Composer Thinks Outside the Box

Hello Dear Detritusites,

It is a real honor to be asked to contribute to The Detritus Review. Thanks to Sator Arepo and Empiricus for starting a much needed conversation on the public discourse of contemporary classical music, and I hope that I may be able to add to and help further the dialogue on this very smart, and often, very funny blog.

For my first post I had hoped to find a shining example of the educated and informed advocacy for new music to praise and perhaps shout a few amens. And luckily, those points-of-views were out there (and are worth a read).

--In the Buenos Aires Herald, Craving Dissonace! is nicely written argument, in part addressed to the performing organizations and classical music radio stations of Buenos Aires, asking for a little Cage and Stockhausen along with the Monteverdi, Mendelssohn and Mozart.

--And, Robyn Archer wonders why composers seem so anonymous over at The Australian, an online newspaper.

However, despite the advocacy by the two above articles, Canadian composer John Burke caught my attention.

Figure 1: John Burke, or so how I assume he looks.

Music with a holistic approach

Canadian composer John Burke is not interested in creating music simply to be listened to any more.

Wow! Music that can be tasted? Perhaps inhaled? Absorbed? Made sweet love to...?

Clearly, we can do lots of other things while listening to music. Some dance, others crumple programs, while others lose control of their bodily functions -- but John Burke has more in mind. Please, tell me more.

He wants to move people – emotionally, spiritually and physically – and more than that, he wants to empower his audience.

How exciting. If it's one thing that I've always felt was missing from music it was the emotional, spiritual, and physical aspect. Music has always been such a dead, lifeless form with no connection or history with religion or physical activies -- be it walking in unison, or the gyrating of hips...

Tonight, Vancouver will have the opportunity to experience this vision with Labyrinth – a concert in which the floor is covered with an ancient geometric pattern, and the audience is encouraged to walk on it as the music plays.

figure 2: John Burke's Labyrinth

figure C: David Bowie in Labyrinth

This sounds interesting. I'm with you John Burke. Expanding the concept of a concert, melding the sonic experience with a physical and mental task. I'm always fascinated to know what new boundaries composers seek out.

What's the desired affect again? Empowerment?

While there is rarely anything run-of-the-mill about those who follow a career in contemporary classical music, Burke still stands out as unique. He is much more interested, for example, in discussing the notion of the “hero's journey” or monomyth, as described by American thinker Joseph Campbell, than the architecture of his compositions.

How original. If only Strauss or Wagner or Beethoven had thought of this. Damn. Think of the tone poems, operas and epic symphonies they could have composed...

And is the author suggesting that other composers don't read or show interest in non-musical subjects? Nevermind.

But then, he explains, classical composition is what he used to do, before he saw the light.

Praise Apollo!

Burke grew up a choirboy in Toronto, and always considered music to be a deeply sacred activity. After studying at McGill and the University of Michigan, he won a number of CBC composing awards and was funded by the Canada Council to study in France. He returned to Canada to teach at McGill, and subsequently the University Of Victoria. And he continued to compose and record.

Yes, yes. Get on with it.

But eventually, he says, the rarefied and competitive realm of modern composition became too much for him. In 1995, at the age of 44, Burke all but abandoned his successful classical career and hit the road.

This is unfortunately all too true. There often seems to be very little room for classical music in our vast culture, and even less for contemporary classical music. Intense competition for attention is a reality. And on that front I applaude Burke's attempts to find his own niche.

“I had a crisis of confidence in the value system of contemporary composition,” he says.

Come again? "Value system of comtemporary composition" -- what exactly does that mean?

“I found it ego-driven and rife with power issues, even abuse issues – it really brings out the worst in people. Classical music, to me, operates ideally in a spiritual domain – but the internal politics are so nasty.”

The "value system of contemporary composition"? It's "rife with power issues"? Okay, I was with you about competitiveness, but...what?

