Trumpeter / Conductor  Stephen  Burns

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Conductor, trumpet virtuoso, and composer Stephen Burns has been acclaimed on four continents for his consistently and widely varied performances encompassing recitals, orchestral appearances, chamber ensemble engagements, and innovative multi-media presentations involving video, dance theatre, and sculpture. Prof. Burns is the founder and Artistic Director of the Fulcrum Point New Music Project in Chicago. He co-curated with Augusta Read Thomas the 2016 Ear Taxi Festival of Contemporary Music in Chicago, and is founding president of its sponsor New Music Chicago. 

He began his studies at the age of ten and made his professional debut at the age of 14 performing the Handel Aria “Let the Bright Seraphim” with coloratura soprano Elizabeth Phinney. At 19 he won the concerto competition at The Juilliard School, performing the Jolivet Concertino at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall. In 1981 he was the first solo trumpeter to win the Young Concert Artists International Auditions resulting in debut performances at The Kennedy Center, Carnegie Hall, and The Hollywood Bowl. In 1988 he won First Prize at the Maurice André International Competition for Trumpet in France, which brought him numerous international engagements, including national television appearances and tours of Europe, Asia, South America and the United States. 

Burns has performed in the major concert halls of New York, Boston, Washington DC, Los Angeles, Houston, Vancouver, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Paris, and Venice.  He has performed at the White House and has appeared on NBC’s “Today Show” and NPR’s “All Things Considered.”  His European tours have taken him to Italy, France, Spain, Finland, Germany, Holland, Portugal, and Switzerland for guest appearances with orchestras, as well as recitals and performances on radio and television.  On tour in the Far East he won rave reviews, which singled out his remarkable tone, musicianship, and technical facility.  Throughout his career he has appeared with many leading international orchestras including the Atlanta Symphony under Neeme Järvi, The Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra under Iona Brown, The Ensemble Orchestral de Paris, The Arturo Toscanini Orchestra of Parma, the Japan National Philharmonic, Seattle Symphony under Gerard Schwarz, and a United States tour with the Leipzig Kammerorkester.  His recital programs often feature his own transcriptions of Falla’s El Amor Brujo, Prokofiev’s Lt. Kijé, and Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, the latter scored for trumpet, cornet, flugelhorn, piccolo trumpet, bass trumpet, and piano.

In 1998 Burns was invited to create innovative new music programs as the Artist in Residence with Performing Arts Chicago.  In the process he created the Fulcrum Point New Music Project, and the American Concerto Orchestra whose mission it is to champion New Art Music influenced and inspired by Pop culture, World Music, literature, film, art, theatre, dance, nature, politics, and social dynamics. The annual peace concerts have been held at the Holtschneider Performance Center at DePaul University, Holy Name Cathedral, Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park, and The Harris Theater for Music and Dance. These concerts have featured MacArthur fellow Vijay Iyer, members of the Gyoto Tantric Monks, and The Ju.Ju Exchange with Julian Reid and Nico Segal. 

A conducting student of Jorma Panula, Gerard Schwarz and Pinchas Zukerman, Burns often appears as both soloist and conductor with orchestras performing repertoire ranging from the Second Brandenburg Concerto of Bach, and Haydn’s E-Flat major Concerto, to works by Copland, Shostakovitch and André Jolivet.  He has performed this dual role with the Santa Barbara Chamber Orchestra, the Simon Bolivar Orquesta, the Orquesta da Camera del Tachira, the Sea Cliff Chamber Orchestra, and the American Concerto Orchestra. As a guest conductor he has performed with the Aspen Music Festival, the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, the Orquesta Sinfonica Castilla y León, the Ravinia Festival, and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s “Music NOW” series in Millennium Park.

The founding president of New Music Chicago, Burns has given numerous premieres by American composers including Ned Rorem, David Stock, Gunther Schuller, Robert Rodriguez, and Philip Glass, as well as international names such as Karl-Heinz Stockhausen, Franck Amsellem, Somei Satoh, and Aulis Sallinen.  Committed to new music, Burns has written for trumpet, electronic music, chamber music and symphony orchestra. In 2007 he was commissioned by the Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago to write the electro-acoustic version of Reveille, “Wake Up, Y’all” as part of the Allora/Calzadilla installation “Wake Up.” “Fanfare for Humanity” was commissioned by the Chicago Humanities Festival for the 2003 opening Gala. His composition “Reflections,” a work created in collaboration with choreographer Ruby Shang, was performed around the Henry Moore reflecting pool at Lincoln Center in 1989.  At the request of Pipa virtuoso Yang Wei, Burns wrote the incidental music to “Cat and Rat: the Legend of the Chinese Zodiac” as part of the Children’s Humanities Festival in Chicago. He is currently composing “Phalanx,” a multi-media work based upon American military musical themes.

Burns is a frequent guest artist at many prestigious summer festivals including Aspen, Santa Fe, Kuhmo, Tanglewood, Mostly Mozart, Spoleto, Caramoor, Lieksa, Ravinia, Grand Canyon, Moab, Estate Musicale St. Cecilia, and Divonne les Bains. His recordings include Telemann for Trumpet with the American Concerto Orchestra, on Dorian, The Complete Sonatas for Brass by Paul Hindemith on Helicon, The Complete Brandenburg Concerti with Helmuth Rilling on Haenssler Classics, and Trumpet Voluntary on ASV records.  He has also recorded for Kleos, Musical Heritage Society, Delos, Classical Masters, Ess.ay, and Grammavision.

