Composer and conductor Richard Baker

Richard Baker

The Tyranny of Fun

In 1994, as a student in Amsterdam, I read an interview in The Observer with theatre director Richard Eyre, in which he described his childhood as ‘a tyranny of fun’ – in particular, the way in which his parents tyrannised their friends and family with a ceaseless round of parties and amusements, as a distraction from their own ennui and desperation. This piece is my response to Eyre’s very resonant phrase, and the various musical and extra-musical thoughts it provoked as the century turned.

Structurally, the piece is a ‘cheap imitation’ (in homage to John Cage) of George Balanchine’s great ballet La Valse. Pairing together Ravel’s Valses Nobles et Sentimentales, and La Valse itself, Balanchine made explicit what many commentators had long suspected – that Ravel took inspiration for La Valse from Edgar Allen Poe’s short story Masque of the Red Death. Ravel’s musical source material was the Viennese waltz tradition. Mine comes from more recent dance music, specifically early late 70s and early 80s disco – the sound of the great super-clubs of New York in their decadent heyday, just before the first wave of the Aids epidemic hit – a more literal and terrifying ‘red death’ than anything Poe imagined.

The work is in two movements of roughly equal duration, and is written for an amplified ensemble of fourteen players. There are no live percussion instruments – rather, the percussionist triggers electronic samples using a MIDI drum kit, and a specially designed sensor, whose role becomes clear as the pieces progresses.

I am grateful to Jonathan Green, who developed the motion sensor technology used by the percussionist, and to composer and sound designer Nye Parry, who created both the samples and the software programming for the work. The Tyranny of Fun is dedicated to Jackie and Stephen Newbould.

Richard Baker

Richard Baker’s Sound Investment commission The Tyranny of Fun was premiered by BCMG conducted by Ryan Wigglesworth at CBSO Centre, Birmingham on 15 February 2013.