Saturday, 4 August 2018

Remembering Richard Burmer



When Vangelis in the 1970s' European musical landscape has started to release electronic music albums that were not sounding at all as many have expected electronic music to sound like, there was no other synthesizer artist who achieved that level of fusion between vastly different ancient musical traditions and electronics.

At that time, he was a composer of synthesizer music of a rather special kind, with emotive and evocative imaginings that were blending anything and everything from elements characteristic of African tribal music (La Fete Sauvage) to Celtic ballads (see Irlande on Opera Sauvage) to Far-Eastern music (see the LP China) to "pure" ambient sonic paintings well before Brian Eno was heralded as the creator of ambient music (see Creation Du Monde on Apocalypse Des Animaux).

While Vangelis was the most notable exception to what dominated the European electronic music scene of the time (Berlin School, French School, Synth Britannia, etc.), something happened on the other side of the Atlantic, too a decade later.

It demonstrated that even when it was not emerging from close-by ancient European and Eastern musical roots, electronic music of similar DNA could be born in the most unexpected ways. It did not emerge from the academic environments of major cities like New York, nor from some intellectual  West Coast movement's creative laboratory. Minimalism in the 1980's was a success already, often relying on electronics, too, Detroit techno was making strides, space ambient was very much active (Michael Stearns's seminal works, for example), Wendy Carlos long before rocked the world with classical reworkings... then something very different turned up...

Richard Burmer was born in 1955 in the town of Owosso, Michigan. He studied music composition in college - but established himself as a thoroughly imaginative sound designer for none other that the legendary E-mu Systems. The mere mentioning of the name Emulator is perhaps highly sufficient to summarize what era-defining instruments he created sound banks for.

However, in the 1980's he did not stop at the level of technical creativity - his first album Mosaic, beyond its electronic prowess, had tracks that already heralded what was about to come.

Delicate and atmospheric compositions like Under Shaded Water or the superbly sensitive electronic reworking of the Medieval music piece Lamento di Tristano already in 1984 told us that Richard Burmer is not embarking on an ordinary electronic music voyage.

His side-stepping of existing US-based electronic music of the time was actually achieved via superlative artistic sensitivity and a seemingly effortless blending of music from distant European centuries (Medieval and Renaissance era) and state-of-the-art electronics.

One could very much dare say that in the same way that Vangelis for a long time represented a unique voice in the electronic music landscape, Richard Burmer created a unique sound in the American synthesizer music vista.

His approach was and still remains rare: synthesizers were not seen as merely trailblazing sound generators, nor as instruments that would end up defining what music one was "supposed to" create with them... Hence we cannot find any forays into trendy electronica in Burmer's discography...

Richard Burmer viewed synthesizers as instruments that can connect and blend musical traditions from vastly different historical periods and geographical areas.

His album On The Third Extreme is a spellbinding work for those who like Eastern and Far-Eastern music flavors, Renaissance (specifically) and Early Music in general, all seamlessly combined in evocative and passionate soundscapes.

The track The Forgotten Season could be at home in any Early Music show that airs songs from the troubadours of the early Renaissance period.

Celebration In The Four Towers brings us moods and sonic visions that would find themselves at home in a grandiose scene of some Medieval-themed historic or fantasy movie.

Magellan brings us Eastern influences and driving ethnic percussions, fused with that emotive sound world that Burmer could produce with such immediate impact.

Turning To You is an example where ambiental, later labelled as "new age", soundscapes can be abstract, atmospheric and emotionally evocative at the same time.

We have a technically extremely competent engineer-composer-performer, who did not get lost in the enticing possibilities of the instruments, and did not end up putting the instrument in front of the artistic intent.

Instead, Richard Burmer had started from musical worlds that had central aesthetics that were diametrically opposite to the, then still novel and path-finding, electronic music - and leveraged the possibilities of the new instruments to make boundless and poignant musical journeys across unexpected expanses of space and time.

If his electronic music made us dance, it did that in the style of ancient music of the late Middle Ages and Renaissance. If his music made us dream, it did that with nostalgic, often uniquely elegiac, evocations of idyllic landscapes - hence compilations like Shining By The River are very aptly titled.

Richard Burmer passed away in 2006, aged only 50 - a memorial page was established on his official website, and the 12th anniversary of his passing is on 9 September.

Hot summer months can make us think of the Electronica festivals springing up all over the Northern hemisphere - but they can remind us of his wonderful sonic journeys, too, which often evoke idyllic summer vistas.





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