Originally from Wellesley Hills, Massachusetts, Burns studied under Armando Ghitalla, Gerard Schwarz, Pierre Thibaud, and Arnold Jacobs at the Tanglewood Music Center, the Julliard School (BM/MM 1981-82), as well as in Paris and Chicago for post-graduate studies.  He has won many prestigious awards including the Young Concert Artists International Auditions, Avery Fisher Career Grant, the National Endowment for the Arts Recitalist Grant, the Naumburg Scholarship at Juilliard, “Outstanding Brass Player” at Tanglewood, the Maurice André Concours International de Paris, and the Helen Colburn Meier and Tim Meier Arts Achievement Award.  

Sought after internationally for master classes, Burns is on faculty at the DePaul University School of Music, a certified teacher of The Art of Practicing and Performing Beyond Fear, a visiting lecturer at Northwestern University, visiting lecturer with the Amici della Musica Firenze, Italy, and a former tenured Professor of Music at Indiana University. Burns is a Yamaha performing artist.

==  Biography edited from the DePaul University website  
==  Names which are  links in this box and below refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.  BD  

In March of 1998, Burns was in Chicago for a concert with the American Concerto Orchestra at Holy Name Cathedral.  While setting up to record our conversation, the chit-chat turned to the church with its large acoustical space . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:   Is it good to play trumpet in a cavern?

Stephen Burns:   It’s always nice to play trumpet in a cavern, that’s for sure.  It has wonderful resonance.

BD:   Do you like taking advantage of solid walls in churches for the reverberation, especially with a brass instrument?

Burns:   The tradition of playing brass instruments in churches goes all the way back thousands of years.  The trumpets have been used ceremonially in the sacraments, and in masses and motets supporting the vocal lines.  It’s always nice to play in this kind of acoustic, and believe me, the acoustic in this cathedral is just spectacular.
BD:   I assume that you take advantage of acoustics wherever you can?

Burns:   It’s an interesting thing about acoustics in terms of traveling around the country and around the globe.  Each country has its own approach.  Many American concert halls can be multifunctional, so they can be drier, whereas the European halls have a lot more ambient sound.  The older American halls have lots of resonance.  In a city like Chicago, there is Symphony Center, which is a wonderful, wonderful hall.  Then there is a gap in terms of a medium-size hall.  Everybody complains that there’s no medium-size hall in Chicago, so what are we going to do?  People improvise, and they use churches and spaces like that.  One of my goals is to explore all the wonderful different architecture in Chicago, and find really unique locations to do concerts.  We will take the concert out of the concert hall, and bring it to the people, and exploit Chicago’s tremendous architecture.

BD:   You’re going to be in Chicago quite often?

Burns:   My hope is to take this project and develop it slowly over the next years, and find out where people are in terms of music in general
especially new musicto find out what the community’s taste is, and how I can bring something new to it, and help people come to grips with new music.  A lot of times, people feel that modern music is ugly, it’s aggressive, it’s invasive, and I’m trying to encourage musicians and composers to try to dip into jazz and blues and popular art forms, and find elements that can be exploited in a classical way because it sounds nice.  It’s what composers have always done.  If you think about a Beethoven bagatelle, and a Chopin polonaise, and Bach suites, and Mahler symphonies, and Strauss tone poems, all kinds of folk musics are quoted or stolen.

BD:   I usually have to wait a while before asking this, but since you’ve brought it up, what is the purpose of music?

Burns:   That’s a huge question.  Music is a key to touch the very essence of who we are.  It is a way of getting in touch with our emotions, and of liberating ourselves from the four-square rigidity of commuting and working every day in a prescribed way.  Music has a way of challenging our senses, because you can’t close your ears, the way you can say that you don’t like this painting, so you’ll turn and walk away.  You can’t say you don’t like this sound...

BD:   [Laughs]  It’s just there.

Burns:   Right.  It’s there, so it can really, really get to the core of feeling.

BD:   Does that mean that music, by nature, is invasive?

Burns:   No, I really don’t think it’s invasive.  Music is penetrating.  Depending on the style, and the feelings, and what it’s doing in the context, it can be invasive, but other times it can be soothing.  It’s like taking a bath.  Sometimes a nice warm bath is really nice, and sometimes you step in and it is just that little bit too hot.  You can’t quite get yourself down in there, but you know it’s good for your muscles, and you sink in and enjoy the whole thing.  [Both laugh]  Or, it can be cold, and it can save you from hypothermia.  I lived in New York for eighteen years, and when I was a student at Juilliard I moved one summer, and I shared an apartment, a flat, in Brooklyn.  It was one of these devilish hot summers of one-hundred degrees, and I was walking the streets at night, and I would come home and fill the bathtub full of water, ice, and beer.  I would sit there, and I would practice my trumpet, and drink beer, and just chill, literally.  Was that absolutely refreshing freezing cold bath invasive?  It could have been, but in that context, it’s just what I needed.

BD:   In this context, what is not music?

Burns:   Very little.  I have incredibly liberal parameters when it comes to what is music.  Something like Stomp, the Broadway sensation from Britain, is music on a fundamental level.  It’s dance, it’s theater, but the essence of that sound is rhythm.  As a child, one of my jobs was mowing the lawns around the neighborhood.  At the time we needed money, and the drone of the lawnmower, as it changed pitch going through heavier grass or lighter grass, created this kind of ground bass.  I would sing along with this, and I would try to get into the overtones.  That was music for me.

