Anthony Burr - Biography

Clarinetist Anthony Burr is one of the few, the proud, one of the aural marines who can dive into the most difficult, problematic, and daunting of compositions, and surface with a complete and total victory. It’s no minor accomplishment, as experimental music is a peculiar beast, with various and exotic stripes and spots. Composers can imagine conceptual pieces and elaborate scores and all sorts of aural ephemera, but the trick lies in acquiring the musicians with the facility, aptitude, and – and this one is the most difficult of all – the natural inclination to submit their own aesthetic and ego to another artist’s vision. Much of the problem stems from the narrow confines of conservatory. Classically trained musicians are necessary for the rigors of many experimental compositions, because, you know, rock ‘n’ rollers don’t play brass or woodwinds or flute or whatever. However, the classical curriculum doesn’t cotton to much of the avant agenda; furthermore, self-absorbed performers are likely to want to “express” themselves, at the expense of a composer’s intention. Meaning, if you get a composer with a unique and strict performance idiom, it can be tough to find a classically trained musician who can tow the line. Anthony Burr can tow the line.

The significant minimalist composers have all run into this problem. Consider the awesome, nearly insurmountable difficulty that La Monte Young must have faced in finding an ensemble that could actually execute his long-tone, brass-based triumph, The Second Dream of the High-Tension Line Stepdown Transformer From the Four Dreams of China (1991 Gramavision). The trumpeter and group leader Ben Neill deserves a medal for his performance on the piece, a hardcore triathlon of circular-breathing athleticism, as do the rest of the performers. Honestly, how many trombonists on the planet could handle a piece of such sustained, microtonal intensity? It was originally written for sine-wave oscillators, for crying out loud. Tony Conrad has faced similar problems with his compositions for droning, precisely tuned strings, in which even a whiff of vibrato is expressly forbidden. A story circulates: In the 1980s, during rehearsals for a New Music America performance of piece from Conrad’s Early Minimalism cycle (released in the boxed set Early Minimalism Vol. I by Table of the Elements in 1996), a musician stormed out, deriding the material as “garbage” – which is how a “professional” skirts around the fact that a piece is beyond his range or ability to perform. Minimalista Arnold Dreyblatt has faced similar problems, searching for musicians who trust him enough to resist the urge to extrapolate and noodle.

Burr, too, has navigated through the work of La Monte Young, with just as much aplomb as Neill; he has also performed with some of the premier ensembles of contemporary music, including Klangforum Wien, Ensemble Sospeso, and the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. He has worked repeatedly with the cellist Charles Curtis, and the list of artists with whom he has collaborated reads like a who’s who of hip, crafty, and engaging experimental music: Laurie Anderson, DNA’s Arto Lindsay and Ikue Mori, Alan Licht, Jim O’Rourke, Mark Dresser, Tim Barnes and avant icon John Zorn, to name a few.

Of Burr’s various recordings, one is absolutely essential, and a perfect example of how a skilled, disciplined performer can realize and vivify the most difficult of compositions. Alvin Lucier is a legend in New Music circles; his art is pristine in its formal repetitions and acutely measured drones. Like La Monte Young, he often requires mechanization to achieve the desired effect, exploring vistas of psychic engagement and physical allure. However, in 2005, he participated in a profoundly effective tryst with two flesh-and-blood musicians, Anthony Burr and Charles Curtis. Lucier composed several pieces for the two to perform, on clarinet and cello, respectively; in a reversal of protocol, he asked that the performers be credited with the album, while his name appeared as the title. The resulting double CD is Alvin Lucier, by Anthony Burr and Charles Curtis (2005 Antiopic), and it’s a masterpiece of transcendental minimalism. Burr and Curtis spar with oscillators, and the combination sparkles on pieces like "On the Carpet of Leaves Illuminated by the Moon" and “Still and Moving Lines of Silence in Families of Hyperbolas Part III Number 11”; Burr in particular aches on “In Memoriam John Higgins” and “In Memoriam Stuart Marshall.” This set, and the corresponding and exhaustive notes contained within, are the best argument to date for labeling Anthony Burr as one of the most strident and accomplished voices in contemporary music.
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