ABOUT KEN BURTON
Ken Burton's musical activities cover a wide range of genres and roles, internationally.
Among those roles are: choral and orchestral conductor, composer, and arranger, performer, presenter, TV judge, educator, and producer.
The genre he is most associated with is sacred music for larger ensembles; he is one of the most regular appearing faces on British television with near weekly appearances on BBC1's flagship Songs Of Praise programme for which he has contributed hundreds of works as an arranger, conductor and performer.
At the heart of his music is a combination of his strong faith, musicianship, formal music education, his natural passion he brings to his work, and his strong desire to continually develop and grow. His work crosses boundaries: one day it could be a major concert stage, the next day delivering a workshop in a school, the next recording or conducting for major film or album releases, the next delivering music to inmates in a prison, or the residents of a care home. His philosophy is: it's all equal. He believes in giving his all, no matter what the nature of the project, and will testify to the fact that he derives a huge amount of satisfaction, and most memorable moments of his career from any engagement. He may fly business class one day, and be on the bus the next day; Hilton one day, a smaller bed and breakfast tomorrow. The greatest joy for him is lives positively impacted through music - be they the listeners, or through empowering and enabling others to reach their potential. This is evident through the time and energy he devotes to amateur groups. He enjoys the process of seeing singers who doubt themselves often ending up being deeply emotional when they realise what is possible. His meticulous manner of working, where he always wants the participants to always take something away which is enjoyable, life impacting, and educational - something they didn't know before - has led to many a school, church, or community choir to aim higher. Indeed, he was brought to public attention in the mid 90's when he entered the biannual national Choir Of The Year competition - one of the most prestigious in Europe and widely covered on UK television - and ended up with two out of three choirs in the final, one of them having started life as a totally non auditioned choir of 'whoever was willing to be a part'.
He credits his musical genesis to upbringing. He is the last child of ten, born to West Indian Christian parents, which meant one thing was a very likely central feature family life: morning and evening worship. These worship gatherings consisted of prayer, Bible reading and study, and singing. It wasn't just simply the fact the family went through the routine. Indeed, many families did, but it was not a given that every child was going to end up singing in the choir. The key elements which made the Burton family worship difference was the passion with which songs were sung. The songs were from traditional hymn repertoire, and therefore lyrically very strong. In addition, participation was encouraged - everyone had to read, or would be occasionally selected to pray. This built up confidence. Following Bible readings, it was standard practice to ask 'What moved you? What jumped out at you?', resulting in the ability to think beyond the mere meaning, but to think about the power of words to impact. There was also the sound of music in the home, as family members practiced instruments, but one instrumental practice regime caught Ken's attention: that of his sister Vanessa. Ken would listen attentively outside, and then would somehow work out the notes. At church, Ken was invited to play for two choirs: the church choir (a more friendly way of what was considered the 'senior' choir) and the newly formed youth choir, which he would later be invited to direct, and continues to do so. Having to play individual voice parts regularly, as well as read accompaniments, and occasionally having to accompany without scores, was developing an appreciation for how music is constructed. A pivotal figure in Ken's music learning was his piano teacher - the late Margaret Carr Singh, who discovered, developed and encouraged the musicianship skills in him, such as improvisation, extemporisation, harmonisation, sight reading, and aural perception. Ken therefore became the musician he is today not just through the logical routes of reading music at university, and exams, but through the additional skills, characteristics, and attitudes picked up through the family worship, listening to practice, accompanying and banging out parts from an early age, and someone who saw the potential. This is why his approach and methodology seeks to do more than just have the music ready to go, but to have the participant more deeply engaged and connected with the process of what makes a rendition powerful.
The result of these childhood experiences resulted in Burton's ability to pick music up quickly without a score and be able to improvise freely on the one hand as well as to be the accompanist of choice at university due to his quick sight reading skills, on the other. It enabled him to feel totally comfortable preparing and conducting an orchestral score for a Stravinsky work, whilst being totally authentic to make a freely improvised piece of complex gospel really 'rock'!
