ECO-ACOUSTICS

A University of Virginia professor uses computers to create music about nature

Posted: Thursday, September 08, 2005

In his studio at the University of Virginia, professor of composition and computer music Matthew Burtner uses a bank of Linux and Macintosh computers to create music about nature.

For some, that's a paradox: How can you get closer to your environment with a computer?

Burtner, born in Nuiqsut and now an internationally touring composer, finds that electronics are the most natural way to create what he calls "eco-acoustics," music that takes its structure from the sounds of nature.

"I had to learn the tools to deal with a lot of the technology as a way of analyzing and extracting the parameters of nature" Burtner said. "And that's something that's necessary to move beyond impressionism to root the work in ecology. Computers seem removed from nature. Sometimes I've found that computers allow you to appreciate nature more and understand it better. I find computer music very close to nature, more so than a lot of other music."

Burtner will debut "Wind-prints," based on the sounds of winds in Bristol Bay and written for a 12-piece ensemble, during CrossSound's main "Ecography" concert, 8 p.m. Friday, Sept. 10, at Northern Light United Church.

The show will include two other newly commissioned pieces: a dual concerto for bassoon and sheng written by Berlin composer Il-Ryun Chung; and "Meadow Upon the Banks of the Nile," a piece by Egyptian-American composer Riad Abdel-Gawad that features bassoon and oboe.

The concert will also include three works that premiered at the festival in 1999 - "Barcarolle," by Marti Epstein for violin, viola and cello; "... there is none like you amongst the dancers," by Cord Meijering for viola, flute, changgu and kayagum; and "Suite for Four," by Oliver Schneller for cello, baroque flute, oboe and trumpet.

Burtner, who grew up in Naknek and was born near the Beaufort Sea, will give a 7 p.m. pre-concert talk about how his experience in Alaska shaped his use of environmental systems as a way to inspire musical structure.

"I think art is always leading people in certain directions, and it's important for us to resolve this disjointed relationship we have with our life in the natural world," Burtner said. "I hope that music is a bridge between music and ecology."

Burtner began writing "Wind Prints" by hanging a boom microphone in a tree on Bristol Bay during the summer of 2003 and recording the coastal wind in 12-minute samples. He turned the recording into a spectrogram, a line graph that detailed the frequency components and changes of amplitude in the samples. As he laid out the pages on his floor, each page representing 30 seconds of sound, he could literally see the amplitude shifts of the separate gusts.

He wrote the score on top of the spectrograph, basing the role of each instrument on the shifts in the wind's dynamic.

"I'm not interested in duplicating the wind," Burtner said. "I'm interested in what it feels like when you stand outside in the wind and it blows and it gusts. It affects our mind and our imagination. That's the metaphor of the relationship between the human being and nature."

The piece begins with ambient noise: the sound of a flautist blowing into the mouthpiece, the whoosh of sandblocks , sandpaper and rattles and a trombonist playing air, no notes. A minute in, the first gusts arrive and bring the first instrumental crescendos, which blow into the melody. The work does not include the actual sound of the wind, but does have seven melodies for the sample's seven gusts. It eventually ends with Wu Wei on the sheng, accompanied by oboe, flute and strings.

"We transition from the sound of the wind in a very direct way into something more abstract, which is more like wind as structure," Burtner said. "It's a different kind of piece than traditional classical music of Western music. The idea of structure really evolves from a human idea of what that includes: a beginning, a middle and an end. I really wanted the wind to make the structure."

Burtner was born in Nuiqsut, a village of 250 on the Beaufort Sea. His parents were schoolteachers.

They moved to Naknek, on Bristol Bay, when he was 6. He spent much of his youth gillnetting and playing saxophone, with no clear idea of what a composer really was. In the summers, he studied music theory at the King's Lake Camp in Wasilla and sat in with any bands that would let him on-stage in Naknek's bar scene. He began playing at the town's Red Dog Saloon when he was 14.

"I like the social aspect of music making and playing with ensembles, but I always had a problem with the music," Burtner said. "It felt like I was making someone else's music. It felt like the music wasn't close to me. It didn't match my experiences in the world."

A key influence was "The Twilight Sloan," a late-night free-form and avant-garde radio show hosted by Anchorage blues musician Gary Sloan.

"They played Tangerine Dream, Laurie Anderson; I recorded it on tape just to have examples of this kind of music," Burtner said. "I liked the idea of sustained sound, the drone or the glacial aspect of it, and that's something that I keep in my music - a ground or a line that runs through it. I called it new classical music, music without style, without genre."

Burtner returned to his teaching job last week at the University of Virginia after a year-long sabbatical at IRCAM, a research center for computer music and acoustics under the George Pompidou Center in Paris. Burtner was working on interactive media for stage performance and his second opera, "Imaq/Windcombs," based on the sounds of a river in Bristol Bay. The first half of the opera premiered in late August at the Quincena Festival in San Sebastian, France.



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