John Burke was born in Toronto in 1951 where his musical journey began with an intensive involvement with chant and sacred choral music at an early age. He 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. He has received many important commissions and performances, from such organizations as La Société de musique contemporaine du Québec, Les Événements du neuf, New Music Concerts, Vancouver New Music, the Esprit Orchestra, the CBC Vancouver Orchestra and the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra. His many awards and prizes include the Jules Léger Prize for New Chamber Music which he won in 1995 for his String Quartet (1994).
By 1995 Burke had begun to sense that the radical musical energies initiated by the works of Schoenberg and Stravinsky at the beginning of the 20th century had in essence played themselves out, and that with the new millennium a new role for serious music was beginning to emerge. His experience as a cathedral chorister, through which he had internalized a function for music as the facilitation of a spiritual process and not solely as an aesthetic expression, was undoubtedly a factor in this realization. In 1996 he attended the yearlong The Power of Sound program in Los Angeles led by Don G. Campbell, author of the The Mozart Effect. This proved a turning point, and with it a new world of sound, music, healing, and consciousness began to open up as a potential field of inquiry that could be informed and intensified by the sophisticated musical resources developed by the contemporary music avant-garde. A subsequent important influence was the work and teaching of Fabien Maman, French musician, acupuncturist, and bioenergetician, whose extraordinary researches included a study of the effects of particular pitches and sequences of pitches on cancer cells in vitro, and whose workshops Burke has sponsored in Vancouver. Burke pursued his explorations into the relationship of sound and states of consciousness at the Monroe Institute in Virginia, and with numerous shamanic teachers including Michael Harner.
In 1997 he received a commission from Vancouver New Music and responded with Remember Your Power for piano and chamber ensemble, which was his first music to reflect the influence of these new ideas, including those inspired by his collaboration with Vancouver music therapist Lennie Tan. The powerful and even unsettling effect the 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, that was as much energetic as it was aesthetic. A successful application to the Millennium Arts Fund for the commissioning of a concert event for the year 2000 saw the expansion of Remember Your Power into an hour-long work whose three movements modeled the three phases of the archetype of personal transformation that mythologist Joseph Campbell called The Hero's Journey. Burke‚s interest in the transformative power of myth and ritual deepened through his subsequent work with Jean Houston, one of the pioneers of the human potential movement. Through Ms. Houston and her student Dr. Lauren Artress, founder of the World-Wide Labyrinth Project at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, he explored the possibility of engaging the listener at a far deeper level of awareness than the conventional concert hall dynamic could offer, through the contemplative practice of walking the labyrinth, in particular, the pattern found at Chartres cathedral in France.
His recent work involves the development of a repertoire of chamber music specially designed to accompany this form of walking meditation. He was composer and project manager for a major labyrinth installation at the Sacred World Music Festival at the Plaza of Nations in Vancouver in November 2002, and unveiled a major part of the labyrinth repertoire in collaboration with Vancouver New Music in the fall of 2003. Burke has begun sharing his insights into the new thought related to sound, music, and consciousness with those outside the concert music mainstream, and has given papers and presentations to such groups as the Society for the Anthropology of Consciousness, and the Association for Music and Imagery.
Dr. John in the south of France 2018
Frank Zeigler photo
Mass for Dr. John at Sacred Heart Catholic Church
Jan. 24, 2020
The morning mass today went very well. Dr. John would have approved with his Buddhist/ritual influenced sensibility: held in a limestone church built in 1904, with beautiful stained glass windows. Candles and incense and the priest swung the incense censor (?) over the small draped urn holding his ashes.
I'd passed the long bio blurb about John (as posted on my blog) to the priest beforehand, and he did an excellent job of extolling John's contribution to music from a strong spiritual perspective. I felt very comfortable and comforted by the service, and altho I haven't attended a Christian service in many decades, I have to admit I was teared up for much of the service.
I'd anticipated there would only be a handful of people at the service, due in part to the suddenness and unexpectedness of John's death, but there must have been about fifty parishioners present. It's a well knit congregation and obviously heartfelt.
Afterwards the Catholic Women's League held a nice tea in the seniors room in the public library building. This was more important than it initially appears, as it gave Val, the cleaning lady who has been shepherding Cam through all this, and myself, a couple of hours to informally explain Cam's situation to her niece and nephew and their spouses. I made sure we all exchanged contact information for the future as well. Val is taking Cam to visit the local retirement home, Caressant Care (think it's part of a chain) next Friday.
No word on the coroner's report yet. It doesn't really matter how he died - he's gone from this realm and my usual explanation to casual enquiries is that 'he died in his sleep'.
(from an email to a close friend of Dr, John's)
~ ~ ~ ~
a dam prayer for Dr. John:
Of course he is in my too brief daily prayers at my home altar, as is Cam. Re ceremony, I never got the chance to tell you both one of my anecdotes about Dr. John (I always called him Dr. John, as a ref to the jazz musician, but also as a genuine honorific - it's more than rare to have a real doc in The Marm). Almost daily I walk the towpath to the Marmora Dam and spend a few minutes remembering him and wishing him well on his new journey. When John first returned to The Marm he was very broke, as his retirement pensions hadn't kicked in. One lonely day he was standing above the rushing floodgates at the dam, breathing in the oxygenated air, and wishing for a bottle of wine to celebrate the view. Looking down he spied a pile of change on one of the concrete runoff pylons below, and hurrying down, he found a fisherman had spilled exactly enough pocket change for him to buy a bottle of vino. For Dr. John, a positive omen, and whenever I visit the dam now I reflect on this early happy day overlooking the Crowe.
(from another email to a close friend of Dr. John's)
~ ~ ~ ~
Toronto Star obit for Dr. John Feb. 6, 2020
Canadian composer John Burke, known for his ‘labyrinth events,’ is dead at 68
By Debra Yeo Toronto Star
Thu., Feb. 6, 2020timer1 min. read
Canadian composer John Burke has died.
Toronto-born Burke died in his sleep Jan. 18 at his home in Marmora, Ont. He was 68.
His interest in music, particularly chant and sacred choral music, began at St. Michael’s Choir School in Toronto. He went on to study composition at McGill University, as well as privately in France and at the University of Michigan, where he received a doctorate. He taught at McGill University, McMaster University and the University of Victoria.
His music was commissioned and performed by Toronto’s Esprit Orchestra, CBC Vancouver Orchestra, the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra, Vancouver New Music, Société de musique contemporaine du Québec and other organizations, his friend, pianist Catherine Wilson, said in a news release.
He received the Jules Léger Prize for New Chamber Music from the Canada Council for the Arts in 1995.
Wilson, artistic director of the chamber music group Ensemble Vivant, described Burke as “an erudite, supremely intelligent, highly spiritual, generous man with a quick wit and a wonderful sense of humour.”
According to a Canadian Music Centre biography, Burke 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.
His recent work had involved developing chamber music to accompany such “walking meditations.” He produced a “labyrinth event” at Harbourfront Centre in 2010.
The last live music event Burke attended was at Hugh’s Room Live in Toronto in December, where Ensemble Vivant played his art tango “La Despedida,” the “Farewell” in Spanish, which he had gifted to Wilson.
A tribute concert, “John Burke: A Celebration of His Musical Life,” is being organized for later in the year.
Get more of the Star in your inbox
Never miss the latest news from the Star. Sign up for our newsletters to get today's top stories, your favourite columnists and lots more in your inbox
Sign Up Now
About The Star