Music For Writers: Caleb Burhans’ Leap Of Faith


Thinner Air

“Between 1959 and 1960, Joe Kittinger went to the top of the atmosphere in a helium balloon three times and performed record-breaking sky dives.”

So what were you expecting composer Caleb Burhans to talk about? Music?

Actually, he is talking about music. His newly released Excelsior is named for Kittinger’s 1960 Project Excelsior.

What Burhans has done is set that almost-forgotten set of sky-high feats flying way-high again in a new work that cinches what some of today’s newest composition can do for writers.

This stuff can push an author right into a free-fall through his or her own best creative impulses.

When “Fearless Felix” Baumgartner set the record in October 2012 with his 24-mile descent, the Tampa-born Kittinger (then 84) was on the team: he was project Red Bull Stratos’ capsule communicator, directing Baumgartner. In fact, while Baumgartner broke many records, his free fall is reported to have come in 17 seconds short of Kittinger’s. The original jumper had held on to something, after all.

It turns out that Burhans had known of the Kittinger jumps for some time — even before Chicago’s adventurous Fifth House Ensemble approached him, wanting to commission a large work with a singer.

The U.S. Air Force created Project Excelsior in 1958 to test parachutes for their safety in high-altitude ejections. In at least one of his three jumps, Col. Joseph Kittinger lost consciousness. Of the third, Kittinger is quoted in a Wikipedia entry as saying, “Though my stabilization chute opens at 96,000 feet, I accelerate for 6,000 feet more before hitting a peak of 614 miles an hour, nine-tenths the speed of sound at my altitude.”

Baumgartner would go on to break the sound barrier on his own jump 52 years later, with Kittinger advising.

Burhans and his frequent collaborator, the electric guitarist Grey McMurray, thought the Kittinger jumps were “a pretty astonishing feat, especially since it was the closest anyone had been to space at that time” outside of a vehicle. Burhans and McMurray had talked about writing a song for their longstanding duo, itsnotyouitsme, “but this commission from Fifth House seemed like the perfect opportunity to write a large narrative about his third jump.”

Moxie Made Music

Fifth House Ensemble “asked if I had anyone in mind” for the vocal work, Burhans says. “I suggested my wife,” the soprano Martha Cluver, a member of the ensemble Roomful of Teeth and the Trinity Wall Street Choir.

Burhans was glad the ensemble agreed to use Cluver, “since I hadn’t composed a piece specifically for her since we started dating in 1998.” High time.

And an interesting side-note: those familiar with Burhans’ range of work will know that he sometimes sings counter-tenor. You might hear subtle influences on the line he’s written for Cluver reflective of this. The soprano’s chart here plays on the soft melancholy frequently associated with the ethereal quality of a good counter-tenor, though the vocal line is set in a higher range.

Asked if he’d like to add any instrumentalists to the piece, he asked to bring in McMurray.

And then there was the question of what Cluver would be singing.

“Martha had just returned from the Czech Republic,” Burhans says, “where she had performed Morton Feldman’s [1977] solo opera, Neither. The piece is an hour long and the only text is an eleven stanza poem by Samuel Beckett.

“I was intrigued by the idea that such a short amount of text could be used over such a large structure.

“Beckett’s text is also extremely esoteric,” Burhans says, “which got me thinking about a way to approach the piece. Rather than have a first person narrative, I collaborated with poet John Coletti to come up with almost an anti-libretto, of sorts. I asked that the text be short.”

Burhans also asked Coletti to write it “from the perspective of a celestial being, observing Kittinger from afar.”

What The Text Says

As Cluver sings Coletti’s libretto in performance, you understand only some of the words.

Remember, she is, in a sense, voicing an other-worldly entity watching Kittinger in his pressure suit jump from a 200-foot gondola and balloon more than 19 miles above the desert floor.

Coletti’s words, however, are a small marvel of distracted, radiant imagery, almost confusion, not quite coherence, on the part of an off-Earth mind trying to make sense of this human’s strange fall.

A single programmatic element appears, the parenthetical “(chute opens).”

All else, as Burhans wanted, is bracingly “esoteric”:


In broken crib. tape, your arm
rocked of moving &
closed it again
lacked so lowing
solid water all receiving
yellow elms scattered in mobile arrays
an antique light
come to staring ridge
of mercy. practicing simple breathing
beads of sweat, floating pupil
moth staggers goes out
slipping down bolt-shattered
eye trails. a hill of salt
snap to will (chute opens)
eleven cue balls misaligned
powdered by, switch
pillow, points, face-
cannot connect

If you’re a writer, it’s actually good if you can’t understand the words precisely as Cluver sings them. Read them now, let them settle in your mind before you try working to the music.