BD:   This seems like your own version of Ballet Mécanique!

Burns:   [Laughs]  George Antheil was not completely out of his mind.  There are lots of ways of looking at things.

Ballet mécanique is Antheil's most famous—or notorious—piece. At its various premieres, it caused tremendous controversy, not to mention fistfights. Although it was very successful in Paris, it was a huge flop when it came to New York, and in fact Antheil's career as a "serious" composer never recovered from that debacle.

The piece was originally supposed to be a soundtrack to a film of the same name by the French Dadaist painter Fernand Léger and cinematographer Dudley Murphy. But Antheil and the filmmakers worked separately from each other, and when they finally put the music and the film together, they realized they didn't work at all -- for one thing, the music was twice as long as the film. A new version of the film, with—finally—Antheil's music, had its premiere on May 5, 2001.

Ballet mécanique is a highly rhythmic, often brutalistic piece combining, among other elements, sounds of the industrial age, atonal music, and jazz. Its instrumental parts are extremely difficult to play, and it lasts, in its various versions, between 14 and 30 minutes.

Antheil wrote several versions of the piece. The very first, written in 1924 calls for 16 player pianos playing four separate parts, four bass drums, three xylophones, a tam-tam, seven electric bells, a siren, and three different-sized airplane propellors (high wood, low wood, and metal), as well as two human-played pianos.

Until the 1990s, this version of the piece had never been performed in its original instrumentation, since the technology for linking and synchronizing multiple player pianos, whether 4 or 16, although theoretically possible when Antheil conceived the piece, turned out not to be practical. The European-based Ensemble Moderne was the first to attempt the piece: in 1996 and 1999, they performed it in Germany and France using two custom-modified MIDI-driven player pianos to play the 16 parts, and six pianists to play the two human parts.

In response to the technical difficulties, Antheil quickly re-arranged the piano parts, changing the orchestration to include an unspecified multiple of two conventional pianos and a single player piano. This version was performed, using 10 human-played pianos, in Paris in 1926 and in an extremely ill-fated concert at New York's Carnegie Hall in 1927, where it created such a fiasco--technically, musically, and sociologically--that it was not performed again for over 60 years. In 1989 it was revived by conductor Maurice Peress for a performance at Carnegie Hall, and at that time received its first and only recording.


See my interviews with Carlos Surinach, and Henry Brant

In 1953, after he had established himself as a film composer in Hollywood, Antheil again revised the piece, using a very different ensemble of four pianos, four xylophones, two electric bells, two propellors, timpani, glockenspiel, and assorted percussion. This version, which is much tighter and shorter than the early versions, is performed fairly often and has been recorded several times.

Today, however, we have the technology to perform the piece with its original instrumentation, and it has now been done several times.

==  Text (only) from the Antheil website  


antheil \



[Portions of three reports of this event]

Lukas Hellerman of musikFabrik, the performing ensemble:

It went very well! The audiences were enthusiastic (two performances, around 900 people attended each). The propellers and the bell array worked fine, as well as our xylophone configuration and the drums (spread over the whole 22m of the stage, each with different instruments for the 'tone heights' of the score). It was great fun for the 15 percussionists!

Horst Mohr, player-piano builder:

On Saturday, August 17th, there was a wonderful performance of George Antheil's "Ballet Mécanique" in a hall of the old coal mine "Zeche Zollverein", now devoted to world cultural heritage (WeltKulturErbe). It was the climax and finish of a series of more than 60 concerts in 9 weeks: "Klavierfestival Ruhr", the world's greatest piano festival. Art director (künstlerischer Leiter) Franz Xaver Ohnesorg (now Intendant of the Berlin Philharmonics) devoted this festival to America: 18 of the 88 performing artists came from the USA and Leon Fleisher, famous American pianist, conductor and teacher was given an award for his life work. The Ballet was realized in the version Antheil had intended to perform in 1927 in Carnegie Hall. Conductor Dennis Russell Davies stands for precision and authenticity. Four hand-played grands, 16 pianolas, much percussion with bells, siren and 3 propellers - all without any electronic sound.

The preparation took nearly a year. Three propeller machines and a set of bells had to be built. About 100,000 notes and accents were transformed into MIDI files, almost all by Dr. Jürgen Hocker, who was in charge of musicological and computer care and control for this concert. The Yamaha Disklavier uprights were collected from all over the country. 14 Disklaviers were positioned in two rows. Dr. Hocker's two Ampico grands stood in front, with the four hand-played grands beside. The percussion instruments were on a long platform above the pianolas. The controlling computer was situated together with the lighting controls on a desk in the auditorium.

