Music For Writers: Caleb Burhans’ Leap Of Faith

Image - iStockphoto: demabg
Image – iStockphoto: demabg

Thinner Air

“Between 1959 and 1960, Joe Kittinger went to the top of the atmosphere in a helium balloon three times and performed record-breaking sky dives.”

So what were you expecting composer Caleb Burhans to talk about? Music?

Actually, he is talking about music. His newly released Excelsior is named for Kittinger’s 1960 Project Excelsior.

What Burhans has done is set that almost-forgotten set of sky-high feats flying way-high again in a new work that cinches what some of today’s newest composition can do for writers.

This stuff can push an author right into a free-fall through his or her own best creative impulses.

When “Fearless Felix” Baumgartner set the record in October 2012 with his 24-mile descent, the Tampa-born Kittinger (then 84) was on the team: he was project Red Bull Stratos’ capsule communicator, directing Baumgartner. In fact, while Baumgartner broke many records, his free fall is reported to have come in 17 seconds short of Kittinger’s. The original jumper had held on to something, after all.

Caleb Burhans
Caleb Burhans

It turns out that Burhans had known of the Kittinger jumps for some time — even before Chicago’s adventurous Fifth House Ensemble approached him, wanting to commission a large work with a singer.

The U.S. Air Force created Project Excelsior in 1958 to test parachutes for their safety in high-altitude ejections. In at least one of his three jumps, Col. Joseph Kittinger lost consciousness. Of the third, Kittinger is quoted in a Wikipedia entry as saying, “Though my stabilization chute opens at 96,000 feet, I accelerate for 6,000 feet more before hitting a peak of 614 miles an hour, nine-tenths the speed of sound at my altitude.”

Baumgartner would go on to break the sound barrier on his own jump 52 years later, with Kittinger advising.

Burhans and his frequent collaborator, the electric guitarist Grey McMurray, thought the Kittinger jumps were “a pretty astonishing feat, especially since it was the closest anyone had been to space at that time” outside of a vehicle. Burhans and McMurray had talked about writing a song for their longstanding duo,itsnotyouitsme, “but this commission from Fifth House seemed like the perfect opportunity to write a large narrative about his third jump.”

Read the full story at Thought Catalog

By Porter Ander­son | @Porter_Anderson

Writing on the Ether: Music for Writers: Caleb Burhans’ Leap of Faith

Originally published by Thought Catalog at



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