I assume you're talking about the people...the institutions. Classical music organizations like symphonies and universities are indeed rife with power issues and internal politics, but the actual writing of the music...the politics of that are too much for you?

Burke ended up in Los Angeles, and joined a year-long program run by Don G. Campbell, author of The Mozart Effect theory. He also studied with New Age philosophers and shamanic teachers, and became increasingly convinced of the connection between sound and consciousness.

“I was looking for a way to make music in a more holistic way,” says Burke. “I wanted to consciously send an empowering energy through music.”

New Age. Holistic. Empower. Aren't these just buzz words that dumb people use to sound important?

Three years ago, he was given the chance to test out his theories at CBC's Studio One in Vancouver, who recorded and broadcast the work he had created during his musical rebirth. Enter the Labyrinth: Instead of chairs for the audience, a maze was created in the recording space – everyone would walk as the music played. The result was revelatory.

And what was revealed? Why do people walk through the labyrinth again? How is this breaking away from the politics of classical music?

“This was no longer an audience,” says Burke. “These were participants on a journey, and for some it was a very intense experience.”

Audience participation -- check. I got that part, but how was it intense? What was revealed, again? How were they empowered?

The musicians were amazed too, he insists, despite initial misgivings. “They were facilitating these people walking their path,” he says. “They had become sound healers.”

figure IV: For only $995 with no required tests, classes, books or examinations, you too can receive a genuine Masters in Sound Healing from the Academy of Energy Healing.

Tonight's concert includes music from that original studio session as well as new work, improved, Burke anticipates, by the participation of the Borealis String Quartet (the CBC recording was made with session musicians). But he notes that the simple and direct quality of the pieces – which he describes as having a circular structure specifically designed to work with a labyrinth – would be considered “naive” in the classical world.

Do circular structures in composition negate the power issues and politics of writing music? Do they empower? How about diversify, globalize, or break through the clutter?

And why the jab at the classical music world? Why cast aspersions upon the entire classical music world with this baseless assertion that those elitists just wouldn't get it, or would dismiss it?

I'm here for you, John. I love new ideas, new concepts and ways of thinking about our interactions with music, but don't let me stop you from explaining your piece. After all, it does sound as though you are attempting something interesting and new...

Such slights hardly concern him: “It is not my ego that is at stake here,” he says. “There is an intention of service that changes all the ground rules in a dramatic and interesting way.”

Does your music think outside of the box as well?

So distanced is Burke from his former path, he admits to a complete disengagement with current classical music. A recent concert in Toronto featuring new music by a fellow Canadian composer confirmed his sense of alienation.

“I didn't get it,” he says. “I didn't know what it was meant to be about – it just seemed so last century.”

You mean you didn't like it. Right? Perhaps if you had empowered them, kept them from drinking the Kool-Aid.

You should outsource your message -- Classical Music 2.0, powered by integrated-wiki-paradigm shifting-blogo-chips.

Burke's next move, he says, may well be something other than music: Convinced that the history of classical music can be seen through Joseph Campbell's “hero's journey” structure, he may write a book.

A book. That really would be outside of the box for a music composer.

Wait. Did we ever find out the point of your piece? How it empowers? Or how it heals? Or why this isn't classical music?

How about a history lesson...(make it quick though, this post is getting long...)

“If you consider [music's] infancy to be Gregorian chants, the mid-life crisis to be Wagner, followed by a complete meltdown, then the full circle would be to reach an empowered healing potential through the language of labyrinth,” he says.

And there you have it, folks -- everything after Wagner was "a complete meltdown." But at least we have empowered healing potential.

I personally hope he uses ExtenZe for a larger and more enjoyable musical life.

As for music, Burke says he is unsure what more he can offer.

How about an explanation?

“Maybe,” he suggests matter-of-factly, “my journey as a composer has become complete.”

We can only hope.

