Composer John Burke

Image of composer John Burke

John Burke (Toronto, 1951) studied composition at McGill University, privately in France, and at the University of Michigan where he earned a doctorate in composition. He has taught at McGill University, McMaster University, and the University of Victoria. His compositional path has been distinguished by many prestigious commissions and performances, and distinctions such as the 1995 Jules Léger Prize for New Chamber Music.

While the post-war European avant-garde was the formative influence on Burke's music, he has kept faith with the iconoclastic spirit of music in the Americas. By 1995 he had begun to realize that for him the radical musical energies unleashed at the beginning of the last century had in an evolutionary sense played themselves out, and that the new century augured a crucial shift for serious music. His early experience as a cathedral chorister, through which he had internalized a function for music as the facilitation of a spiritual process, as well as his long study of Tibetan Buddhism were decisive influences.

In 1996 he attended a year-long program in Los Angeles entitled The Power of Sound led by Don G. Campbell, author of The Mozart Effect. As an exploration of the emerging field of music-as-medicine it proved to be a turning point. A new world of sound, music and consciousness began to open up as a potential area of inquiry that could be deepened through the mediation of contemporary music. Another influence was the research and teaching of Fabien Maman, French musician, acupuncturist, and bioenergetician, whose trainings Burke sponsored in Vancouver. He pursued further explorations into the relationship of sound and consciousness at the Monroe Institute in Virginia, as well as with indigenous and Western shamanic teachers. His abiding interest in researching the role of sound and music in the healing arts of traditional cultures has in recent years led to extended sojourns in Peru, Bali, Thailand and South Korea.

A 1997 commission from Vancouver New Music produced Remember Your Power for chamber ensemble, which was Burke's first music to reflect the influence of these new perspectives, including those inspired by his collaboration with Vancouver music therapist Lennie Tan. The arresting effect that this work had at its premiere during VNM's Spring Festival in 1998 was confirmation that a qualitatively new transmission had been established with an audience, as much energetic as it was aesthetic. A grant from the Canada Council Millennium Arts Fund for the creation of a concert event in the year 2000 saw the expansion of Remember Your Power into the three-movement version that has been commercially released on the Centrediscs label.

Burke's interest in the transformative power of myth and ritual deepened as a result of his studies with Jean Houston, a pioneer in the human potential movement. Through Ms. Houston and her former student Dr. Lauren Artress at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, he was introduced to the labyrinth, and with it the possibility of engaging the listener at a deeper level of awareness than is available in the conventional concert setting. The contemplative practice of walking the labyrinth offered an experience of deep listening imbued with the ethos of the mythic journey. Burke’s subsequent Labyrinth Project has produced an expansive repertoire of dedicated music to accompany this form of walking meditation, including crossover works intended for the concert platform. He continues to develop and produce environmental events that express a transpersonal view.