CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — The Sousa Archives and Center for American Music at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign will host a special showing of the 1930 silent film “Borderline” with the premiere of a new music score by composer Renee Baker, performed by the Chicago Modern Orchestra Project.
The performance at 3 p.m. Feb. 24 at Foellinger Auditorium, 709 S. Mathews Ave., Urbana, and Baker’s visit are part of the center’s recognition of Black History Month. The center will screen a second silent movie, “The Scar of Shame,” at 7 p.m. Feb. 25 at the Independent Media Center, 202 S. Broadway Ave., Urbana. Baker also composed a new score for that film.
Both film screenings are free and open to the public. Following each film screening, Baker will talk about her work on the movies and her interest in creating new film scores for historical silent films.
Baker – who spent a week last fall as an artist-in-residence at the University of Illinois – is a composer of more than 2,000 works that include symphonies, ballets, operas and film scores. She works in a variety of genres including classical, jazz, blues and new music.
Baker is the founding director of the Chicago Modern Orchestra Project, which performs contemporary music and music from new, emerging composers, as well as new scores for silent and experimental films. She was the principal violist for the Chicago Sinfonietta for 25 years. Baker is also a visual artist, an author of graphic novels and a filmmaker.
She debuted her multimedia neo-opera “The Baldwin Chronicles: Midnight Ramble” at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s Black History Month Celebration on Feb. 16 with the Chicago Modern Orchestra Project. It is the second part of a trilogy based on the works of James Baldwin. Baker wrote the music and libretto, and the production uses her artwork and video.
“Race is one of the few issues you have to come at in a nonconfrontational way. This is a societal issue,” Baker said in an interview with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association.
The Sousa Archives and Center for American Music began exploring the topic of race and identity with special exhibits last fall, and the film screenings continue that conversation, said Scott Schwartz, its director and an archivist for music and fine arts.
“We continue as a country to wrestle with these same issues. We need to use the arts to start conversations about these very difficult topics of race and identity,” Schwartz said.
The rarely screened “Borderline” deals with interracial relationships and is known for its experimental filmmaking techniques. It stars Paul Robeson – a concert singer and actor – and his wife Eslanda Robeson, who attended the University of Illinois from 1912-16.
“The Scar of Shame” is a 1927 melodrama with a black cast and an interracial production team. The story deals with class conflict and racial identity.
Baker will be on campus for three days, meeting with students in music, cinema studies and the athletic bands. She also will work with students at Urbana’s King Elementary School, using storytelling and music improvisation to enable the students to creatively express themselves as individuals and as a community.