John Burke and Alexander Scriabin
1. Firewind – John Burke
2. Ô bel enfant – John Burke
3. Prometheus: The Poem of Fire, Op. 60 – Alexander Scriabin
Yarilo Contemporary Music Society
Performers: Jane Hayes, Anna Levy, pianos
Producer: Denise Ball
Sound Engineer and Digital Editing: James Perrella
Mastering: Piotr Wieczorek
Liner Notes: Gregory Myers
Cover Image: Gregory Myers
Recording Venue: Annex Theatre, Vancouver
Recording Date: December 4, 2020
The Yarilo Contemporary Music Society gratefully acknowledges the support of the British Columbia Arts Council in making this recording possible.
TK498 © 2021 Redshift Music
This recording is a tribute to John Burke (1951-2020), an original voice in contemporary Canadian music who passed away on January 18, 2020. It showcases the ground-breaking two-piano composition Firewind, an early work from 1978, and his late two-piano composition Ô bel enfant from 2015. Firewind is the composer’s masterful primal musical response to the Expressionist aesthetics of painter Paul Klee, one similar to that shared between Alexander Scriabin and artist Vasily Kandinsky and espoused in Scriabin’s 1911 tone poem Prometheus: Poem of Fire, Op.60. Leonid Sabaneyev’s two-piano transcription is included in this recording.
A much-decorated musical personality, composer, teacher and thinker, Burke was born in Toronto in 1951. He received his musical education at McGill University, the University of Michigan, and in Paris. He served as faculty member at McGill and McMaster universities, as well as the University of Victoria. Burke was the recipient of many awards including the prestigious Jules Léger Prize for New Chamber Music which he won in 1995 for his String Quartet.
Burke forged a musical aesthetic that embraced the transformative power of myth and the relationship of sound, healing and states of consciousness. He became interested in “engaging the listener at a far deeper level of awareness than the conventional concert hall dynamic could offer,” something he explored by walking the labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral in France. For Burke, music was a spiritual process and not merely a vehicle for aesthetic expression. A decisive influence for this spiritual quest is found in his long study of Tibetan Buddhism, one that culminated in extended sojourns in India, Turkey, Peru, Bali, Thailand, and South Korea.
Firewind dates from 1978 and its musical antecedents can be found in the music of J. S. Bach (Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue), and Claude Debussy (Prelude Book II, No. 12 Feux d’Artifice, and Etude No. 7, Pour les degrés chromatiques). It was commissioned by the piano duo of Bruce Mather and Pierrette Lepage who gave its premiere and produced the only extant recording until now. This work won first prize in 1980 in the small ensemble category of a CBC competition. Employing an unconventional use of serial technique, Firewind is a work of remarkably cohesive construction. Burke takes a novel approach to two-piano writing, unifying them to create a single instrument, one that emphasizes the long line, which he describes as “tautly organized.”
Indeed, Burke’s fascination with the music of Bali, with its gamelan sounds, dominates his last work, Ô bel enfant. A commission by and dedicated to the Vancouver-based Yarilo Contemporary Music Ensemble, Ô bel enfant was written as a memorial tribute to the late Claude Vivier (1948-1983). The work was premiered in 2015. It derives some of its musical material from Vivier’s opera. In the words of the composer,
“Ô bel enfant are the first words that the soprano sings in [Vivier’s opera] Lonely Child. My intention was to pay homage to Vivier’s abiding interest in the gong kebyar music of Bali, with its explosive changes in tempo and dynamics, its interlocking melodic and rhythmic patterns called kotekan, and its reductive pitch array. Funeral music in Bali is exuberant and full of energy. Claude would have wanted the same.”
Ironically, this recording stands as a memorial to Burke himself.
– Gregory Myers