More about this shortly.

Playing With The Perception Of Time

And what novelist doesn’t, right? Composers, too. Burhans:

“The other thing that I wanted to do, musically, was play with the idea of the perception of time. Athletes often talk about time slowing down when they’re in the zone. I can only imagine that the four minutes and 36 seconds Kittinger was falling through the atmosphere felt much longer.”

He’s right. Another quote from Kittinger:

There’s no way you can visualize the speed. There’s nothing you can see, to see how fast you’re going. You have no depth perception. If you’re in a car driving down the road and you close your eyes, you have no idea what your speed is. It’s the same thing if you’re free-falling from space. There are no signposts. You know you are going very fast, but you don’t feel it. You don’t have a 614-mph wind blowing on you. I could only hear myself breathing in the helmet.

“With this in mind,” says Burhans, “the section where I imagine Kittinger falling from the sky is the slowest music, both rhythmically and harmonically and the following section, where he pulls his parachute is quite the opposite.”

There’s a superb, deep-stabbing piano element with Cluver’s lonely, watchful lead in the early part of the 31-minute Excelsior. But only after a spacious, floating progression — this slow section Burhans speaks of — does a suspenseful string sequence transform the tone of the piece, the percussion rising with pounding, unnerving clarity about the dangers rushing upward here.

Cluver counters the driving alarm of the cadence with a harrowing, soaring arc, the woodwinds chattering under them all, gorgeously nervous.

When performed, Burhans says, the ensemble uses archival imagery of Kittinger’s mission, corresponding with each section of the piece. The artwork used by Cedille Records for the CDs release captures a highly stylized moment in a tiny red-hot human’s descent toward a badly distressed planet.

Another era, another Icarus.

More To Come

I’m hoping to introduce you to a number of living composers whose work has special application to the needs of authors. Burhans is the first.

Briefly, what we’re talking about is sometimes called “contemporary classical” music — which sends everybody running out of the room, of course. But if you think of it as akin to the kind of scoring you hear in the best films today, you begin to realize that it’s not “classical” in the Old World sense of tuxes and Tchaikovsky. Instead, this music builds on the best of serious music’s legacy to throw a fierce, new, clear light on our lives today.

In many instances, it’s especially good work for professional creative writers to know.

I’d mentioned text and how Coletti’s libretto isn’t entirely understandable when you hear Cluver perform it. That’s not a shortcoming on her part, I should explain, but a feature of how Burhans purposely scans it to long, reaching lines of melody, the voice becoming part of the sonic space-scape of the piece.

And when writers use “pure” music to release emotional and intellectual resources for their work, that freedom from comprehensible text can be critical. An author at work probably wouldn’t enjoy having another writer standing in the room reciting his her her own words, right? So wordless, obfuscated texts — or those sung in a language the writer doesn’t know — are best if the music at hand isn’t entirely instrumental.

Burhans, born in Monterey and based in New York City, is one of the most prominent of the new, international group of powerful composers working this “contemporary classical” field today.

One of the things he shares with many of them is that he’s a performing composer: he’s a highly regarded violinist and violist with many ensembles; also a guitarist, pianist, and singer. This is a key trait for many of these composers: they write as performance artists.

And that keeps their inspirations very close to what will become their delivery. Like authors who write with reading aloud in mind, these are player-composers, many of them remarkably willing to challenge their own chops onstage in the difficulty of what they write for themselves.

The resource I recommend writers use to familiarize themselves with this kind of musical support is the free 24-hour Internet stream of Q2 Music, a service of New York’s WQXR dedicated entirely to these living composers and their work.

There’s a recent review by Daniel Stephen Johnson there of the Fifth House Ensemble release of Burhans’ Excelsior, as a matter of fact, along with other work on the album including music of Alex Shapiro (Perpetual Spark), Jesse Limbacher (Air), and Mason Bates (Red River). The full 64-minute release is excellent for writers.

In late August, in fact, the CD was featured at Q2 free as its Album of the Week. New releases of this kind are part of Q2’s programming, as are occasional 24-hour marathons on themed collections — the latest on emerging women composers.

More to come on living composers’ work that’s especially good for writers’ needs. For now, Burhans’ Excelsior is fast drop into some of the most interesting music of this kind being created and performed today.

While my interest here is in talking with composers to explore their work’s potential influence and impact on writers, our colleague Roz Morris, a novelist based in London, has a weekly feature you may enjoy, Undercover Soundtrack, that presents authors talking about music’s relationship to their work. Morris and I co-wrote the first installment almost three years ago. Fittingly, my focus then was on Burhans’ Amidst Neptune.