Caleb Burhans Delivers Melancholic Stillness with Punk-Rock Bravado

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Caleb Burhans clearly has a sense of purpose. As a founding member of various performer collectives like Alarm Will Sound and Newspeak – and with his contributions as a composer to several projects on the New Amsterdam and Cantaloupe labels – any casual observer might easily be able to identify the string-player/vocalist as an important part of the contemporary classical scene in New York.

But there’s more to the mission than that. Look beyond his discography and performance calendar, and you’ll find more evidence of Burhans’s activism. In a 2008 New York Times profile, Allan Kozinn noted how the the young composer-performer once reacted to some orchestra trash-talk by adopting the motto “I make a mockery of classical music.”

The phrase, uttered about Burhans in all sincerely by a fellow player who took exception to his then-current hairstyle (purple-dyed), became a motto. (“I’m just trying to help classical music, because if we don’t get more people like me coming to these concerts, this orchestra is going to die,” Burhans recalled telling the ensemble’s managing director.)

A little fatalistic? Perhaps. Yet what’s most interesting about Burhans’s composed works is how open and inviting is his sense of radicalism (and/or doom). While you might expect a proponent of new looks to be an inveterate envelope-pusher, there is an exalted place for the quiet and the serene in his composed pieces.

Even when drawing from the minimalist-riff tradition, Burhans’s intent is not to overwhelm the listener with displays of raw repetitive power. (Often as not, as on pieces like No for the Roomful of Teeth vocal ensemble, the arpeggios serve as clean backdrops for a lead melodic line.) Even when the aimed-for peace of a Burhans work is disturbed by dynamic or tempo shifts (as in the piece Keymaster for the Janus ensemble), or by an overarching sadness (as in his Requiem for a General Motors in Janesville, WI, written for Newspeak), there is a guiding sense of calm.

Burhans rarely leaves us in the worst possible place; as much as possible in a given circumstance, his music feels restorative and capable of comfort. That doesn’t mean skirting the less attractive feelings; the title of his third record with Grey McMurray, with whom he plays in the band itsnotyouitsme, was Everybody’s Pain is Magnificent, after all.

And while there’s always a risk of a tongue-in-cheek meaning, coming from Burhans, it’s easy to credit that album-title as a statement reflective of his musical practice: as though it were another one of his mottos, suggesting an interest in using music as a way to both define and honor the contours of an interiority that may sometimes be given to bouts of pessimism.