Johns Hopkins Magazine -- June 1997
Johns Hopkins Magazine

JUNE 1997



H U M A N I T I E S    A N D    T H E    A R T S

Matthew Burtner: The Composer
In Five Prose Movements
By Dale Keiger
Photos by Mark Lee

Matthew Burtner ( Peabody '97) spent years of his childhood in Nuiqsuit, Alaska. You can't get much more north than Nuiqsuit. It's up by Pt. Barrow, north of the northern continental divide, way north of the Arctic Circle. There are no mountains, no hills, no trees--just tundra, an immense horizon, and wind without cease. The wind blows across hundreds of miles of desolate country until it hits something, like your house or your face. It's always in your ears, whether you're indoors or out in Nuiqsuit, or in Burtner's hometown of Naknek on Bristol Bay, or on one of the salmon boats where he works each summer. On the boat, he sometimes finds himself wishing for more wind. Mere gales make the sea choppy, pitching the vessel to and fro. A really big blow flattens the water.

Listen to Burtner's music--for he is a composer--and sometimes you will find the wind in your own ears. There is weather in his compositions, as well as landscape: open, brooding, sometimes ominous, often wintry. For nearly as long as he can remember, he has been fascinated by sound and driven to organize it into music. Now 27, he composes tirelessly, and has since he was a boy. "When I was 13, I thought it was strange that I was always thinking about sound and writing little pieces," he says. "I realized that other people were not doing that. I distinctly remember thinking, This is odd behavior."

He composes for conventional orchestral instruments, for computers, for electronics combined with conventional instruments. He has written for string quartet, for piccolo and low ensemble (bass clarinet, contrabassoon, cello, double bass, bass trombone, tuba, piano, and percussion), for snare drum quartet and computer, and for computer wind controller with stone trio. The rocks used by the latter can still be found laying around the Peabody computer music offices. He composes for dance, including a forthcoming ballet, The Winter Raven, that he first thought about when he was 7 years old. Symphony in Metal, another piece in progress, will require 125 players and live electronics; he says, "It's kind of like punk rock for symphony. It's gonna be very loud." His performance piece Taruyamaarutet : Twisted Faces (in wood) won Peabody's 1996 Prix d'Été competition for innovative use of technology in music.

Burtner's music is rarely pretty, in the Tchaikovsky sense, or in the way a film score's melody is pretty. Like most contemporary composers, he considers dissonance and harshness part of his everyday musical vocabulary. He writes soprano parts that require a singer to growl and hiss and shout guttural syllables that are part of no language. He smiles ruefully when he talks about what his compositions ask of performers: "At a place like Peabody, you train for years to play major scales, and then have modern pieces that don't use any of that. We're using microtones. We want it out of tune."

Some of his music is discomforting, but it is not arid or austerely intellectual. He says, "If the music's hard, if it's dissonant, if it seems difficult, that's not necessarily a bad thing. There's always a reward in the end." His compositions have a way of insinuating themselves into your mind. Listen to them enough, and you begin to think and take in the world as he does. You hear a gust of wind or the far--off sound of machinery and you think, That sounds like something from a Burtner composition.

His former teacher, Barbara Jazwinski, associate professor of music at Tulane University, says, "He has a great sense of color, of orchestration. Original harmonies, interesting combinations of instruments, a very interesting approach to combining acoustical and electronic instruments. He's willing to experiment, to combine the more traditional techniques with his Alaskan heritage. That, I think, is probably his greatest strength--that he can offer something different."

Nascence for wind, native drums, and saxophone

Burtner is of average size, with a trim build, dark hair, and a goatee. He dresses casually in an Abercrombie & Fitch sort of way--khaki chinos, pullover sweaters, open--necked shirts. His hectic schedule can leave him harried, hair uncombed, dark circles around his eyes as he races for an appointment. But he usually has the unworried demeanor of someone who knows his life is going very well at the moment. He has an adult's confidence married to a child's enthusiasm for the world. He often responds to questions by first uttering a Yeahhh... that implies Isn't that something? When he speaks, he doesn't gesture much; his movements are compact, perhaps from all those summers on a salmon boat.

In 1964, Leslie Burtner, his father, hitchhiked to Alaska right after the great earthquake that wrecked Anchorage, Kodiak, and Seward. The elder Burtner says, "I was 19 and wanted to get out of Missouri, as far away as I could. My girlfriend, who's now my wife [Judith Burtner], said, 'Well, Alaska's far away.' It had just been on the cover of National Geographic, otherwise I would never even have known about it. I said, 'All right, I'm outta here.'"

Judith followed him a year later. They attended Alaska Methodist University in Anchorage, and in 1968 moved to Naknek to work as teachers. (Later they got into the fishing business; they now live in Anchorage, but still fish in the summer.) Matt was born there two years later. In 1975, the family moved to Nuiqsuit, where Leslie was principal teacher of the one--room schoolhouse.

