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Virtual reality in music
Composer personifies life in sound

Matthew Burtner shows off one of the masks to be used in “The Winter Raven.”
Photo by Marcy Day
Matthew Burtner shows off one of the masks to be used in “The Winter Raven.”

By Jane Ford

Matthew Burtner calls himself a sound artist. He is part composer, performer, inventor, conductor, director, researcher, anthropologist, environmentalist and explorer.

As a modern-day explorer, Burtner’s landscape is music. Using computer technology, he creates “technosonic” music that taps the unlimited possibilities of sound. “I am exploring and making a map at the same time,” said Burtner, assistant professor of music and associate director of the Virginia Center for Computer Music at U.Va. “The score is a link between the imagination of the composer and the performer who will bring that process alive.”

Burtner’s scores don’t look like those of Mozart or Beethoven. They include notations that indicate sounds of the environment as well as traditional music notation. They visually evoke the terrain of the composition. On one score, the indication for the sound of wind, played by drums, looks like air currents skipping across the page. The scores are a combination of specifics and suggestions, and are a lot like what the audience is listening to, said Burtner.

“Everyone in the audience is listening to something different because their perceptions are different.

“People need to forget what they think they know about music and just listen,” he said.

All that is required to understand Burtner’s music is an open mind and a sense of adventure.

Burtner’s latest work, “Ukiuq Tulugaq (The Winter Raven),” will premiere at 8:15 p.m. in Old Cabell Hall on Friday, March 28. Based on an Inuit creation story in which the world is created by a raven, the piece also evokes the environmental change from fall to winter.

Burtner describes the piece as “bringing the outdoors in.”

Presented by the McIntire Department of Music

University of Virginia

8:15 p.m., March 28, Old Cabell Hall, $10, $5, 5ARTS$
Call 924-3984

Michael Slon, conductor

Sage Blaska, dance choreography

Ainseh Khan, video choreography

U.Va. Multimedia Production Class, staging, movemtn choreography, dance, constumes and production
The Winter Raven

He grew up in Alaska and was surrounded by people who lived close to nature.
“The inspiration of nature is not new to music,” said Burtner. “Debussy’s music was often inspired by nature.” Burtner approached the project from an anthropological point of view, using nature in an impressionistic way. He uses computer technology to help relate a dream-like memory of place and time.

The production of “The Winter Raven” includes instrumental ensembles, voices, electronics, multiple video projection, modern dance, dance derived from native dance traditions, theater, special lighting and staging techniques and surround sound.

Burtner created masks that represent the sun, ice, wind and the raven for the storyteller to wear in the production. The character will have a wireless video camera attached to a staff she carries. As she dances, moving images of the masks will be sent to a computer, then combined with visuals of the environmental element that the mask represents. The new image will be projected on a screen onstage.

The masks are based on those used by shamans in religious contexts and on the cultural tradition of mask-making in general, said Burtner, who has studied masks since 1995 and conducted extensive research at the Anchorage Museum of Art.

Numerous students from various disciplines around Grounds are involved in Burtner’s class, “The Multimedia Production: The Winter Raven.” They receive independent study credit for their efforts. One student group is making a documentary video of the class and the process of bringing “The Winter Raven” to the stage. An art student is creating a sculpture-like circular screen with wings upon which images will be projected during the performance.

“The Winter Raven” is only a stop along the way on Burtner’s journey of discovery. During the summer he will travel by boat down Alaska’s Kvichak River from glacier to sea, visiting villages along the shore. This project is about the ocean, water, ecology and fishing, he said. He plans to create a map from a cultural viewpoint, taking into account the multiple languages and cultures of the people. The final creation will be an opera.

“It’s acoustic ecology—where environmental elements such as the tides, moon and low water will be personified,” he said.

Burtner also is involved in creating new instruments. Since 1997, he has been working on the Metasaxophone Project, which extends the range and capabilities of the saxophone beyond its natural acoustic limits. Fitted with a computer processor and sensors, he investigates the instrument’s untapped resonating properties.

This passion for sound and music Burtner traces back to early childhood. He remembers being carried in a backpack by his mother, hearing the wind howling by his ears and humming to himself.

“Sometimes you are influenced early on by key experiences that stick, and you spend the rest of your life working on that,” he said.



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