Book Review: "Timeless Relevance" by David Burge

Keyboard Magazine Columns 1975-1989
Publish date:

As the Editor-in-Chief of, it’s painful to admit that in 2018 very little of Contemporary Keyboard (or the early years of Keyboard) is available in reprints or online, though not for a lack of desire to make it happen. Just getting those issues onto the web, in an attractive and readable form, is not a trivial (nor inexpensive) task, and certainly not as simple as automatically scanning a bunch of back issues. Frankly, the resources were never allocated for such an endeavor. There is so much amazing stuff in the archive that should see the light of day once more.


But I’m glad I was in the Editor’s chair when I got the email from Evon Burge about her idea of collecting the late David Burge’s Keyboard articles into a single resource: As a reader of the magazine since the earliest issues, I know how important they are for students of 20th century music, and I was thrilled at the thought of them being made available.

Timeless Relevance assembles the nearly 150 articles Burge wrote for the magazine into a compendium that will serve as a rich resource for pianists and other instrumentalists working in contemporary music (not to mention composers planning to write for the piano). As a student composer when these articles were originally published, I was a huge fan of Burge’s writing because he not only introduced important new composers and works but, more importantly, provided insights into how one approaches unfamiliar music, both from a technical standpoint and aesthetically.

Burge, himself, was a composer, and there is little doubt in my mind that his experience creating music helped shape the astute observations he shared about the work of 20th century composers as disparate in style as Debussy, Bartók, Ives, Schoenberg, Messiaen, Boulez, Stockhausen and Cage. As he navigated the challenges of a given piece for the reader, the music always came first, and any technical topics he addressed were germane to the composition at hand. (He addressed this very subject in his first column in the November/December issue of Contemporary Keyboard.)

Throughout the book, Burge’s prose is fully engaging. Whether he is talking about repertoire, technique, or specific compositional concepts, the writing is always clear and informative, never dry. And he carefully drops nuggets of wisdom throughout the text, ready to be discovered by the attentive reader.

But Burge was nothing if not opinionated, and his attitudes about music and performance are refreshing aspects of this book. Examining his writing after so many decades, I am surprised to find myself occasionally irked by some of his comments. For example, he was adamant that pianists should stay seated when playing inside the piano, noting that it was showy, undignified and uncalled for to stand up when working with the strings directly. (Of course, performance practices have expanded since he wrote that column, and nowadays there are very good reasons to raise up off the bench.) That Burge’s writing inspires such a level of engagement is what makes this book so valuable.

Moreover, Burge led by example. He didn’t simply champion the work of living composers in his concerts or his writing, he actively promoted the idea that today’s pianists should play the music of their own era! It’s a concept that is no less crucial today. That Timeless Relevance should be published in the era of the Internet is notable because this level of knowledge is rarely, if ever, found in blogs online.

I commend Evon Burge on the extraordinary amount of work she put into making this book a reality, such as seeking permission from music publishers to reprint score excerpts (though, not always successfully) and running an Indiegogo campaign to fund its production. This is a fully independent venture and a labor of love, and the attention to detail shows.

Timeless Relevance is for anyone interested in engaging critically with musical concepts and, in my opinion, one of the most important books of the year.

(Editor's Note: The book is available from the publisher directly at )