Very impressive also was the lighting: one spot for each piano and one for every musician. Colored lights illuminated the different phases of the music: for example, when the uprights were playing alone, all other lights were dimmed and only the long row of the uprights' white hammers shone in the darkness, performing chromatic clusters. The synchronization was perfect and the huge chords sounded absolutely together - no trace of fast arpeggios. By the end, the light became bright in the hall and also came in from outside, as the whole building was illuminated. The applause and stamping were overwhelming, and even the many VIPs from the worlds of culture, politics and business clapped hands. George Antheil would have been satisfied! (Thanks to the Mechanical Music Digest for permission to use this material)

Dr. Jürgen Hocker, player-piano expert and programmer extraordinaire:

Finally all went well with the Ballet Mécanique. The performances were absolutely great and the sound was really perfect!! We had two performances, because the first performance sold out months ago, and so the organizer planned a second performance at 11.00 pm the same day. The preparations were extremely difficult. There were different files needed for the [Ampico] player pianos and the different types of Disklaviers, and Dennis Russell Davies wanted many tempo and dynamic changes during the piece. For example, since he didn't want any amplification, then to hear the live pianists, the player pianos had to play fairly soft, but only when the live pianists were playing. Other times, the player pianos usually played with full power. Davies tried a proper balance between all the instruments, and I think he succeeded. But during the rehearsals there arose a lot of problems. At one point six of the Yamaha pianos stopped playing. What happened? They were all connected on one cable spool, and the spool got so hot a fuse cut off the current. Also, during a pause in the piece one of the Disklaviers begun to play a jazz piece!! Why? Someone forgot to get out the [setup] disc from the piano. And nobody knows how it began to play the disc. Another shock: During the rehearsal only eight Disklaviers played to the finish. Why? We had two run-throughs of the whole piece (27 minutes each), and this was too much for the Disklaviers. They got hot and switched off!! As we had two and a half days of rehearsals, we were able to get familiar with all the possibilities for failure, and the performance was great. They had a spotlight for each piano and for each musician. They built three propellers and a bell arrangement with maybe ten different bells. We didn't use the Schirmer files [Dr. Hocker created his own files some years ago], but we used the click track (even that was slightly modified).

==  Text and images from the Antheil website  

BD:   Are you someone that makes music out of everything, or do you stay with the trumpet and the regular acoustic instruments, and the acoustics of the hall?

Burns:   I’ve done some work with electronic music.  I’ve written pieces for a trumpet with electronics, and on small ensembles I’ve done some composing for dance companies.  The electronics help out a lot, using tape like an artist where you make a sculpture out of sound items.  I’ve sampled sounds and created works using those samples, but primarily as a performer, I’m interested in discovering the way acoustic sounds work.  That hasn’t been exhausted yet.

BD:   Are you still discovering new things you can find on your trumpet?

Burns:   Every day.  Every day is a journey.  I teach at Indiana University, and with my students we discover new things.  It’s really so important to keep that fresh discovery outlook.  Classically I’ve learned almost all the repertoire, and really enjoy playing it, and continue to play as I branch out into conducting and different projects.  One of my projects
which I gave myself as a thirtieth birthday present eight years agowas to learn how to play jazz.  I grew up playing a little bit in the big band in high school, but it wasn’t serious jazz.  Then through my teens and twenties, I concentrated seriously on the classical art.  I love jazz and all the extended ranges it has, but I never really practiced it.  It is an exhaustive art form, so the last eight years I’ve been studying jazz, and I’ve been practicing and I’ve been working on it.
BD:   Has studying jazz been a help to the classical?

Burns:   You bet, because the ear-training for a jazz musician is far stricter than the training for a classical musician.

BD:   Is it classical training over the jazz styles?

Burns:   Good question.  Classical helps the jazz in extending the harmonic language.  Where it’s completely different is in the act of making the music.  In playing Baroque music, I improvise my ornaments, and in playing classical music I’ll improvise cadences.  There is a certain improvisatory spirit about playing any classical piece, where you’re changing dynamic articulations and interacting with the musicians.  It’s all very spontaneous however it’s all written, whereas when you’re playing a solo over chord changes, it’s spontaneous composition.

BD:   You really have to feel it?

Burns:   You really have to feel it.  The way jazz swings is different from the way classical music swings.  Classical music swings heavy, but it’s a different language, so it takes a long time to learn.

BD:   Is it right to expect an audience
or even a performerto understand all of these languages?

Burns:   I don’t expect them, I invite them.  Is it right to expect Americans to speak Italian, German, Spanish, and French when they’re in Europe?  Why not try it?  It’s not so much a strict hard-and-fast rule, but the world is so rich.  It’s such an amazing place with such incredible opportunity, and an art form like jazz or the blues has such depth and such real emotion and real impact.  The complexities of playing those forms are such that they will definitely carry over into playing any other kind of music.  So, why not?  It’s just taste, so feast at the table of music and find out what you can discover.

BD:   Is that the first thing that you do

Burns:   That’s one of the things.  At the first lesson I ever had with one of my conducting teachers in New, he said that our job as conductors is to invite the musicians to play.  It’s what I teach my students.  In terms of when we walk on stage and bow to the audience, it is an invitation to listen, and at the same time an acknowledgment of respect and appreciation to them for coming.  It’s really bringing ourselves to the spot where we are all taking in the music.  Yes, it’s coming out of the musicians, but we’re hearing it, and feeling it just as much, and it’s just as compelling and scary.  There are many pieces that people like, and there are many pieces that people don’t like, but musicians feel it as much as anyone.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Do you have enough repertoire?  For instance, violinists and pianists have such a huge number of works from which to choose...

Burns:   ...yes, and I think that’s part of their problem.  [Both laugh]  Really though, if you think about it, you could spend your life and never exhaust the piano repertoire that was written just in the nineteenth century, let alone going before or after that.

BD:   Can you exhaust the trumpet repertoire?

Burns:   Not if we continue to create pieces.

