Mathew Burtner Explores the Natural World of Music

Feb. 15, 2007 -- Matthew Burtner was born in Alaska, and his heritage shapes his view of music as a force of nature. “There’s a crucial energy that takes place when you get close to the natural world,” he says. “Part of what I’m trying to do is to bring this feeling into music.”

Burtner is an assistant professor of composition and computer music in the McIntire Department of Music at U.Va. His quest to imbue music with natural force shapes his approach to composition. It has drawn him to technology, which offers an infinite palette of sound as well as an impersonal quality that Burtner finds has its counterpart in the natural world. “I’ve realized that what I like about nature is that it doesn’t care about us,” he says. “We’re not the reference point.” Burtner’s approach to music has attracted accolades from around the world, including first prize at the Musica Nova International Electroacoustic Music Competition.

With his colleague David Topper, Burtner has explored the possibilities of multichannel audio, research that led to his composition, That which is bodiless is reflected in bodies. This piece was written for and performed in the Dome Room of the Rotunda at the TechnoSonics V Festival and began with a performer striking a handheld bowl just once. “The computer then extended the harmonics of the sound, animating them and moving them around the room at different rates and trajectories, much as sound travels around the rim of the bowl,” Burtner says. “It created interesting meetings and distortions of tone.” At the same time, Burtner introduced a rhythmic figure that increased as time went on until, after 13 minutes, the original performer returned to strike the bowl and the sound in the Rotunda decayed into silence. In essence, Burtner created an environment that is subject to specific laws, though like the laws of nature, they may not be understood by the listener.

Burtner’s interest in composing music that possesses natural force has led him to link music explicitly to environmental phenomena, a technique referred to as “ecoacoustics.” Burtner uses natural phenomena—the sound and pattern of waves breaking or changes in temperature recorded over an afternoon—to shape a musical composition. In Tingnikvik, an Inupiaq Alaskan word meaning “the time of leaves falling and birds flying south,” he explores the ecological processes involved in the approaching of winter. Each instrument is linked to a specific environmental parameter, and gradual changes over time generate the linear motion of the instrumental lines and the timbre of the piece as a whole. “Unlike movement in everyday human life, environmental processes change relatively slowly,” Burtner says. “As a result, this piece moves slowly between acoustical states without attempting to push into traditional musical forms.”

Burtner doesn’t cede all control to the natural world, however. In the process of making the specific linkage that forms the basis of his ecoacoustic compositions, in programming computers to respond to inputs in particular ways, and in improvising on the metasaxophone, a combined acoustic/electronic instrument he created, Burtner plays an active, though not always central role, in shaping the musical world he creates. For this reason, he also conducts research on perception so that he can be deliberate in the choices he makes. For instance, he has been investigating the ways moving sound around a space affects our understanding of it. “I want to find out under what conditions you hear a sound coming from different speakers as a distinct object or as discrete objects,” he says.

Burtner needs this kind of information if he is to make music that conveys the effortless conviction and impartial impact of nature. “I want to make music that will change your life and help you experience the world differently,” he says.

Written by Charlie Feigenoff for the Office of the Vice President for Research and Graduate Studies