"Nuiqsuit was a brand--new village," Leslie recalls. "It was a land grab for oil rights. A party of Eskimos just went out from Barrow and developed this village right on top of one of the biggest oil fields. We were virtually the first white people in there."

The highest point on the horizon was a rise of maybe 20 feet. The Burtner house was built on pilings driven into the tundra. In spring, the thaw turned the landscape into a swamp plagued by voracious mosquitoes. In winter, the weather was indescribably harsh. Leslie once got whited--out in a blizzard, surviving only because he had the good fortune to literally bump into a village building. Matt recalls the day the thermometer shattered, a thermometer designed to read down to --75 degrees. "It's amazing that people would settle there at all," he says. "But the native culture's so rich, the music and the art work and the stories. That it could come out of such a desolate place..."

Burtner's earliest sound--memories are of the wind. His earliest musical memories are of Inuit drumming. Nuiqsuit's native villagers played hoop drums made from stretched hides. They would gather in the school gymnasium and play, and other villagers would dance and tell stories. "That was the happening thing in town," Burtner recalls. He remembers women throat--singing, which produces eerie, sometimes raw vocal sounds, with striking overtones that can make it seem as if the singer is sounding two or more notes simultaneously. The Inuit women would imitate seals with a rough, growly sort of sound.

Burtner's mother taught piano, so around age 5 he began taking lessons from her. "It was good of my mom to teach me, but it wasn't much fun," he recalls. "Kids don't like playing the piano. You've got to sit there every day. The only way I could get out of it was if I took up another instrument. I took up sax as fast as I could."

"He really started excelling in his sixth--grade year," his father recalls. "He seemed to be able to perform, and liked to do it. There was sort of a presence about him when he got up in front of people."

By age 10 he was writing his own songs. "I didn't ever really like much of the music that was out there, at least that I could play," he says. He'd perform anywhere he could--school assemblies, church. He'd stage little performance pieces, with props and a story of some sort, imitating the Inuits. Those pieces were the forerunners of Taruyamaarutet.

Taruyamaarutet--Twisted Faces (in wood) for soprano, marimba, bass clarinet, percussion, and polyrhythmicon

Taruyamaarutet, the twisted faces of the title, are wooden masks created by Inuit shamans to guide the people through ceremonial rites. Often, the masks represent a tunghat spirit, who controls the availability of animals vital to a subsistence culture. The shaman journeys to this spirit to ask for plentiful game. Burtner staged the piece using projected images of the masks, and movement choreographed by his childhood friend Melanie Anastasia Brown, an Inuit dancer now living in New York. Brown's father is from Unalakleet, and three years ago Burtner was there looking through books in the little village library. He came across photographs of taruyamaarutet and had an idea for a piece about an imagined shaman's journey.

The music, which he first wrote as a chamber piece, begins with sounds of breathing, that quickly give way to agitation. Over top of a droning bass clarinet and a layered rhythm of percussion and marimba, the soprano sounds wild and bedeviled, haunted and admonitory, as the shaman goes into a trance and begins the journey to the spirit. The tension and racket--that's not too strong a word--build in a crescendo until five loud strikes on the marimba silence the ensemble, leaving only what sounds like an ebbing wind.

Soprano, bass clarinet, and marimba interweave in the foreboding second section. The vocal score includes harsh consonants and gruff syllables that recall the singers imitating seals in Nuiqsuit, though Burtner says nothing was directly adapted from Inuit music. Underneath it all, a complicated rhythm percolates. The tempo accelerates, with rhythmic accents that sound like slaps.

Rumbling percussion, sounding like an onrushing herd, announces the final section, the coming of the caribou for the tribe's hunters. The drumming drops out to solo bass clarinet, which gives way to marimba. Clarinet and marimba alternate before the soprano and percussion return. The soprano repeats a short, alarming melody five times over banging percussion, accelerating toward an abrupt end.

One of the most striking features of Taruyamaarutet is its complicated percussion score. To Burtner, rhythm embodies consonance and dissonance, just like harmony. The listener's mind sorts simple polyrhythms--say, a rhythm in two played over a rhythm in three--into patterns that repeat over short periods of time. Burtner considers these simple rhythms, with their short-- term periodicity, to be consonant. Like the notes of an E major chord, the elements sound in agreement; to the listener they seem harmonious. Make the polyrhythm more complex, though, by layering, for example a rhythm in 15 over a rhythm of 17.5 over another of 20 over one of 27.5, and the listener loses all sense of harmoniousness. Tension arises because the mind still senses some scheme of organization, but it can no longer sort what it hears into simpler periodic patterns. The effect is unsettling, like a dissonant chord.