BD:   Can you exhaust the existing repertoire?

Burns:   Not the existing repertoire, because in a performance or interpretation, we’re recreative musicians, and we’re interpretive musicians.  That whole process changes with your station in life.  I play Haydn, Bach, Mozart, and all the classics like Telemann and Vivaldi, and I play them differently now than when I was eighteen or nineteen or twenty years old.

BD:   This is talking about exhausting a piece of music.  I was wondering about getting through the whole repertoire.

Burns:   In terms of the twentieth century, it’s really impossible to get through the entire repertoire.  You can limit yourself, though.

BD:   It seems that you have a lot of repertoire in the Baroque period, and maybe the Classic period, and then you jump to the twentieth century with this big gaping hole in the middle.

Burns:   There we use transcriptions.  [Laughs]

BD:   But if you get real pieces written for real trumpets early and now, why do you want to bother with transcriptions?

Burns:   There is some great music written for trumpet, but there are some great pieces that were written for other instruments that adapt very, very well.  I just finished a transcription of the Lieutenant Kijé Suite for trumpet and piano, with optional percussion if one has the resources available.  I’ve done Pictures at an Exhibition, and El Amor Brujo.  I’ve done a number of transcriptions.  I’m working on a transcription of the Fifth Symphony of Mahler for trumpet and organ.  He did a piano reduction, and an organ gives you that many more colors than even a piano.  A great pianist probably can challenge that idea...

BD:   Then, of course, there
s the larger range of the organ.

Burns:   Yes, and then there are the two extra appendages [the feet on the pedalboard].  Then you add the trumpet to it, and I also use bass trumpet, flugelhorn, cornet, E flat trumpet, and piccolo trumpet.  Then, I have a dozen mutes.  So, with all these colors, if you close your eyes and listen, you would swear that there are three or four people playing all those instruments.

BD:   I would think that will be fascinating.

Burns:   It is.  It’s really fun.  It’s exciting, and it’s really great music.

BD:   There’s a lot of music now being written for the trumpet.  Do you have any advice for the composer who wants to write for the top brass instruments?

Burns:   Usually, what I try to ask them to do is discover all the sides of the trumpet that are possible.  My approach is it tends to be more lyrical.  I never have professed to being the world’s greatest trumpet player.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  Oh, why not???

Burns:   [Laughs]  Because there are a lot of people out there who play the trumpet like Paganini, but they don’t necessarily have the interpretive skills of a Paganini.  The trumpet is still pretty far behind to the violin, or the piano, just in terms of our abilities to play incredibly difficult music, and then interpret it on such a high level the way a great violinist or a great pianist would.  That’s what I strive to do, and so I ask composers to write not only for the strong brazen trumpet, but also for the lyrical singing aspect.  I invite them to discover all the different musical colors that can be done there, and by changing the instruments.

BD:   Do you expect each composer to write all of that into each composition?

Burns:   It depends on the composer.  Everybody has their own language, and everybody has their own approach.  I give them the option.  I’ve commissioned pieces by minimalist composers, by avant-garde composers, serious works beyond twelve-tone music, as well as pieces by neo-romantic Americans of the younger generation.

BD:   Do you find all of these styles valid?

Burns:   Oh, I think so, definitely.  I do a lot of artist-outreach in the communities, where I talk about music and play examples, and we do a certain amount of interaction with the audience.  I’ve boiled music down to song, dance, and silence, or song, dance, and space or atmosphere, which is silence.  It’s the intangible part of music.  There are pieces that are really wonderful that only express space.

BD:   More than just the antiphonal music of Gabrielli, which takes advantage of the open space?
Burns:   Yes, but then there’s the absolute expression of space.  For me, all music has all three of these things, and great music has some sort of rhythmic energy that engages us physically, which is dance.  It can be a 5/8 march, like the Royal March in Stravinsky
s Soldier’s Tale, or it can be that wonderful four-note hymn in Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.  That engages immediately with rhythmic vitality.  But for me, the magic lies in the space between the first two gestures.  [Sings the famous opening phrases, as shown at right.]  That space in between those two gestures should strike fear, joy, pain, ecstasy, all possible emotions in that moment.  Where musicians falter most often is when they forget about space.  They don’t hold the space, and they don’t express it.  They just play the notes really great, with wonderful virtuosity.  But for me, those silences are where the hair on the back of my neck stands up.

BD:   Is that your advice to students
to also play the rests?

Burns:   You bet.  We talk about the fact that music is three dimensions in terms of sound being spherical.  A lot of times in the trumpet you get a pointed, penetrating sound, or sometimes perhaps a too-forceful sound.  We’re always talking about getting a round sound, and then if we want the articulation to be better, we think about it being a sphere.

BD:   Do you ever think about using a
singing tone?

Burns:   Sure.  Always.  That’s the first thing.  In fact, that’s one of the basic practice techniques
play it, then sing it, then play it, then sing it, then play it and sing it again.

BD:   Should brass players take a voice lesson or two?

Burns:   It won’t hurt them.  It’s not so much how well you sing, it’s what feeling you get when you sing.  Like anything else, it’s not so much what you say, it’s how you say it.

BD:   Is it also about understanding the vocal mechanism?

