Matthew Burtner: Engaging the Natural World

The music of composer Matthew Burtner is in large part inspired by his childhood experiences of the Alaskan landscape where he grew up. That influence applies not only to the content of the music, but to the way it is created. At times during his childhood, his family lived in extremely remote locations in the North and managed without electricity or running water. “So now, I really love to be surrounded by electric things!” he admits, laughing. Burtner can be found knee-deep in cables, computers, and electronic gear pretty much wherever he is—whether directing the Interactive Media Research Group at the University of Virginia where he serves as associate professor of composition and computer technologies, working with his organization EcoSono, which seeks to foster connections between the arts, technology, and environmentalism, or presenting solo performances on the metasaxophone, a computer-enhanced saxophone of his own creation.

Much of his compositional work over the past 15 years has focused on a triptych of multimedia operas, each based on one of the three different geographical regions of Alaska where he lived as a child. The third and most ambitious opera is Auksalaq, co-created with media artist Scott Deal, which employs an interdisciplinary team of scientists, media technologists, artists, and musicians to form an interactive, multimedia commentary on the environmental changes taking place in the far north of Alaska, and the long-term, worldwide effect of those shifts. Described as a “telematic opera,” the performance, which involves a combination of instrumental music, computer sound, spoken and sung texts, and extensive video footage of scientific data and dramatic arctic landscapes, takes place in several locations which are connected via the internet. The audience in each venue experiences part of the performance in person, as well as performances from other regions which are projected onto video screens. There is even an app (prompting audience members at a recent Washington, D.C., performance to coin the term “appera”) which allows people at all of the locations to share their reactions to the drama via texts that are rendered into a constantly moving thought cloud on a screen for all to see, and from which the main character, sung by soprano Lisa Edwards-Burrs, chooses words with which to construct her final aria. Everything about Auksalaq is intended to highlight the concepts of remoteness and interconnectivity, which by the end of the work do not seem to conflict in any way.

Working with and—literally—through the environment is an integral part of Burtner’s musical aesthetic, which he calls ecoacoustics. His interest in the perception of sound traveling through natural materials—such as snow, wind, and sand—has resulted in a number of compositions that make the natural world part of the musical ensemble. For example, Syntax of Snow, created for glockenspiels and fresh snow, is ideally performed outside, as is the work Sandprints, for human-computer ensemble, whistling, and sand. It requires microphones to be buried under the sand to amplify the movements of people manipulating the sand above ground, which are in turn manipulated by a series of computational processes to form the musical material. He has created a large umbrella for this methodology by turning ecoacoustics into an entire course of study, part of which is a performing ensemble called MICE (Musical Interactive Computer Ensemble) which has performed Sandprints in the Namibian desert, as well as created and performed numerous other works. He has also founded a non-profit organization called EcoSono with the mission of spreading the integration of experimental sound art with environmentalism through education, engagement, and artistic production.

When questioned about how he reconciles the potential conflict between his passion for technology and for the environment, he is quick to point out that humans have always needed technology to survive in the world; we need clothing to protect us from the elements, we require boats to move across water, snowshoes to travel over arctic terrain. He sees the potential of technology to assist in bringing people closer to nature, rather than separating them from it, and is intent upon exploding those early childhood experiences listening to the sounds of nature into a shared universal perspective. “I see the issue of climate change as the defining issue of the 21st century. As an artist I think the best thing I can do is to try to engage with the public about the issue, and try to activate more and more voices talking and thinking about it.”

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