MUSIC / Three boos for mediocrity: Keith Burstein, the self- styled Heckler, has finally put his own music up for critical appraisal. Keith Potter went along to hear what 'Romantic Futurism' has in store

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
According to the programme for 'Keith Burstein - New Romantic?', the composer recently enjoyed a 'sudden transformation of spirit'. Once a convinced modernist called Keith Burston, he changed his name a few years ago and began writing 'unexpectedly romantic music in a tonal language'. Even if you don't smell any stink of moral decay or cop-out in this, you have to admit that Burstein knows how to court publicity.

Earlier this year, he got himself mixed up with the Hecklers, who for a while attracted attention to themselves by booing Birtwistle's Gawain. Now, with the aid of a professional publicist ('Chief Heckler risks being heckled'), Burstein is seeking a large audience for the triadically tonal music inspired by his 'new vision'. (Was that another major third in your Requiem, Mr Burstein?)

Underneath all this, of course, lies an important debate about where music should be going, and about who is listening to it and why. And, in contributing to this, Burstein certainly aims high. The notes for this concert went straight to business - the coming millennium, the fall of Communism - and offered a 'valedictory theme'. The Requiem was for those who died in the Marchioness boat disaster.

For those not among the 70-odd souls who turned up at Southwark Cathedral on Saturday, I have, however, only sad news. A 25-minute piece for brass band - Eternal City, played by the BT Band from Stockport under an anonymous conductor - offered decorated triads plus occasional heavy dissonances in a mainly mesmerising four-square tread. From time to time, matters ground to a halt; there was one startling harmonic change. A 28-minute arrangement for four vocal soloists and chamber ensemble (conducted by the composer) of Requiem for the Young set texts by Spenser, Yeats, Gorman and Chaucer, as well as parts of the Latin Mass, with more feeling for lyrical line, but too obsessed by a sort of relentless lingering to respond adequately to the words, some of which were set to hysterically high notes for no discernible purpose. A 14-minute Leavetaking, for band again, turned out to be a real weepie, complete with multiple drooping suspensions. Plus the gut-wrenching harmonic lurch that is Burstein's trademark.

This kind of thing is being written up and down the country all the time: among many others, by composers of brass band music. Of course, Burstein appears to confound such criticisms by asserting that the quest for originality is merely a disease of the arid modernism from which he is trying to release us. Yet a composer must have something to say with the language he chooses if he makes the sort of claims that Burstein does.

The occasional oddities in his music might contribute to whatever individuality it has. But without the gift of real invention - melodic, harmonic or whatever - it's only good, at best, for whiling away a few minutes. Not, I'm afraid, as a reflection of 'great historical developments' to 'lift the spirit, speak from and to the heart and aspire, once again, to embody the world's greatest hopes and desires'. The applause seemed more sympathetic than enthusiastic. Nobody heckled.

Comments