Burns:   No, it’s more about really, really awakening your singing heart, awakening the inspiration to just open your mouth and sing.  Pick up your instrument and it flows out with all the force, and all the gentleness, and all the expression that the composer asks for.  It is your participation in that, because there’s only so much that’s on the written page.  Then the interpretative artist has to bring their own experience, and their own feelings, and their own vital juices to that process.  If they don’t, it will be boring.  People always talk about how classical music is boring.  No, classical musicians might be boring, but the music is not boring.  A lot of times people can get into a grind, and what I try to do as a musician is act as a catalyst.

BD:   Is every piece of music that has been written not boring?

Burns:   Oh no, there’s been some bad music written.

BD:   Is it up to you to sort it all out, and only play the best music, and leave the rest?

Burns:   No.  Especially, as you pointed out, my repertoire on the trumpet is fairly limited, so I don’t let anything go.
BD:   You have to make it not be boring?

Burns:   Yes.  For example, there’s a wealth of repertoire written for trumpet by Hindemith.  Some of it is very strong, like the Sonata for Trumpet and Piano, and some of it is rather weak.  It’s almost simply theoretical.  I search for the relationship of pitches and rhythms, so we can really, really express the unique character of each rhythmic sequence or pitch intervallic sequence.  Even if you were to change a half-step, the difference between playing a major second and a minor second in a passage changes the feeling entirely.

BD:   That will throw it all off.

Burns:   It throws it all off, or creates a new space.  For instance, if you think about Pictures at an Exhibition, you’ve got the noble opening introduction, but later, just before another of the images, the woodwinds come in and play the same melody but with narrower intervals.  He changes it into minor, so it’s a whole new space, it’s a whole new feeling, it’s a whole new way of playing it.  Musicians talk about real-pitch and piano-pitch, because when we’re playing in ensembles, we don’t necessarily play exactly the piano-pitches.  We make half-step intervals really narrow, really close, and it brings out the pathos in that interval.

BD:   You make a difference between E-flat and D-sharp?

Burns:   You bet.  You have to.  There’s a way those intervals pull.  For me, that opening fifth of Art of Fugue is like two pillars going out, and it creates this architecture.  Later there is a minor third, and that half-step changes the character of the work.  So, with a second-rate or third-rate piece, or just a really terrible piece, my job as interpretative artist is to somehow unlock whatever magic might be there, and if it’s not there, I will change the dynamics, change the color, change the articulation, change the rhythms, or do whatever has to be done to spice it up.

BD:   How much changing can you do?

Burns:   A lot, but you never can turn it into a Beethoven sonata or a Mahler symphony.  There is genius, and then there’s craft.  There are some people who compose with tremendous craft and certain amount of inspiration, and there are people who have tremendous inspiration and tremendous craft, and those are the people that live on for centuries.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Let me ask another balance question.  When you play a piece of music, how much is art and how much is entertainment... or is
entertainment a bad word?

Burns:   It’s not a bad word.  There’s a place for entertainment.  Art is something that I absorb myself in, and I hope that when other people look at a painting, or watch a piece of theater or dance, or listen to a piece of music, really take it in.  The problem I find with classical music these days is that it’s being used as Muzak a lot.  It’s being used as background music in stores and in elevators.  Classical music is better than Muzak.  I can’t stand that stuff.  It’s about the kind of only music I hate because it’s emasculated.  It is absolutely neutered music, and that’s too bad.  My wife is a psychologist, not a musician, and she’s always complaining if we have music on at dinner because I’m gone.  I’m not part of that conversation because sometimes the music I put on is not light background music, it’s more serious.

BD:   I can’t have music on as background, because I will pay attention to it.  If I want to listen to music, I’ll listen to music, but if I’m going to have dinner conversation, I concentrate on that.

Burns:   Yes.  That is where societal changes have affected how people listen.  Before there were televisions, people would put on a phonograph record, or they would sit around the piano, or sing songs a capella with each other.

BD:   We’ve gotten away from Hausmusik, and that’s too bad.

Burns:   It is too bad.  I do it with my family and my students.  My younger brother is a jazz pianist and environmental scientist, and my older brothers are businessmen, so when we get together and we play, we find a common denominator.  There’s all kinds of music that’s possible.  When I go home and visit my parents at Christmas time, we go to church with the whole family, and my brothers and I will always be harmonizing the hymns.  It drives my mother crazy!  [Laughs]  We have a great time because we’re always trying to search for those new sounds.  One of the great tragedies in the last twenty-five years, or maybe longer, has been an end, or a falling off, of amateur music making.  People feel that if they can’t be really great, then they’re not going to do it.  If they can’t really sing well, or if they can’t play an instrument really well, they’re not going to try.

BD:   Does that make us lose their participation?

Burns:   It loses participation.  You can be an audience member and participate.  There are serious audience participators.  What happens when you actually play an instrument just a little bit
very badly, very well, or even exceptionally wellit doesn’t really matter.  You get a visceral sense of what is happening with the music.  You just know how those vibrations work, and so your body resonates with whatever you’re listening to because you’ve experienced trying to sing something similar, or you’ve experienced trying to work through a very early Beethoven or Mozart piece.  You realize somebody’s playing a Beethoven or Mozart piece, and this is a tremendous accomplishment.

BD:   [At this point we stopped for a moment to take care of some technical details.  He recorded a station break for WNIB, and I also asked his birthdate.]  Are you at the point in your career that you want to be at this age?

