Balancing the Scales: Stephen Burns on Music, Otherness, and Inclusion

Stephen Burns discusses the mission of diversity behind "Fulcrum Point New Music Project."

By Rebecca Julie

Courtesy of Fulcrum Point New Music Project



February 6, 2017

On February 10, the Promontory will host Fulcrum Point New Music Project for The Black Composer Speaks: Exhortation! The performance will feature a world premiere by Chicago-based composer and Chicago Tribune “Chicagoan of the Year” Tomeka Reid as well as pieces by three generations of black composers, with a final free-jazz improv set by Kahil El’Zabar’s Ethnic Heritage Ensemble. Before the concert, Fulcrum Point’s Curator of Inclusion and Discoveries Seth Parker Woods will lead a discussion on making the music world more welcoming for musicians of all backgrounds. The evening is in keeping with Fulcrum Point’s continued dedication to promoting inclusivity in classical music; since its inception, the group has performed programs that feature composers from around the world. The Maroon sat down with Fulcrum Point’s Founder and Artistic Director Stephen Burns to talk about Friday’s concert, diversity in the arts, and “checking your privilege.”

Chicago Maroon: I noticed that Fulcrum Point performs in a wide variety of locations for a really wide variety of audiences. How do you approach making new music accessible to such a diverse array of listeners?           

Stephens Burns: I try to work with contextualization—putting people into a social, artistic, or aesthetic context so that they’re better able to understand the abstract music forms we present. For example, most people would be doing The Nutcracker and Handel’s Messiah in December. But when you’re talking about cutting-edge new music, the context that I’ve chosen for the holidays is peace on Earth and goodwill to all. In the past, we’ve put it in the context of peace between Arabs and Israelis, and other times it’s simply the idea that war and peace are extremes that we deal with year in and year out. In our upcoming concert, The Black Composer Speaks, we’re talking about celebrating the richness and diversity within the entire black diaspora.

CM: Was the choice to include three generations of black composers on the program a conscious effort, or was it the result of simply looking to include as many different types of composers as possible?

SB: Actually both. It’s male-female, old-young, gay-straight, Republican-Democrat…. Really, it is just a celebration of the brilliance and the varied perspectives from artists in this particular group.

CM: I also noticed that one of the artists on the program is former Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) President Kahil El’Zabar, who has played with artists from Dizzy Gillespie to Paul Simon. What is the collaboration with him going to look like for this concert?

SB: The fulcrum point is that leverage point, the tipping point, the kind of balancing as well as leveraging act that all art does. The AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians) is where classical, jazz, free-improv, and really complex composition all come together. Tomeka Reid, who is an extraordinary artist with a foot in both classical and jazz worlds, has written a new work for this concert, which is called “Present Awareness,” for a classical ensemble of seven musicians and a jazz trio, Kahil’s Ethnic Heritage Ensemble. The piece is through-composed, and yet there are sections that are improvised, so there will be moments where Kahil or I will be guiding the improvisations. That is really the culminating moment of the whole show.

CM: Speaking of improv, do you see a lot of overlap between the worlds of free jazz and new music? Where do you draw the line, in terms of genre, between those two? Both are so innovative.

SB: I don’t draw the line at all. Just as there is neo-classical, and minimalist, and modernist, and post-modernist in new music, there are improvisatory elements in the music of John Cage, and Milton Babbitt, and John Corigliano. So free improv is one of the languages or sound-worlds in the new music scene. This is where I find that “contemporary classical music” is an oxymoron that doesn’t include enough. That’s why I cast a wide net to really welcome creativity and exploration.

CM: I know that you were also one of the co-curators of the Ear Taxi Festival, and it seems like this idea of inclusivity and celebrating as wide a network of types of musical expression as possible was also the driving ideology behind the festival.

