Music Concrete

Of all the groups performing at the Joan W. and Irving B. Harris Bunker for Music and Dance, Fulcrum Point New Music Project may be the happiest. The avant-garde music ensemble is in the middle of its first season there, and despite the endlessly descending stairs and the underground cavern of an auditorium, FP’s founder, Stephen Burns, says he’s convinced the Harris is where his group should be: the “edgy” architecture and “gorgeous” acoustics are a perfect fit with FP’s genre-busting mix of new classical music and popular culture. But this is also FP’s first year as an independent entity. After breaking away from its parent organization, Performing Arts Chicago, FP is foraging on its own both for the money to pay the Harris’s hefty fees and the audiences to fill it. “For new music, most of the time, if you get 100 to 150 people, that’s a really good turnout,” Burns says. The Harris seats up to 1,500.

Fulcrum Point, made up of about 20 musicians, is an offshoot of a larger, more traditional group, the American Concerto Orchestra. Both were dreamed up by Burns after he joined Performing Arts Chicago as artist in residence in 1998. A composer, conductor, and virtuoso trumpet player, he was an Indiana University professor when PAC head Susan Lipman snagged him by asking, “In the best of all possible worlds, what would you like to create?” and then offering him the chance to do it. While the Concerto Orchestra was, Burns says, intended to “ease classical audiences into new music” by playing concerts that were about half new material, he wanted the chamber ensemble to “redefine the concert experience” by integrating multicultural music with poetry, art, film, dance, politics, and philosophy. (Its first concert, in November ’98, included a debate between architect Stanley Tigerman and composer Michael Dougherty.) Burns says it soon became apparent that it would be difficult to market the two groups simultaneously. By 2000 he’d decided to focus on Fulcrum Point, producing an annual series of innovative, critically acclaimed concerts.

Two years later he was getting itchy. “I was thinking Performing Arts Chicago doesn’t have the budget to build [FP],” he says. It also seemed to Burns that Lipman, with ever closer ties to the School of the Art Institute–PAC and SAIC formed a partnership in 2000–was increasingly interested in performance art ensembles like Goat Island. And Burns says Lipman didn’t think FP should make the Harris its home. “I never told him he shouldn’t do it,” she says, “but I do think it’s a huge risk to take on those costs, with that kind of audience expectation.” Burns says he read the writing on the wall and decided FP needed its own not-for-profit status. In 2002 he began to lay the groundwork for independence, forming a board, finding donors, and hiring longtime arts administrator Suzanne Brown as executive director. The split wasn’t contentious, he says–“more like just moving on.” But Lipman says it was Burns’s decision to leave, and that she’d love it if Fulcrum Point were still part of PAC. (She continues to serve on his advisory board, and PAC sponsors FP’s annual holiday concert.)

Burns and Brown now run FP out of their homes, with the help of an intern. The budget, which has run between $150,000 and $225,000 the last few years, is likely to be double that by 2005. It costs $4,000 a day just to open the door at the Harris, and Burns says unpredictable operating costs can add 50 to 150 percent more–“the risk you run with a new space.” He insists Fulcrum Point will be back there next year, though he’s anticipating that they may have to shave a program off their already slender four-concert series to make it work. Nearly 500 people showed up for their opening concert in January–a gonzo program of music by Fela Kuti, John Cage, George Crumb, and Frank Zappa. The second program, early this month, drew a more typical crowd of just over 200.

Burns has launched a five-year programming theme, “Essential Art: Essential Elements,” which has FP playing watery pieces this year and plowing through earth in 2005, to be followed by wind and fire. Ticket prices are purposely low–$20 for singles, $15 for subscribers, $10 for students–and he’s counting on a guerrilla marketing campaign, which has his tiny staff handing out FP flyers at other kinds of events to bring in people who may not be regular concertgoers but are interested in, say, poetry or art. That, and the leveraged visibility the group is getting with the move into its dream home.

“Rain/Tears,” Fulcrum Point’s next concert at the Harris, is scheduled for Tuesday, March 30.

A Walk With the Village Scribe

Irene Zabytko was in New York promoting her second book last year when she took a walking tour of Greenwich Village hangouts frequented by Jack Kerouac. The tour, which cost $15 a head, turned out to be “boring–a bunch of places he got drunk in,” and she thought to herself, “Why wait till you’re dead? I can do better than that.” Zabytko’s When Luba Leaves Home, a collection of related short stories, is set in Chicago’s Ukrainian Village, where she grew up. And this Sunday, March 28, she’ll lead the first “Walking With Luba” tour. It’ll start on Chicago and Oakley, in front of Sak’s Ukrainian Village Restaurant (Steve’s bar in her book), and proceed to the Ukrainian National Museum, Saint Nicholas Cathedral, and other neighborhood spots featured–under changed names–in the tales. Zabytko says she’s hoping to interest the city in making the tour a regular event, to be conducted by herself if she’s in town (she now lives in Florida) or by friends who still live in the old neighborhood. The inaugural edition starts at 11 and is free; call 773-489-2986 for reservations.

Remembering Fred Fine

Columbia College has scheduled a memorial service for former director of public affairs Fred Fine, who died February 9 at the age of 89. Fine founded Columbia’s Arts, Entertainment and Media Management program, helped launch the Illinois Arts Alliance, and was Chicago’s first head of the Department of Cultural Affairs. A onetime executive board member of the Communist Party USA, he also spent five years underground, ducking a Smith Act conviction for conspiring to overthrow the government (it was later overturned). The program begins at 2 PM Friday, April 2, at the college’s Dance Center, 1306 S. Michigan.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Bruce Powell.