"Politics, Poetry, Prayer" Review- Fulcrum Point new Music Project's 18th Annual Concert for Peace

On Sunday afternoon, December 18th, 2016, in time to usher in the holidays, Fulcrum Point New Music Project (FPNMP) hosted it’s 18th Annual Concert for Peace entitled  “Politics, Poetry, Prayer” at The Alhambra Palace Restaurant, 1240 W. Randolph. Co-hosted by HotHouse, the show, brilliantly performed by a full ensemble of virtuoso players, and  conducted with fluidity and restraint by Artistic Director Stephen Burns, also featured guest announcer Frank Babbitt, violist, and starred 2 young activist-poets, Malcolm London and Stella Binion, who recited their work in-between the musical pieces.

Stephen Burns with Stella Binion; photo by Elliot Mandel

 From “Breathing in a space you know you shouldn’t be”, by Stella Binion:

 Keep your shoulders square,

Your arms stiff.

Don’t wiggle or wag fingers

Or make invisible things bloom in them.

Don’t curl fists, ever,

Even when hands slide up neck

And down breasts they could never be mothered by.

Don’t mutter.

Lullabies sound like twisted tongue

To those who have never heard

The wind blow,

But who puff out their cheeks to create tornadoes.

Keep eyes like twilight;

Wish waves, like great-grandmother’s home

Into them.

Wash yourself red and dripping before

Leaving every morning.

Stephen Burns conducting the musicians of Fulcrum Point New Music Project; photo by Elliot Mandel

 The program of music consisted of 4 works, including 2 pieces by American composer David Lang, whose ensemble creations are highly regarded; he won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2008 for “The little Match Girl Passion”. His oeuvre has been described as “informed by modernism, minimalism and rock”- while actually post-minimalist, it still retains conceptual elements, but is often by turns witty, calming and abrasive.

 First on the program was his “how to pray”, 2002, which was dark, emotional, and truly lovely, approximately 10 minutes in duration. The composer has offered descriptive notes about the piece. He noted that he didn’t know how to pray, but did “Know some of the times and places and formulas that are supposed to make prayer possible”. He had been setting psalms to piano music, “Transcribing my own cantillation of the psalms”, which he described as “A comprehensive catalogue of how to talk to the Almighty”. He utilized a strategy “To convert the prayer before saying the psalms”- using the rhythms, the accents, the phrasing of the Hebrew- into the music for “how to pray”. The composition is so intensely charged and alive that one expects to hear a response to the prayer it embodies. It’s insistent, with a striking percussive beat and a plaintive line. It contains a Celtic feel, becoming mystical and increasingly complex.

 Next was heard “But I voted for Shirley Chisholm” by Ted Hearne, 2012; this 8 minute piece has been described as “Both a tribute to Shirley Chisholm and an exploration of the way sampling can embed a dialogue among musicians into a piece of music”. It contains “cut-up samples” from Biz Markie’s 1988 song “Nobody beats the biz”, which has often  been called back in the music of other hip-hop artists; Shirley Chisholm was the first black to run for President on a major party ticket. The music is funky, fun, charged with import and orchestrally complex all at once. Hearne, a composer, singer and conductor born and raised in Chicago, is well known for works that, like this one, cohesively unite diverse musical styles and contain overtly political content. He has described his compositional style as “nuanced, elliptical and elusive”; the work here was well focused. The musicians hit each turn and phrasing with the depth and precision audiences have come to expect from FPNMP.

Fulcrum Point New Music Project at The Alhambra Palace Restaurant; photo by Elliot Mandel

 The penultimate piece was “Are you Experienced?” another work by David Lang, 1987, with a provocative title. It’s divisions matter-of-factly recite/reflect images that dramatically seem to refer to losing one’s mind. It contains discordant petulant sounds with exclamations pronounced as exhortations.  In this effort can be heard the composer’s restlessness and “taste for the ridiculous”. It was written some 20 years after the song and later the album of the same name by Jimi Hendrix, and it begins with an evocation of Hendrix’s guitar using “it’s absurd antithesis, the electric tuba”. The composition is comprised of 6 sections; the titles and the music itself progress from the fantasy of getting hit on the head, through what appear to be frightening delusions, to “utter confusion”. There is the jarring headstrike, followed by fast dance music, continued by a confusion of tuba encased in feedback- a Hendrix signature. There is a near-ultimate nuclear hit and a final scattering. The music, which has become more and more fragmented, leaves the mind of the questioner filled with tumult.

 Finally, and perhaps the centerpiece of the program was “In C” by Terry Riley,1964, a piece composed “for an indefinite number of performers”. The work is actually a series of 53 short fragments of melody; each phrase may be repeated arbitrarily. Burns held up pieces of paper with numerical values on them to “conduct” the players with suggestions. What’s most striking here is that each musician has total control over which phrase to play and when to begin! Although the phrases are to be played in a definite order, some may be skipped. The C note is played repeatedly in eighth’s, functioning as a metronome or as the pulse of the enterprise. The piece is NOT chaotic, but vibratory and actually gorgeously heterophonic, with emerging patterns of rhythm and sound. Indeed, Riley, an American minimalist composer and pianist/performer deeply influenced by jazz and Indian classical music, is well-known for improvisation based on a series of modes of different lengths; the remarkable piece played at this concert interlocks in new and varied ways throughout it’s duration.

Frank Babbitt narrates; photo by Elliot Mandel

 Poets Malcolm London and Stella Binion have distinctly different styles of writing and declaiming. He can be described as a poet-rapper, much more comfortable with recitation than with his extemporaneous introductions. His work is vivid and dramatic, with strong and emphatic repetitions juxtaposed with startlingly strong images. Hers is a lyrical and more traditional verse style; she launches into recitation without introduction and holds a strong lead; the images are filled with clarity.  Where they are similar and converge is in the sure beauty of the work they have composed at such a young age and at the certain brilliant futures they embody. London has already been praised for years for his writing, performance, promotion of other young voices and social activism. Binion is likewise beloved by her peers and has been honored at the White House with a 2016 National Student Poet award.

 From “Never Too Late”, by Malcolm London:

 There’s one thing the richest man can never purchase


It feels like

Yesterday I sat Indian-style around my grandfather’s armchair

Suspended above my head

Like a skyline

His belly beneath denim overalls

Reeking of Old Spice and drinking Mississippi Cotton Gin

He would say

Before nodding off to the Wheel of Fortune

And waking up when someone turned the station

If you are early

You are on time

And if you are on time

You are late

But it is never too late for your time

The richest man can never purchase


Malcolm London; photo by Elliot Mandel


The concert was inspiring, the poetry raw, immediate and real.

The mission of the Fulcrum Point New Music Project is to be a Chicago leader of diverse new music; presenting multi-media performances, generating educational programs, as well as commissioning and recording innovative works.

For information on and tickets to their upcoming programs and concerts, go to Fulcrum


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