Couple with local roots edging closer to the top
JANESVILLE It wasn't a bad Saturday night for husband-and-wife musicians with humble Midwest roots.
While he played with Paul McCartney on TV's "Saturday Night Live" in New York City, she backed up the Rolling Stones during a concert in New Jersey.
For Caleb and Martha Burhans, however, the gigs two weeks ago were only steps along the way in their musical careers.
"Both jobs just sort of happened," Caleb said during an interview Thursday. "They both came together about a week before the shows."
Caleb and Martha are home for the holidays. Caleb is visiting family and friends in Janesville, where he graduated from Parker High School in 1997. The former Martha Cluver is from Fort Atkinson.
"You have to have some talent, but it still comes down to who you know," Martha said. "The director of the choir I sing for has a friend who has a lot of money and knows members of the Rolling Stones. She used to date Julian Lennon."
Caleb grabbed the job playing violin with McCartney by continuously surfing the Internet after a friend told him the job would open up.
"You often get a tip and then just keep going to the Internet," he said. "It's usually first come, first served."
Martha, a vocalist, and Caleb, a musician and composer, have clawed their way to what's considered a first step to success for serious musicians—no nonmusic jobs.
"We aren't rich, but we don't have to rely on day jobs," Martha said.
"I haven't had a day job in seven years," Caleb said. "It's been a little easier for me being able to combine performing and composing."
Caleb and Martha graduated from Interlochen Arts Academy in Traverse City, Mich., and the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y.
"After we graduated, we went to New York City with no idea what we would do," Martha said.
"I was terrified," Caleb said. "But I knew this is what I wanted to do."
It was more than just wanting to make music a career.
"We knew this is what we had to do," Martha said. "There was no hesitation."
A major influence on Caleb was his father, Ron, a musician who backed up some of the greatest acts of the time, including Ray Charles, Kenny Rogers and the Everly Brothers.
"My dad was completely my greatest influence," Caleb said. "He is the reason I'm a musician."
Ron played with several groups locally, but was also known in Janesville for his handy work.
"My father did a bit of hands on work, including painting, plumbing, drywall and roofing," Caleb said. "But it was his music that he's remembered for."
The third day they were in New York City, Caleb and Martha landed a job with the choir at Trinity Wall Street, an Episcopal church in lower Manhattan.
"Choir members are paid employees," Martha said. "Those jobs paid the rent when we first started."
Caleb's career advanced on two levels. As a composer, he focuses on contemporary classical music. He has been commissioned to compose for Carnegie Hall, the Library of Congress, the Lincoln Center and the Albany Symphony. As a performer, he continues to explore all forms of music.
"The week I did SNL with Paul McCartney, I had six different gigs in six days, including a chamber concert at a church, a rock band in a club and a violin solo."
The next step for Caleb and Martha is in sight, they said.
"I can see myself as a vocalist in demand doing everything from commercials, studio work and films," she said. "The goal is to get to a level where I can pick and choose jobs instead of reaching out all the time."
Two upcoming events will allow Caleb to look into the future and see where his career may be going.
The Fifth House Ensemble, a Chicago chamber group, will perform Caleb's composition, "Excelsior," designed to "challenge the idea of what an opera is," Caleb said. "It features Martha as a soloist. I wrote it for her."
The composition is based on Project Excelsior, a series of high-altitude parachute jumps by Joseph Kettinger in 1959 and 1960, including one jump from 19.2 miles above the earth's surface. Kettinger's world record parachute jump lasted until Oct. 14, when Felix Baumgartner successfully completed a 22-mile jump.
Caleb's "Excelsior" is scheduled to premiere March 9 at the Museum of Contemporary Art.
"The idea of falling 20 miles intrigued me," Caleb said. "The music and the tempo are written to keep pace with the fall."
Later next year, Caleb enters a new phase in his career with the release of a CD containing exclusively his work.
"It's a milestone for me because it will be released on a major label, Cantaloupe, for the genre I work in," he said. "It will, hopefully, be noticed by the top performers and composers."
For now, it's back to work after the holidays for Martha and Caleb.
"This is what we do, and we do it every day," Martha said. "We continue to look for greater opportunities."
For Caleb, the performing may trail off, but composing will always be his passion.
"I'll never stop," he said. "It's what I have to do."