the fact that I’m a real tall person on a really tiny instrument, and then I start doing these things to it with electronics or other things to make it sound different from what people are expecting when they look at it. It’s a lot about breaking the psychological expectations of the audience.
The toy piano is a love and a curse for me. I go places and people are like, “Hey, you’re that toy piano lady!” I’m like, “I know other things too, please.” But I did write the toy piano method book, so I kind of pigeonholed myself [laughs]. Then again, I’ve been working with vibrators too lately. My mom’s like, “If you get as famous for the vibrators as for the toy pianos, I’ll disown you.”
In videos of your “Command Voices” pieces, the vibrators move on the piano strings without you controlling them.
My friend is a music therapist and works in a psych ward. I’m very interested in neuroscience, and I’ve always been interested in psychotic people—I want to know why people are weird.
Anyway, she started talking to me about command voices and auditory hallucinations. A patient often can only control some of their voices. With the vibrators, I can also only control one or two at a time. And patients sometimes have conversations with their auditory hallucinations. The whole idea is, the piano is like all of these auditory hallucinations. I interact with piano in a whole different way. It dictates where I go.
What’s really cool with the vibrators, because they’re all different shapes and sizes, they have different patterns. You start getting these really tiny inner dialogues, even between the “command voices.” I could just listen to it forever.
Elizabeth A. Baker, “Command Voices – Iteration #262A”
Have you ever rejected a vibrator because it didn’t sound cool?
Yes. There are certain vibrators that I’m not down with. It’s funny because my duo partner, Eric, was like, “Let me try one of these vibrators on my banjo.” And I was like, “Hold on, you don’t want this one.” And I have so many delightful stories from the sex shop to find the vibrators.
Let’s hear them.
The first visit I went to procure vibrators, I went into to the sex shop. It was 9 a.m., and there were also a lot of guys in there, going straight to that video arcade with absolutely no eye contact. I was like, “Are they starting their day or ending it?” I have so many questions that have never been answered [laughs].
Anyway, the lady’s helping me: “This one might work, and that one is really big, it might do something cool.” I’m like, “Can we get something that’s a little less…conspicuous?” She literally looked me in the eye and said, “We have it in blue.”
The second time I went, there were two workers there. I said I was using the vibrators for a piano. The looks of shock on their faces were priceless. They were like, “You get street cred for shocking a sex shop worker. Nothing shocks us.” So I now have sex shop street cred.
To me, I don’t really see them as sex objects, but as tools for making music. But people can’t remove that connotation from it. We moved from calling them vibrators to “the vibrating objects,” because we’re trying to elevate them [laughs]. ¶