Burns:   Yes.  I wouldn’t want to be any place else.  It’s been a roller coaster, a very interesting voyage, and it continues to be.  Part of my nature is to challenge myself, so I’m always taking on new projects
new music, new transcriptions, conducting, composing.  Although I do not compose well, I have the utmost respect for great composers.  I write things to just go through the process.

BD:   Do you write for you, or do you purposely not write for you?

Burns:   I should purposely not write for me, but in the past I’ve always written for myself.  It’s the closest thing, and after writing some of the things that I wrote, I realized there were little snippets of brilliance and vast tracks of craft.  [Laughs]  I don’t impose my compositions on anybody except my students.  It is for them.
BD:   You must take your own advice
that everyone should play an instrument just to be part of itso you should compose just to be part of it.

Burns:   It’s what I do!  I write my own cadenzas, and, interestingly enough, most of my inspired writing has come as simple jazz and blues.  To be honest with you, this is going to be really insulting to a lot of composers, but I think a big problem with classical music now is the fact that many composers are not improvising performance.  To begin with, many composers are not performers, and they don’t improvise.  Think about the great composers, from Bartók all the way back, or you can include Gunther Schuller as a modern example.  They were all great players, great performers of something, usually piano or violin.

BD:   It is a very recent phenomenon that the composer is not the pianist or the violinist just writing stuff for himself and his ensemble.

Burns:   Many have never played, and never really refined their interpretative art form.  That’s part of my plan.  My goal is to encourage musicians.  There are a lot of musicians now writing more and more, and there’s a resurgence in that realm.  A lot of younger generation players play both classical and jazz.  I’m not speaking in terms of crossover, but people who play both, and seriously interpret both.

BD:   That will get respect in both.

Burns:   Yes, and these are people who aren’t even looking for respect in both.  They’re curious musicians who are searching for what it is we search for, and that is the mystery of music.

BD:   Maybe they respect themselves in both.

Burns:   That’s a very good point.  I find there’s a contemporary music language, and there’s a classical language, and there’s a jazz language, and there’s a blues language.  There’s a lot of different languages.

BD:   Are they languages, or are they dialects?

Burns:   Blues and jazz are dialects, definitely.  Classical and jazz and all these things in this century are beginning to blend a little bit, and it would be interesting to see where it goes.  Part of my project also is to encourage jazz musicians to write through compositions.  Ellington was doing so much of that at the end of his life, and got only respect from musicians and the public.  The jazz community was saying he should just go back and play that nice stuff he was doing before.  At the end of his life, his music was so heavy.

BD:   So, the public was impatient for his development?

Burns:   I think it had more to do with expectation.  They wanted him to do what he always did, instead of welcoming his searching into new directions, and extending it and expanding the forms.  Ultimately, that’s what music is.  In almost anything, music really is form and formlessness.  What links all these musics that we’re talking about is the formless part.  That’s the half-step
a blue note in classical or Baroque or jazz or blues.  That downward moving half-step has a visceral quality to it.  The minor-third or the minor-seventh have a very strong message, meaning, character, feeling, color, everything, and it all depends on the context.

BD:   As the performer, you have to view the color and the form and the change on the note that was just shown on the paper?

Burns:   Exactly, and structure it to create an entire journey
if one thinks linearlyor an entire world if you want to think spatially.

BD:   Let me ask a technical point.  When you’re playing trumpet, are you playing an instrument that’s in front of your face, or does that instrument become part of you?

Burns:   I don’t even know it’s there.  It’s just breathing and playing.  Of course it’s in front of me... you can’t miss it, being right under my nose.  There’s a wonderful teacher here at Chicago, Arnold Jacobs [Principal Tuba of the Chicago Symphony 1944-88], and he’s always talking about the music being a mirror of your mind.  If you are singing music in your mind, it’s just coming out the trumpet, or the horn, or the trombone, or the tuba.  He said that it’s not just so many musicians, and that was a revelation.  On a certain level I always did that, but it was really great to hear somebody saying that’s all it is.  Just take away all of that extra instruction and technical gobbledygook, and trust your primordial mind to execute what your conscious mind wants to do.

BD:   Or your unconscious mind?

Burns:   Both.  Sure, but there’s a certain amount of thinking about the sound.  Another one of his ideas was that if you’re not hearing the music in your mind while you’re playing, then it’s not sound thinking.  [Both laugh]  It’s cute, but it’s better than just an idea.  It’s really great to have extra preparations for this fingering and that fingering, or preparations for this jump or that jump.  It’s all extra.  Another great musician in Chicago is Adolph Herseth  [Principal trumpet of the Chicago Symphony 1948-2001], and his way of describing how he plays so beautifully at the age of 77 is to just turn the tape on and let it run.  That is music at its highest level, and I encourage audiences to do the same thing.  Don’t judge, don’t wonder what is going to happen, just open yourself to the space and let it wash over you.

BD:   Just allow yourself the journey?

Burns:   Sure.  Unfortunately, a lot of times we are writing reviews even as we are listening.  This may sound like a crude analogy, but it’s like making love with an instruction manual in your hand.  You can’t be judging and acting at the same time.  You can only do one thing.  Some people think they can listen and can criticize at the same time, but that’s really very, very difficult.

BD:   You want to put the spontaneity back into it?

Burns:   Yes, because life, for me, is very spontaneous.

*     *     *     *     *
BD:   Tell me a bit about your instrument.  Is it fun to know that you have a whole pile of instruments, rather than just a single violin or two that are basically the same?  You have different sizes and shapes, and numbers of valves, and mutes for these trumpets.

