The Tyranny of Fun by Richard Baker

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.


Listen to an Excerpt of The Tyranny of Fun



In an interview with Talking Writing Music Richard Baker talks more about his inspiration for the sounds you hear in the piece:

"Nye Parry, who helped me make the electronics, thought I was crazy. It’s my breathing, and we worked together on how to get it sounding sick. It’s a slippage between something erotic and sensual on the dancefloor, and a kind of drug-infused disco moment, and also a zeitgeist notion of encroaching menace – this thing in the Edgar Allen Poe, the notion of the Red Death being somehow present all along, and the notion of HIV/AIDS being present at these moments of jouissance – someone’s high as a kite on whatever, but they are probably dying, unknown to them…

And that cultural moment, which I’m old enough to remember, was dominated by Star Wars! We find out at the end of the trilogy that Darth Vader makes this sound because he’s profoundly unwell. So this is two things: it’s Darth Vader, and it’s also the sound of a drug-infused moment on a dancefloor at five in the morning, maybe that’s also sexual in some way – and the very, very close relationship between desire and death, which for gay men of that generation, and indeed my generation, is very present."


Richard Baker

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

Richard Baker is a leading figure in the world of contemporary music: composer, conductor, teacher, mentor and artistic adviser. As a conductor, Baker works regularly with the leading composers and ensembles of our day. He has strong relationships with the London Sinfonietta, Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, Crash Ensemble and BIT20 Ensemble. He has conducted at many contemporary music festivals including hcmf// in Huddersfield and Ultraschall in Berlin, and is a regular collaborator for the BBC’s Total Immersion days, where he has directed portrait concerts of Stockhausen, George Crumb, James MacMillan, Jonathan Harvey, Oliver Knussen and Julian Anderson.