Now, I don't wish to distract from what may have been a very interesting event and musical experience. Burke may indeed have created a new and special environment for the collaboration of music and puzzle-solving, but this sort of trite dismal of classical music composers -- from one of its own -- is counterproductive. Let me let you in on a little secret Mr. John Burke, "You're still writing classical music. Sorry. No matter how naive or emotionally, spiritually, physically you may conceive of your music, it's still music based on a tradition that extends back hundreds of years colloquially known now as classical music. And claiming healing powers and adding performance art or audience participation doesn't necessarily change that."

Classical music isn't a disease that needs to cured, nor does it have politics, or values -- there is no exit strategy and it certainly doesn't need synergy. What I hope is that disillusioned, visionary composers like John Burke would be content just to experiment in their attempts to connect more fully with his audience and leave it at that.

At the end of the day, Burke is free to dislike all contemporary classical music, and he can be as proactive as he wants to try and change it, streamline and make it pop. He would follow a long lineage of composers -- like John Cage, Pauline Oliveros, and whoever wrote The Rocky Horror Picture Show -- who have all already experimented with new perspectives in the relationship of music and its audience.

But back off, man...contemporary classical music doesn't necessarily have to baste the turkey, boil the ocean, and get back to a people-centric, 3G, brick-and-mortar fundamentals.

Wait. What?

Whatever. I do what I want.


AnthonyS said...

Wow. Great post, G. This illustrates something that I often seen in my students' writing-- making some claim (something something "empowering" something something, and then not discussing it or explaining. It feels like laziness defended by a kind of "if-you-don't-get-I'm-not-going-to-explain-it-to-you" hubris.

Excoriating the use of buzzwords-- especially of the New Age-y bullshit magic crystal kind-- is fantastic.

Also, where can I get some "integrated-wiki-paradigm shifting-blogo-chips"?

They sound yummy.

Empiricus said...

Wonderful post!

I think you're spot on. Besides, to play the political-rejection game, one must be performing some kind of hierarchical restructuring, even if it means ridding oneself of hierarchies, i.e. shifting the importance of one thing to another or others. And what empowers one day will eventually enslave the next. So, dialectics at work, with a vengeance.

Sator Arepo said...

Good post.

While Campbell is, admittedly, cool, it's hardly new (to say nothing of *news*). What will Burke decide to investigate next--the wheel?

Anonymous said...

You seem to be demanding that the article you read give you more information than it did. You were quoting from a concert preview article in the Globe and Mail, not an interview in WIRE, MUSICWORKS, or some other dedicated music magazine. I fail to understand why all the dismissive and harsh words. It was kind of a funny read, but I don't see how it helps a "positive critical perspective" to emerge. How does insulting people create a positive environment? You do raise a few interesting topics, but then you don't pursue them.

Gustav said...


I think you raise some good points, and indeed ones that I think this blog has wrestled with on a regular basis.

First, you're probably right that I'm asking for more than the article intends to give.

And I agree, snark isn't always the best way to further conversation.

However, as a composer, John Burke should be aware of the strong negative biases towards newer music, especially music of still living composers. When he makes outlandish statements about all classical music after Wagner being "a complete meltdown," he is giving credence to every biased and unsubstantiated attack on contemporary classical music, even if his point was a more nuanced one. Both he and the reporter are remiss to frame this argument as though the classical music tradition were somehow the problem. And if that is indeed the point that John Burke is trying to make, then the article, no matter its intentions, does need to go further to prove that thesis.

I also found the buzzword explanation that he gave for his piece to be lazy. Again, I realize that this article can only present so much of Burke's statements, but as printed, I think it's lazy. As AnthonyS points out above, he makes a claim and then doesn't defend it. Telling me a piece of music created "sound healers" out of the audience is quite the claim.

Still, I take your meaning about unnecessary dismissive and harsh attacks. I hope to shine light on the fact that language has power, and when even perhaps unintended, you can further negativity towards contemporary music.

I do appreciate the comments, and hope you'll continue to read.