Music News & Reviews

Rich Copley: Composer heeded mentor's advice and followed his own path

King Library Press created this piece of art in honor of the dedication of Joseph Baber's papers to UK Library Special Collections. The caricature of Rumpelstiltskin was created by Baber's ex-wife, Melissa Kelley Baber, for the premiere of the opera.
King Library Press created this piece of art in honor of the dedication of Joseph Baber's papers to UK Library Special Collections. The caricature of Rumpelstiltskin was created by Baber's ex-wife, Melissa Kelley Baber, for the premiere of the opera. Lexington Herald-Leader

During the late 1960s, Joseph Baber was a student at the prestigious Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester in New York. His professor, Francis Tursi, had some advice for him: Go away.

Tursi, a legendary violist and composer, wasn't telling Baber to drop composing. Far from it: He was advising Baber to get away from artistic hubs like New York and the groupthink that was emanating from them, a view that atonal, academic music was what composers needed to write.

"He said go somewhere like Idaho and compose for the schools, compose for the churches, compose for the people," says Baber, 74. "He was saying do what you do, and don't worry about what is going on in the rest of the world, because he could see things were going in a strange direction."

Baber came to the University of Kentucky, where he just wrapped up his 40th year as a professor, teaching composition in the School of Music.

This week, Baber's work is being celebrated with the dedication of his papers to the UK Libraries Special Collections. The event includes a ceremony at 3:30 p.m. Monday at the Margaret I. King Library along with an exhibit through May 30 and a concert at 7:30 Monday night at the Singletary Center for the Arts' Recital Hall.

The collection will include his opera Rumpelstiltskin and his oratorio An American Requiem, plus initial drafts of music, correspondence, academic papers, news coverage and recordings of his works.

"It will be the largest music archive in UK Libraries," says Gail Kennedy, the arts and outreach librarian for special collections. "We have the complete picture of his work."

Baber's is a significant and still-growing collection because he has done exactly what his mentor directed: constantly write works, many of which have not been available to the public until the collection opens this week.

"I wrote a lot of pieces for specific events that were very personal works," Baber says. "People would contact me interested in performing them, but often it didn't feel right saying, 'I had this very special experience. Now pay me for it.'"

But Baber has enjoyed a prolific career, writing works that have been performed around the world and at home. One champion was retired Lexington Philharmonic Orchestra music director George Zack, whom Baber says programmed his pieces more than 60 times during Zack's 37 years on the podium. That included the pivotal American Requiem.

That piece, initially written for the Lexington Singers in 1999, was a choral presentation of letters from Civil War soldiers. Baber says a subsequent performance by the Philharmonic in 2003 helped convince him that he should donate his papers to UK.

"I could see that people were moved by it," Baber says. "It told me that this work has value beyond just me."

The process of donating his papers began in 2005 and continues because Baber is still composing. In fact, the composition of the Abraham Lincoln opera River of Time, which UK Opera Theatre premiered in 2009, essentially put the project on hold for a couple years, and it ultimately gave the collection another work.

Baber says his collection will have something that archives of composers from future generations might lack: multiple drafts of works.

"Now, you compose on Finale and just cover over the old version when you make changes," Baber says, referring to a popular computer program for composition.

Kennedy says researchers who want to see the genesis of musical creation will get that picture in Baber's works, tracing compositions from first notes to final scores.

UK musicology professor Ron Pen, who initially came to UK to study composition with Baber, says, "You may not care about Joe Baber, but what you should care about with this collection is Joe Baber over successive generations and this voice that maintained integrity and conviction over the decades."

Already, five doctoral students from across the county have written their theses on Baber's music. The collection will open his process to others who want to explore the work.

For Baber, the project has been a journey back in time, particularly to pillars of his work: his librettist John Gardner, who collaborated with him on operas including Rumpelstiltskin and Frankenstein; his ex-wife, Melissa Kelley Baber, who collaborated with him in numerous ways; and his teacher and adviser, Tursi.

Assembling the collection brought Baber back to maybe his most treasured item: a 1979 letter from Tursi after he saw, unbeknownst to Baber, a production of Rumpelstiltskin in Philadelphia.

"How truly happy I am!" wrote Tursi, who died in 1992. "It is a wonderful work. The nobility of your music ... is especially experienced through the opera score."

Baber contemplates the letter and says, "He was saying I did what he told me to do."

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