Burns:   I love the possibilities.  I love all those colors, and each one has a character.

BD:   Do you always try to utilize as many as possible?

Burns:   No.  Usually, with the exception of the Pictures at an Exhibition transcription, and some of the other ones, most of the time I can do it with four or five trumpets.  When you start talking about bass trumpet and cornet, you start using six trumpets.  I have them all lined up, and then it becomes more of a challenge.  I usually just travel with my cases and bag, and the stewardesses just let me on the planes.  [Remember, this conversation took place in March of 1998, before the tight restrictions we experience these days.]  Each instrument speaks differently, and each instrument really has a different personality.  So, each time I pick up whichever instrument, sound-wise it takes me in different directions, like the way I play, and that’s fine by me.

BD:   Are there mutes which have been created just for you?

Burns:   Most of the mutes are pretty standard.  Most of the big changes in the mutes came during the
20s and 30s and 40s with the jazz and big band musicians, and all the radio recording that was going on.  I created one mute inadvertently actually.  I have this aluminum straight mute, which is just a regular old straight mute that I dropped over and over and over again until the bottom of it loosened up.  Then, one time I was playing El Amor Brujo, and there are rapid trills that go back and forth.  All of a sudden, the mute started to buzz and it sounded like a tambourine.  I said, “This is great.”  So, I banged it a couple more times to loosen it.  I have also improvised a little bit with using different shaped hats as mutesa bowler, or a top hat, or a felt hat, or a plastic hat.  I tried all different shapes, and I’ve even gone so far as to bring the trash can on stage and played down into it.

BD:   In Ancient Voices of Children [by George Crumb], the vocal soloist sings into the piano.

Burns:   Oh, sure.  That’s somebody who’s really inspired, and really totally connected with space, but with simple melodies and very, very powerful Earth rhythms.  I keep looking for it in all these compositions.  On the program that the American Concerto Orchestra is doing in a couple of days, we’ve got Vivaldi, who’s very rhythmic and dynamic but not a whole lot of melodic content going on.  Then in the Copland Quiet City, we will have these beautiful, beautiful, beautiful long singing melodies and soaring spatial arches.  I book-end that piece with the Albinoni Double Concerto For Two Oboes, which you can play on trumpets.  This one is a completely different take on the usual Venetian arpeggios.  Then, there’s the answer to the Copland, which is Jeff Hass’ City Life.  It has very jazzy and jaunty and punchy ideas, and has all kinds of different sounds of neighborhoods in the city.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  You don’t want to call it noisy?

Burns:   No, because there are many moments where it calms down.  It’s more like you’re taking a trip through different parts of the city.  You’ve got some elegant neighborhoods, and some really rough neighborhoods, and some abandoned lots as well as some kind of homey townie neighborhoods.  He’s written it so that the musicians are kind of in separate gangs, so you’ve got the uptown string players playing Montovani lines, and woodwinds nervously scurrying to and fro in working units, and the brass are playing Gil Evans type chorus parts with mutes and very easy-going rhythms, while the percussion and the piano are playing the Thelonious Monk style projections.

BD:   All at once?

Burns:   It’s a tapestry.  It’s a weaving of different things.

BD:   Like Charles Ives?

Burns:   Yes, except he doesn’t try to contrast them.  He weaves them together.  It’s not like he’s taking a band and marching it through a public meeting.  It’s much more linear in terms of its structure and everything else, but you do get a little bit of every aspect of twentieth century music.  There’s a drive-by shooting at the end.

BD:   [Mildly shocked]  Oh, dear...  I hope the audience isn
t killed...

Burns:   I don’t know who is killed.  Maybe nobody, except there is an elegiac finish which is very Copland-esque.  It sounds very much like Copland
s Quiet City, with the English horn mournfully playing half note motifs.  It’s hard to say.  Then, we will finish with Pulcinella, and all those wonderful dance suites that Stravinsky adapted in so many brilliant ways.

BD:   One last question.  Is playing trumpet fun?

Burns:   Sometimes yes, sometimes no.  [Laughs]  It depends on the day.  Sometimes it’s hard work.  The craft is developing the technique to the point where it’s so automatic that playing is fun.  Making the right sound is always fun.  It’s when there’s a physical difficulty that you just have to work your way through it.

BD:   So, you’ll be back in Chicago hopefully a number of times?  
[This being one of his earliest trips to the Windy City, it is gratifying to note that many of his plans and expectations have worked out.]

Burns:   I’m hoping, yes.  I have plans and projects, and I’m going to make some proposals to people, and find some spaces to see if they can take my ideas about marrying classical music to the essence of what jazz and blues is about, and come up with something interesting.  
Spare time is going to be nonexistent for a number of years, but the idea of doing concerts in architectural spaces with jazz and classical being connected is an idea I’m working on forming here in Chicago.  It will be called Fulcrum Point, which is the point between popular art forms and classical art forms.

BD:   I wish you lots of continued success.

Burns:   Thank you.

========                ========                ========
----        ----        ----
========                ========                ========

© 1998 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on March 11, 1998.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB the following year, and again in 2000; on WNUR in 2011; and on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio also in 2011.  This transcription was made in 2022, and posted on this website at that time.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.  To read my thoughts on editing these interviews for print, as well as a few other interesting observations, click here.

*     *     *     *     *

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.