ENS.2024.2 | 35′


Act I
1. 747 – 2. Five Day Locker Piece – 3. Trans-Fixed – 4. The Speed of Light Machine – 5. Shoot

Act II
1. Urban Light – 2. All the Submarines of the United States of America – 3. Porsche With Meteorite – 4. Metropolis II – 5. Ode to Santos Dumont


Burden is a ballet inspired by the work of artist Chris Burden (1946-2015), whose influential and prolific career includes several of the best-known works of art created in recent years, from his infamous Shoot to the (overly) familiar Urban Light installed outside LACMA. I patterned this piece after Stravinsky’s Orpheus, whose translucent neoclassical textures I greatly admire, and with which it might be paired. Using the same small orchestra (with the addition of piano and saxophone), I imagine this similarly-scaled thirty-five minute composition serving as impetus for choreography, although like Orpheus it may equally be performed as a concert work.

Act I depicts Burden’s notoriously confrontational early performance pieces. These works, with their idiosyncratic American individualism and significant element of danger, are represented in the first act by a stark, spare neoclassicism. We begin with 747, in which he repeatedly fired a revolver at a 747 taking off from LAX, a slow, hieratic introduction gradually giving way to driving motion like a jumbo jet rising stertorously into the air. Five Day Locker Piece was his master’s thesis, involving locking himself in a locker for five days, represented by a confined confusion of interlocking motives, while Trans-Fixed—among his best-known performances, revealing Burden crucified to the hood of a Volkswagen Beetle—is somewhat less clotted, though no less jagged. The Speed of Light Machine reconstructs a nineteenth century experiment in muted strings and translucent textures, and Act I concludes with piercing chords over a luminous chorale representing perhaps Burden’s most famous performance, 1971’s Shoot, in which he was shot.

Act II then moves to Burden’s later oeuvre, which largely focuses on huge, complex sculptural assemblages. I found in this work a close analogue to my own procedure, where similar (musical) objects are gathered together, apparently repeating, yet never quite the same, the presence of so many small yet distinct figures in such proximity paradoxically highlighting the differences between them.

Urban Light attempts to reclaim Burden’s most recognized work from the banality of Instagram fame, imagining its gathered multitude of lightbulbs densely flickering in the Los Angeles darkness. All the Submarines of the United States of America floats a variety of streamlined musical hulls on an ocean of strings, and as Porsche With Meteorite balances a dense space rock with a bright yellow speedster, the slower music of this central panel is more hieroglyphic and knapped. The enormous whirring contraption of Metropolis II with its miniature freeways filled with tiny speeding cars forms a kinetic scherzo, and in Ode to Santos Dumont the ballet’s rickety structure struggles to take flight, as all the preceding music is gathered together only to fragment into shards.

Like many of my recent works, Burden features musical objets trouvés, found musical objects, recognizable points from which the music departs and returns, like fixed elements in an ever-changing landscape. Using Stravinsky’s later ballets as my primary source, I incorporate several ideas inspired by Orpheus and Agon, although none of these objects are taken literally from Stravinsky—they resemble and signify rather than directly represent.

Burden belongs to a series of pieces featuring a kind of musical cubism where tiny jagged figures are pulled and pushed into constantly changing configurations, sliced apart and juxtaposed, continually rotated as if “seen” from different angles, a vivid kaleidoscope of varied perspectives like Stravinsky thrown into a wood chipper. Like Burden’s artwork, in this ballet these tiny colorful building blocks are taxonomized and assembled into a carefully stratified, yet musically abundant architecture.