Keith Burstein - Musical Approach and Philosophy (including Theory of "Super Tonality")

Musical Approach and Philosophy (including Theory of "Super Tonality")

Keith Burstein's early musical approach was informed by the culture of atonalism in which he was educated at the Royal College of Music, and his early compositions were written in the atonal style. Burstein made a dramatic shift towards composing tonally during the late 1980s. In a 2002 interview with The Independent newspaper, he reflected "What had happened to me was a sort of Damascene conversion, I suppose. I suddenly saw that atonalism was a dead end. Once you accept that melody is everywhere, and always has been, in folk music and pop and rock, you see that it's not reactionary to write a tune.". He began pursuing tonal composition and reinvestigating more traditional forms such as requiems, church chorales and brass band music. Although both Burstein (and various critics) have sometimes dubbed his style as "neo-romantic", he has stated that his education in atonalism has informed his musical approach. He has been described by the Hampstead & Highgate Express (in a review of his Symphony No. 1) as "a contemporary master of tonality" and by The Daily Telegraph as "an ardent new romantic post-modernist."

"Any student of Western classical music knows that one of the defining characteristics of its greatest works is the balance of intellect and emotion, the two working in perfect harmony. The people need a music of the spirit that once again seeks and finds that mysterious balance of heart and mind."

Keith Burstein on reasserting balance in classical music

Burstein has developed his approach into a theory he initially dubbed "Romantic Futurism", realigned as "New Tonalism" and now calls "Super Tonality". He views this approach as a fusion (or reintegration) of atonal and tonal composition - in which tonality is used to release the expressive power of dissonance - and considers it to represent "(a) wider horizon… that carries atonalism and all the other -isms with it, and creates a forward-looking fusion." Super Tonality acknowledges the philosophy and reasoning behind the original atonal experiments of Arnold Schoenberg, Anton Webern and others, but strongly questions the dominance of these and related forms in contemporary classical music and in modern music critical theory. Burstein has also suggested that this style of music can be composed by musicians (such as himself) "who were fired in the white heat of the atonal avant-garde and who dedicated themselves to that depth of knowledge and practise within the most highly-charged furnaces of experiment". He has cited Arvo Pärt as one of the other composers whom he believes is working in this area.

Burstein’s outspoken stance has sometimes led to friction between himself and others in the contemporary classical music establishment. He has accused "moribund atonalist dogma" of having stifled musical debate in the world of contemporary classical music. He has also challenged the idea that "the intrinsic worth of a musical piece is defined solely by its 'intellectual' content; and that the degree of intellectuality is signified entirely by the degree of atonalism involved in its construction."

Burstein is also known for a strong commitment to humanism and to issues of social concern. This is expressed in the subject matter of several of his works, including The Year's Midnight - A Meditation on the Holocaust (2000) and the opera Manifest Destiny (2004, revised as Manifest Destiny 2011 in 2011), in which would-be suicide bombers reject violence in favour of a desire for peace. He is associated with the Stop The War Coalition, giving press conferences with Bianca Jagger and Walter Wolfgang and performing benefits alongside Julie Christie and Michael Nyman.

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