Taking a look at some of his activities:
He regularly directs two choirs - the London Adventist Chorale, and Croydon SDA Gospel Choir, and following the latter's regular involvement in several BBC1 Songs Of Praise performances, founded the session broadcast choir The Adventist Vocal Ensemble, out of which came a quartet, Tessera, which he founded and sings with regularly on the programme. He has also been a guest conductor of the London Youth Choir. Whilst most of his work, and the area he is best known for, is in the sacred music genre, he has also contributed extensively to other music genres, although it is his practice to be selective in what he does take on. Under various makeshift names - Ken Burton Voices, The Ken Burton Singers - he has contracted choirs for events including a series of Christmas television show for Danish Television, conducted by David Firman, and a rather special invitation: a surprise tribute to Steven Spielberg at the Cannes Film festival, conducted by Jazz musician Guy Barker. Whilst Burton respects and never judges individuals whose ensembles bear their names, he felt a lot more comfortable with a neutral name, often joking that 'we rise and fall together'. As a result he came up with a name which reflected what he wants to achieve - a vocal delivery that combines appropriate techniques and approaches with integrity and fervour, and hence decided to use a portmanteau of 'vocal quality', and the Voquality name was born. When tasked with putting a small ensemble together for a one of performance of an arrangement of the Beatles' All You Need Is Love for television, and asked to come up with a name, he came up with the name Vocal Creation. This meant that with the Adventist Vocal Ensemble, Voquality, and Vocal Creation, he was able to keep the word 'vocal' as a consistent part of his ad hoc session ensembles. As a result of his breadth of musical experience, he has been able to create the different groups with different musical emphases and styles. When reading music, he was a first study pianist, and second study singer, studying under the late baritone Charles Corp. The study repertoire was largely in the field of oratorio, lighter opera, and art songs. Missing this particular branch of his musical life, he adapted a hymn arrangement he had originally done for congregation, for a trio-solo format, inspired by the Classical male trio format popularised by opera singers 'The Three tenors', and 'Three Mo' Tenors'. Arranging traditional hymns, dividing the verses between the soloists, with occasional choreography gave birth to Dixon, Burton and Billett, where he joins two members of the bass section of his Croydon SDA Gospel Choir - David Billett, and Everol Dixon, in a crossover 'gospel meets Classical' sound. Someone once joked that Burton 'has a vocal ensemble for every day of the week'.
Burton's mindset is not just simply to have groups that perform, but wherever possible to think entrepreneurial. As a result, most of the groups have recorded with recordings distributed by labels set up, either for profit, or not for profit. The Voquality company deals mostly with supplying services to the commercial music and film industry, but also acts as a publisher for Burton's self-published music. Many of his works are published by some of the world's leading music publishers: Faber Music, Edition Peters, Oxford University Press, RSCM, and Walton.
Burton is a regular adjudicator for Choir Of The Year- the very competition where, in 1994, he had his two regular choirs in the same final, the London Adventist Chorale winning. He works extensively as a TV judge; as one of the judges for Channel 4's Gospel Singers Of The Year, BBC Songs Of Praise School Choir Of The Year (BBC1), and was one of the judges of the eight part BAFTA-nominated series The Choir: Sing While You Work (BBC2), presented by Gareth Malone.
He appeared in the credits, as choirmaster, in the multiple Oscar and Grammy winning Marvel film Black Panther, and has also been credited as a choral conductor in other films including Jingle Jangle. He has contributed as a conductor, contractor, and singer to a number of film soundtracks.
He has appeared and worked extensively on some of the biggest programmes on British television and internationally, among them the aforementioned Songs Of Praise (BBC) as a regular conductor, arranger, interviewee, performer, and consultant, and The X Factor (ITV), The X Factor USA(Fox), Britain's Got Talent (ITV), Prom At The Palace (BBC), Eastenders (BBC), Soul Noel (BBC) and numerous others. His roles on the programmes have included performing, vocal contracting, conducting, arranging, musical directing, and production. In 2013 he was one of six invited choral figures to guest present on BBC Radio 3's The Choir, where he explored the changing face and settings of gospel music. His Adventist Vocal Ensemble has been a regular contributor to the biggest days in the calendar (Easter and Christmas) for BBC Radio 2 Good Morning Sunday. Ken has contributed extensively to numerous programmes on The Hope Channel, an international television channel owned and operated by the Seventh-Day Adventist Church organisation. In 2014 and 2015 he presented two nine-part series programmes of Music In My Life: With Ken Burton for Life Connect TV, where he interviewed and made music with a number of established and aspiring gospel and contemporary Christian music artists from across Europe.
His work, however, is not confined to the genre of gospel music. He also has a strong background of (and actually studied) Classical music, and has worked as a chorusmaster training choirs to sing large-scale works such as Verdi Requiem, and Brahms Deutsches Requiem. He has conducted, written and arranged numerous choral and orchestral works for orchestras including London Mozart Players, CBSO, Orchestra Of The Swan, and various BBC orchestras. He conducted the 60th annual performance of Handel's Messiah at the Metropolitan Baptist Church in Washington DC. He has been a studio guest on Proms Plus (BBC Television), preceding a concert which included Tippett's A Child Of Our Time, and commenting on Beethoven's Fidelio & Symphony 9, and has conducted and performed at several Proms concerts, including his own music.
In 2019, he had his original music performed on the main stage at the Glastonbury Festival, in the form of a choral prelude entitled You Saved Me, which preceded the performance of Blinded By Your Grace, by British artist Stormzy.
In addition to his regular performance based activities, he has been involved with the Kijani Kenya Trust - a UK based charity which raises funds for HIV and conservation projects in Kenya. His trips to Kenya have involved visits to a large number of orphanages, where music education work is carried out with the orphans, who often have the opportunity to perform on stage as part of the major music festival.
In 2012, the year of the London Olympics, he worked as a vocal coach for the UK Charity Youth Music's cultural olympiad choir Youth Music Voices which performed at venues including WOMAD and the Royal Opera House.
As a guest conductor and workshop leader, he has led workshop choirs across the world, often being commissioned to write new pieces for them.