SB: Yes, although Ear Taxi did not have any free improv or jazz. It was governed by the grant we received from the Ditson Fund, and so Gusty [Augusta Read Thomas] and I decided that we would keep it to composed music as well as written and created sound installations. With New Music Chicago, which is an organization I founded 15 years ago, we plan to bring improv into the second iteration of Ear Taxi.

CM: I know Fulcrum Point started in 1998, and that Chicago is celebrated as one of the best cities for new music today. How have you seen new music evolve here?

SB: I think Ear Taxi Festival definitely put it on the map. When I was invited to start Fulcrum Point in 1998, it was basically an open invitation to curate a really broad range of new music and to create special events for Performing Arts Chicago. Back then there were really only a handful of new music organizations and most of them were academic or within the Chicago Symphony. New music was coming out of the old school of Pierre Boulez and Ralph Shapey, a very rich but narrow modernist tradition. In the last 15 years, a lot of Chicago schools have created new music ensembles. We now have over 25 new music organizations in Chicago that are coordinated by New Music Chicago, which incorporates presenters, composers, performing organizations, funders, supporters, and fans. When you look around the city now, there is so much going on in clubs and venues. It is a celebration of Chicago’s “can-do,” “let’s-make-it-work” mentality, and I think it will continue to grow because this is a city of innovation. This is a “maker community,” and new music is riding the crest of that wave.

CM: Do you see The Black Composer Speaks as an annual, ongoing series?

SB: It is definitely an ongoing series, and I think the most important aspect is the roundtable discussion that will happen before the performance. It is being hosted by Steve Bynum and will include Tomeka [Reid], our Curator of Inclusion and Discoveries Seth Parker Woods, Nathalie Joachim from Eighth Blackbird, and Sadie Woods, a DJ, artist, and promoter. The discussion will focus on how we as artists can create a more welcoming and open community, as well as opportunities for composers of all demographics.

At the discussions we had at the DuSable Museum last year, Seth Parker Woods was discussing things in terms of making this go beyond tokenism. The idea now is to expand the project beyond black composers and bringing inclusion to every program, from other perspectives. Otherness can be gender, otherness can be gender identification or ableness; there are all kinds of ways of looking at the world that have been traditionally excluded…. I think at a certain point it becomes too contrived if you say, “We are going to do an all-woman composer program or an all-black composer program.” Now we want to try contexts that are even richer, that are even more sophisticated than just black-white, male-female, straight-gay, or any kind of polarity, for that matter.

CM: And do you see roundtable discussions as key to this effort of creating inclusivity?

SB: This is about giving audience agency. Another project that is part of the Fulcrum Point Project that Seth Parker Woods is curating is a series called “Discoveries.” This is an audience-interactive experience where composers present their music and talk about their inspiration. The audience gets to give feedback and discuss the process, and then the performing musicians make suggestions and play the piece a second time. So the roundtable discussion is an opportunity for the audience to not just be observers, but to actually participate as active listeners and commentators. It is also for people to bring their perspective to this conversation about inclusion and accessibility in new music and in the performing arts.

One of the reasons I brought Seth on as curator is because everyone commented last year that within various organizations and the government, even, there are relatively few black administrators. So last year we brought him on and he has been crucial in shaping the conversation as well as programming. It is really a matter of putting our money where our mouth was. You can talk a good game about diversity, but if you don’t put people in positions of power and control then what is really going to change?

There needs to be a personal, an institutional and a societal acknowledgement of privilege that has come from 500 years of European-American blindness to our own prejudice. In the language of the movement, it’s called “checking your privilege,” and the arts are a catalyst for this. A fulcrum is like the jack you put under the car, but nothing gets done without putting the actual bar on the platform. The whole idea is that it’s a machine that only functions with a long lever. As Archimedes said, “Give me a long lever so I can put it on my fulcrum, and I can move the world.” For us, the platform is the Fulcrum Point Project and the leverages we are using are, in this case, the perspective of black composers and social action. In other cases it is aesthetics in art, architecture, food, dance, literature, and politics. We hope to continue finding ways of exploring our world through music and connecting people to that creative energy.