Q&A with Stephen Burns
How did you end up in Chicago?
It’s been a long voyage. I’ve lived in Boston, New York, and Paris. I've taught at Indiana University. I finally came to Chicago as artist in residence with Performing Arts Chicago (PAC). It’s been a fascinating process of experimentation and growth. When Susan Lipman at PAC invited me to design new programs of contemporary music I was intrigued by the possibility of creating new directions in classical music.
What is a “Fulcrum Point” anyway and what’s it have to do with classical music?
The fulcrum and lever are among the oldest tools of human civilization. In the physical world, when you want to move a massive object from its static position, like getting your car out of a rut, you place a wedge under or close to it and use a lever to get it unstuck. A fulcrum is that wedge and the fulcrum point is that balancing and leverage point.
As the name suggests, the Fulcrum Point New Music Project is the place where the torque, energy, and innovation of popular culture create a catalyst to advance the direction of classical music.
How do you explain to people the classical relevance of composers such as Duke Ellington, Jimi Hendrix and Frank Zappa?
Relevance? These were some of the most exceptional musicians in history and only recently have a new generation of composers begun to realize this and incorporate jazz, rock, Latin, and other popular music forms into the ongoing evolution of classical music.
Throughout the history of classical music, composers have mixed the folk and social music of their time. Bach and Mozart wrote dances that were supreme extrapolations of the dances popular with the aristocracy. The 18th and 19th century symphonies were filled with marches, dances, and popular songs of everyday life. Stravinsky and Bartok drew inspiration from their colloquial cultures, while Copland and Bernstein sourced jazz, Broadway, and country to give their music the flair and zest of America.
The goal of the Fulcrum Point New Music Project is to reintegrate classical music into everyday life.
What’s been your most memorable recent concert experience?
The most memorable recent concert experience was our "Blood on the Floor" performance at the Cook County Correctional Facility in 2004 when the ensemble performed Mark Anthony Turnage's ground-breaking work to 500 detainees while one of them read Langston Hughes' poem, "Junior Addict." The audience was completely absorbed by both the jazz-inspired elements and the more outrageous 'classical' parts. When the line in the poem "it's easier to get drugs than it is to get a job" was read, the entire audience erupted into shouts, applause, and cries of affirmation. Wow, what a life-changing experience for all of us.
What are your musical influences?
I’m a true eclectic. As a child of the 60’s and a teen of the ‘70’s I grew up reveling in rock, blues, funk and fusion. Having immersed myself throughout the past 33 years in the study and practice of classical music, the great composers from Bach to Mozart and Mahler, Bartok, Copland, Bernstein, and Stockhausen have inspired and informed my artistic view. At the same time I have always had a profound appreciation for Ellington, Miles, Billie Holliday, Monk, and all improvising musicians whether in jazz, blues, rock or world music. Tangentially I am greatly influenced by the new theater principles of Peter Brook and Robert Wilson. It was through their work that I developed a sensibility for context and the time/space relationship.
What inspires the programming of the Fulcrum Point New Music series?
Everything! Food, film, poetry, politics, dance, art, literature -- essentially life at the intersection of the visceral, spiritual, and intellectual. These three primal elements awaken a collective emotional response to our experiences and inspire a thematic or contextual structure. So, by taking fundamental ideas of birth, struggle and growth, celebration and death, marrying them to basic human arts of music, dance, art, literature--and now film and video -- we take the events in our life and create relationships that enhance both the elemental and cerebral.
How does the Fulcrum Point New Music Project differ from other classical music groups?
Context. We put new music in new contexts that make sense rather than imposing new music on a 19th century concert structure.
Do you have to be a classical music fan to enjoy Fulcrum Point music?
Absolutely not! The only thing you need is an open mind, curiosity, and a willingness to let go and use your imagination to go where you’ve never been before.
If money were no object, what sorts of programming/ performing changes would you make to your annual series?
We would commission more artists and create collaborative possibilities between musicians, artists, poets, and dancers. I’d extend the visual/aural components and upgrade the technological aspects of the performance to be state of the art and integrate more video, sound sculpture, recording and internet web-casting capability.
Ultimately I see Fulcrum Point as an actual place where the creative forces of improvised and composed music could come together with the other arts in a social context; a creative think-tank and performance space with a great restaurant, dance club, and galleries that offer unlimited possibilities to create and live life to its fullest.