It hadn’t been a great day for Kurt Baer, ’10. “Stuff just wasn’t going quite right,” he said.
Then he checked his email. There in his inbox was a message saying he’d been accepted into the Fulbright Scholar Program. His first thought was, “Oh, OK, this is no longer a bad day, apparently.”
The Fulbright award, one of the most prestigious honors supporting scholarly research, is the latest in a string of honors Baer has received in his life. The Terre Haute native entered State with a President’s Scholarship, the university’s highest academic honor for incoming high school students.
Baer will use the Fulbright grant to study in Thailand for 10 months beginning in September. However, the road to get to this point wasn’t clear cut.
As a freshman at State, Baer knew he wanted to study world music. He had the chance to explore several areas of music to find the direction that was right for him and developed an interest in ethnomusicology, the analysis of music from cultural and social aspects of the people who make the music, which became the subject of his doctoral study.
He entered State as a saxophone major. “He was very, very smart and very hard working,” said Brian Kilp, horn instructor and Baer’s advisor at State. “The saxophone studio’s usually pretty large, so it’s sort of competitive. He ended up being one of the major contributors in that area, but also, academically, he was a very strong student.”
The saxophone was pivotal in leading Baer to his Ph.D. dissertation and to the Fulbright program.
In 2009, Baer was part of a quartet invited to play at the World Saxophone Congress in Bangkok. “Our trip to Thailand just took him in a new direction,” said saxophone instructor Paul Bro.
The extra time allowed Baer to travel outside of Bangkok. He went to the northeast of Thailand and explored its music traditions and culture.
“We arranged for homestays for him,” Kilp said. Baer spent a week in three different cities staying with a family in each town, working with the local university and collaborating with students, Kilp explained.
During that stay, Baer honed his focus in ethnomusicology.
“One of the types of music that kept being played and that people kept talking about was ‘pong lang,’ ” Baer said. “It was one of the go-to representations of Northeastern Thai music.”
Pong lang music seeded Baer’s imagination, and he found it stayed with him as he graduated from State and headed to graduate school.
“As I was doing my master’s and Ph.D. research, I got really interested in music and tourism, and the ways that people use music to represent different places … their ideas of history and the past. And I just kept coming back to pong lang as a really nice example of that,” Baer said.
Pong lang music is viewed as both traditional and modern, a contrast that fascinates Baer.
“In that sense,” he said, “it’s kind of the same way with American bluegrass. A lot of really old connections, but the genre itself is very new, like from the ’50s and ’60s.”
That’s what Baer will be exploring during his Fulbright term in Northeast Thailand. He’s curious, not simply about examining the pong lang genre, but in studying how people frame the music, what they focus on and how they choose to talk about it.
That depth of curiosity is one thing Bro connects to Baer.
“I remember as a student he would come see me every day,” Bro said, “and always have some question for me. He was just very curious and somebody who just really loves to learn and likes being challenged.”
Beyond Baer’s recognition in music and academics, Kilp and Bro suggest that a key factor to future success in his career and in life is his personality.
“I think the interesting thing about him is just how unassuming he is,” Bro said.
“He’s such a friendly person,” Kilp said, “He has a big smile. He’s always positive. He’s a good collaborator.”
“Kurt was really fun to work with,” Bro said. “You never had to say anything twice to him. You’d say it once and he’s got it.” He added, “I think he was a good classmate. He was popular with the students. I know he helped students a lot.”
Kilp, who has traveled to Thailand multiple times since 2009, said that Baer is also very popular among the Thai people he’s met in Thailand. “I just came back from there two weeks ago … and they were all telling me how excited they were to see him again,” Kilp said.
Baer’s Thai friends and associates will also meet his bride Kassity. Their wedding date is set just weeks before the couple leaves for Asia.
“It’s a nice beginning,” Baer said. “Finishing my dissertation and getting married. It will be a really nice first adventure together.”
He’s excited about the trip, but said it’s still a little surreal. “I’m just really excited to get out there, get the work accomplished and see what it leads to when I come back.”