The Canadian composer and teacher, John (Joseph) Burke, obtained his B MUS degree from McGill University in 1974, his M MUS degree in composition from the University of Michigan in 1976, and his DMA degree from the University of Michigan in 1983. He studied with Bruce Mather and Alcides Lanza at McGill University and with William Albright, Leslie Bassett, William Bolcom, and George Wilson at the University of Michigan.
John Burke won his first major awards for composition in 1978 when two of his works - Spectre for tenor instruments (1976) and Six Regions for piano (1975) - received prizes in the CBC National Radio Competition for Young Composers. With the assistance of the Canada Council, Burke studied in 1978-1979 in France with Eugene Kurtz. In 1980 he again received two awards in the CBC composers competition, for Firewind for two pianos (1978), and Diffusa est gratia for a cappella choir (1979).
Returning to Canada in 1980, John Burke served as a visiting lecturer at McGill University in music theory and electronic music. He taught from 1983 to 1985 at McMaster University and from 1985 to 1990 privately in Toronto, and in 1990 he joined the faculty at 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 CBC Vancouver Orchestra, and The Manitoba Chamber Orchestra. His many awards and honours include the 1995 Jules Léger Prize for New Chamber Music.
His principal compositions in the 1980s included À la source d'Hypocrêne (1980) and Far calls. Coming far! (1988), premiered by the Société de musique contemporaine du Québec (SMCQ); Alchemies for chamber orchestra (1983), premiered by the Esprit Orchestra; Near Rhymes (1984), premiered by the Gerald Danovitch Saxophone Quartet; Dreampaths (1986) and Jacaranda (1987), premiered by New Music Concerts (NMC); Escher/Bach (1985) written for the Bach 300 festival in Toronto; and Lament (1989), presented by Les Événements du neuf. Several of his works have been recorded, including Firewind performed by pianists Bruce Mather and Pierrette LePage (Centrediscs); ...ascends at full moon (1981) played by guitarist Michael Laucke (RCI) and À la source d'Hypocrène performed by the SMCQ ensemble (RCI). Burke's compositions - the majority of which are for chamber ensembles - often reveal a sensitivity to timbre and a careful delicacy in instrumental balance.
The post-war European avant-garde was the formative influence on John Burke's music, although he has remained open to the iconoclastic ways of music in the Americas. By 1995 he had begun to feel that the radical musical energies unleashed at the beginning of the last century had in an evolutionary sense played themselves out, and that with the third millennium a new role for serious music was about to emerge. His early 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.
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, and with it a new world of sound, music and consciousness began to open up as a potential area of inquiry that could be informed and empowered by the resources of contemporary music. Another significant influence was the research and teaching of Fabien Maman, French musician, acupuncturist, and bioenergetician, whose workshops Burke has sponsored in Vancouver. Further explorations into the relationship of sound and consciousness were pursued at the Monroe Institute in Virginia, as well as with numerous shamanic teachers, including Michael Harner.
A 1997 commission from Vancouver New Music produced Remember Your Power for chamber ensemble, which was John Burke's 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 disquieting 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 (also recorded).
John Burke's interest in the transformative power of myth and ritual deepened as a result of his studies with Jean Houston, one of the pioneers of the human potential movement. Through Houston and her 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 concert hall setting. The contemplative practice of walking the labyrinth, especially the medieval design found at Chartres Cathedral in France, offered an experience of deep listening imbued with the ethos of the mythic journey. Burke has since composed an extensive repertoire of ambient music to accompany this form of walking meditation, and he continues to develop environmental events with a transpersonal view.