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U.Va. Music Professor Wins Technology Award for Telematic Opera

Listen to the UVA Today Radio Show report on this story by Rob Seal:

October 4, 2011 — University of Virginia music professor and composer Matthew Burtner is among the winners of 2011 IDEA awards for an innovative opera that uses advanced networking technology to connect audiences and performers spread around the globe.

The awards, announced today by Internet2, are designed to "recognize and encourage innovative advanced network applications that have the most positive impact and potential for adoption within the research and education community," according to Internet2, a nonprofit consortium of universities, corporations, government agencies, laboratories and other institutions that develop breakthrough Internet technologies.

Burtner, a professor in the McIntire Department of Music in the College of Arts & Sciences and collaborator Scott Deal, a musician and professor at Indiana University-Purdue University in Indianapolis, won for "Auksalaq: a Telematic Opera."

"The piece is about two things woven together: One is about our relationship to our homes, everyone's relationship to their own home place. The other is climate change, in particular about how my own home has changed," said Burtner, who grew up near the Arctic Ocean in far northern Alaska. The title comes from the Inupiat word for melting snow or ice.

The opera, which will debut in October 2012, uses high-speed Internet connections to link audiences and performers from multiple sites. Audience members are also able to interact with the performance in real-time through new Web-based software called NOMADS, or the Network Operational Mobile Applied Digital System.

"Auksalaq" will be performed simultaneously in New York; Alaska; Vancouver, B.C.; Indianapolis; and Oslo, Norway, as well as other potential sites. All the sites will be networked together for video and audio, and each will host its own share of the piece's performers and audience.

"Each site has its own ensemble and they interact across great distance," Burtner said. "The music is written to take advantage of the distance. You can have a violinist in one location and a flute player in another location and they play a duet. The piece is designed for all of the imperfections of telematic music."

The Oslo performance, for example, might host 20 percussionists and a chorus, while the New York site will host the performer who plays the opera's main character. The Alaska site will be a conference on climate change, where scientists will read their papers as part of the performance.

"One of the main characters in the opera is a kind of storyteller, and she is telling the story about someone who left their home and comes back 40 years later and discovers it's all changed," Burtner said. "She talks to the audience quite freely – she's sort of half-shaman and half-technology-savvy contemporary woman."

The character's technological experience will allow her to direct real technical support to audience members who might need help. Audience members at each location will be encouraged to bring personal computing devices and laptops to the performance, and will interact with the performance through NOMADS, the audience interface software Burtner is developing with the help of David Topper, the music department's technical director, and music doctoral student Steven Kemper.

"NOMADS allows the audience members or people at home looking in on this opera to interact with the content on the stage using their mobile computers and devices," Burtner said. "So the singers talk to the audience and ask them questions and ask them to do things. A character says 'Tell me where you're from,' and they respond through NOMADS. You then see projected on the screen a cloud of text, and if 20 people are from New York, the word 'New York' will appear bigger."

Winners of the IDEA award have ranged from physicists to Internet security engineers, and Burtner said he's proud his opera was honored.

"The technology supports the concept of the work, which is something I think is very important," he said.

— By Rob Seal

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