The Evolution of Jim Burton December 23, 1974

I recently completed my third year as a regular music critic for the Voice, and I think the most gratifying thing about those three years has been the opportunity to watch artists evolve. By going to most of the concerts, and keeping in touch with all the new music activity, I’ve been able to follow many New York composers quite closely as they confront artistic problems and try to work through them. And sometimes the growth is phenomenal.

Take Jim Burton, for example. The first concert of his that I saw consisted of short theater pieces. Or maybe they were happenings. One consisted mostly of the sound of power saws as the performers gradually cut the word ‘wall’ out of a large sheet of standing plywood. His adventurous mind and unusual sense of humor were obvious, but so were the flaws. Only a few years earlier he had been concentrating on hard-edge painting, so this was a new area for him, and he wasn’t really at home yet with time or with sound.

The 1974/david-behrman-a-1974-summary time around he offered an evening of ‘Six Solos in the Form of a Pair.’ By then his sense of timing was much improved, and the concert flowed quite smoothly. His sense of humor was working better than ever, particularly at one point when he appeared as a cymbal tamer, slashing at cymbals with a whip. The sounds were more effective too, though now he was writing for traditional instruments, and sometimes one could sense that he didn’t yet understand them very well.

That was two years ago, and I have not reviewed his work since then. But much has happened in the interim. He worked as music director of the Kitchen, where he learned much about audiences, lighting possibilities, and the whole process of presenting concerts. He did about four versions of a witty piece called ‘A Fairy Tale,’ in which the performer tells a story, substituting piano sounds for various words. In each version his choice of piano sounds was more sensitive. He put together 15 or 20 other pieces during that period too, using everything from music box parts and videotapes to postcards and graphic notation.

At one point I collaborated with him on some theater pieces and had a chance to watch him carry through on specific problems. He developed a strong understanding of the difference between being oneself and playing a role—a matter which still confuses me and many musicians. He learned how to write good dialogue. He toyed with camp and slapstick. He began to sense where art ended and entertainment began, and though he loved to work right on the borderline, he always seemed to know immediately when he was lapsing into pure entertainment.

The result of all this is that now, at the age of 34, Burton has found ways around his limitations and through his artistic problems and has emerged as a fully mature artist, with a significant body of work. I think anyone who attended Burton’s latest concert could clearly see that this is startlingly original work, done by someone who now knows exactly what he is doing.

‘Phisiks of Metaquavers’ ran about 50 minutes at its premiere on Dec. 6. It is divided into four overlapping movements, which are performed on traditional instruments, bicycle wheels, amplified piano wire, and a large assortment of organ pipes.

The piece began pretty much like a normal concert. Garrett List was playing trombone. Rhys Chatham was playing flute. Jon Deak was playing bass. And Burton was playing his beloved homemade instrument, which stands up something like a pedal steel guitar, sounds like some friendly electronic beast, and is known as the ‘springed instrument.’ The instrumental textures vary quite a bit, and they are only mildly interesting, but soon Burton picks up two whiskey glasses, and clinks them together so that they make a wonderful sliding buzz. It’s one of those sounds we have probably all heard, but only someone like Burton would ever have bothered to really listen to it—let alone put it in a piece. After a while the instruments drop out and everyone is clinking whiskey glasses. This soon shifts to an intricate group rhythm with everyone playing toy squeaking gizmos, and from here, the musicians one by one move to the bicycle wheels.

In an earlier quartet for bicycle wheels, Burton simply turned two bicycles upside down, but now he has the four wheels mounted on separate boxes. This makes it easier for the players to turn the wheels and bow on the spokes without getting in each other’s way, and it also makes a clear reference to Dada. One of Duchamp’s most famous ‘readymade’ sculptures, of course, was a mounted bicycle wheel. To make the reference doubly clear, Burton subtitles this section ‘ReadyMade Rotosonoriphone Concerto.’ I doubt that it ever occurred to Duchamp that bicycle wheels could be musical instruments, but they are actually quite versatile in this respect. The obvious effects are just to pick out melodies by pinging spokes one at a time, or to spin the wheel and let something click against the spokes as they go by. Here, however, Burton eschews the obvious and works only with bass bows. Sometimes the players hold their bows against the spokes while the wheel spins, and sometimes they reach through the wheel and bow on one spoke at a time. The wheels are all amplified, and the sound tends to be loud and shrill, but at one point the juice is suddenly turned off, and we hear only the acoustic sound. It is a blur of little metallic sounds, and one of the many musical revelations of the evening. When it comes to dealing directly with sound, Burton’s ear is exceptional, despite his lack of conservatory training—and perhaps partly because of this lack.

From here the performers move to four amplified piano wires, stretched at shoulder height clear across the 80-foot length of the Kitchen. The four players walk along very slowly, rubbing the wires gently with one hand as they move, stimulating eerie high-pitched wailing sounds. In an effort to keep their hands moving steadily along the wire, they fall into a strange steady walk. The concentration is intense. Their eyes never waver. They keep walking slowly. The movement patterns become interesting as they pass each other going back and forth. They are doing some incredible dance. Yet at the same time, they are just musicians playing music.

After a while the musicians move, one by one, over to the organ pipes. These range from only a few inches to about 15 feet in length. Each player has an assortment. Here they play chords most of the time, attacking together, sustaining for a few seconds, and then taking a breath for the 1974/david-behrman-a-1974-summary one. As in most of Burton’s music, the choice of the pitches is not very important. The music is about objects that make sounds. And organ pipes produce very special sounds when they are blown like wind instruments, instead of mechanically, as on actual pipe organs. Burton calls this a ‘Phantom Organ,’ and like almost everything he has ever written, there is a second level going on. Maybe it is program music. Maybe it is theater. Who cares? It looks good. It sounds good. It works.


This was probably the first piece in which anyone made music with a very long amplified wire, though many artists and composers have done so since. Burton was a key figure in the SoHo music scene. He later gave up art altogether, and I don’t know where he is now. I’d love to see him again, or be able to rehear this wonderful concert.