Taruyamaarutet's polyrhythms are too complex for a human drummer to perform. Burtner wrote them for the polyrhythmicon, which he invented. He thinks of it as a musical instrument, but you can't hold it like a flute or a trumpet. It's a computer program that resides inside a Macintosh and tells a synthesizer to produce specified rhythmic patterns. It is as if the Macintosh were a box containing an ensemble of drummers whose capabilities far exceed that of any human. The composer writes a set of instructions for the desired rhythms, and the polyrhythmicon plays them. A musician can "play" the instrument in an ensemble by sitting at a computer and changing various settings and controls. "The goal is that the computer becomes just another instrument that one can use, like a violin," Burtner says. "I think that's where we're headed. The computer isn't going to replace instrumental music. It's going to add new freedom, new opportunities."

Wanderlust for saxophone, electronics, and road sounds

Burtner has a travel itch. He's had it for a long time. Growing up in Alaska will do that, he says: "I always felt really remote there, you know? I had such an imagination for places like New York. They were places where it was happening, and where I was really wasn't happening." When he was 16, he decided to take off forAustralia. "Like a lot of kids, I had trouble with high school," he recalls. "I just told my parents I was going, and they didn't stop me."

His father says, "At some point you sense that the kid needs to test his wings and get out. There was a lot of that in Matt-- early."

Burtner headed first for Japan, since he'd been taking Japanese in high school and the Burtners had family friends there. Then he made his way to Australia. He landed at Perth, then got himself to Melbourne. He played his saxophone, at one point forming a band named after its rehearsal space, Richard's Lounge Room. "It was like a blues--punk group. It was bad."

After a year abroad, he surprised himself by returning to Alaska to complete high school. He was still composing, but when it came time to consider college, he steered away from music school and decided to study philosophy at St. John's College in Santa Fe, New Mexico: "I just didn't feel like focusing on music. I wanted something more broad." Still, he carried a tape recorder everywhere with him, so he could capture the musical ideas that kept coming to him as fast as ever. He continued to play his sax, and compose, but he was beginning to bump up against the limits of his knowledge. He heard music in his head that he couldn't write because he didn't understand counterpoint and orchestration.

After only a year and a half, he transferred to the music school at Tulane, in New Orleans. The day he drove his truck with its Alaska plates into town, New Orleans was experiencing its first snowstorm in 17 years. Jazwinski, his favorite teacher, recalls him: "He was an amazing student. Very bright. Very eager, though in some ways he was behind. He did not have the theoretical preparation that some students have. But he did not come here with a lot of preconceived ideas. He was very open to influences and suggestions. Another thing that struck me was his insatiable curiosity. If we mentioned a specific piece that uses a particular technique, we would be absolutely assured that Matt would go and listen to this piece and many others, and come back with dozens of questions."

During his first term, Burtner found Bourbon Street more compelling than a classroom. He'd play his saxophone on street corners, and hang out in clubs until 6 a.m. "It was tedious in school, and sort of fun outside of school," he says. Restlessness got the better of him again, and after only one semester at Tulane he left for Europe. Jazwinski was not fond of the idea. Says Burtner, "She's very serious, European trained, old school. She also really cares about her students. She wanted me to stay, not do this run--around thing. I went anyway, because I needed to find something out."

In London, he played in the subway, on the street at Piccadilly Circus, in wine bars. He traveled through Belgium, Germany, Holland, Switzerland, Austria, Ireland, France, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, and Greece. On one train, he had to tie the door handle shut to keep the thieves out. He tried to play on the streets of Paris. "It's like the worst place in Europe to play," he says. "They treat you like a street--person." All the while he kept writing. He composed a string quartet while in Greece. Through musicians he met in London, he became interested in the improvisatory music of Ornette Coleman and John Zorn.

By 1991, he was back at Tulane, where he applied himself enough to graduate summa cum laude in 1993. Then he returned to Europe, to study in Paris at the studio of the expatriate Greek composer Iannis Xenakis. Trained as an architect, Xenakis has experimented with things like applying the physical laws of gases to the ordering of a musical composition. His work imbued Burtner with respect for pursuing a musical idea wherever it leads, and with a deep fascination for applying technology to music. "I was attracted immediately to the possibility of creating sounds I hadn't heard outside of my imagination," he says. "To create them on an acoustic instrument is very hard." That attraction led Burtner to Peabody in late 1994, to its computer music program and Studio 312.

Fern, for two dancers and tape
(and horns that don't sound like horns)

Studio 312 is where the conservatory's electronic music composers work. Burtner sits before a PowerMac 8500/120 computer, next to a large Soundcraft 6000 mixing board. Above the board, a video monitor plays a tape of two dancers moving about an empty room. Burtner listens as the PowerMac generates the music he's constructing for Quiessence, a Washington, D.C., contemporary dance troupe. He's worked with the troupe before, and when one of its founders, Sharon Mansur, called and asked if he'd do a new piece called Fern, Burtner was already overcommitted. "I said no," he says. "And then I said, 'I'd love to.'"

He's been here since 7 a.m., working on a thermos of coffee as he manipulates digitized sound to create a low rumble. "They want to start with silence," he explains. "I've started with a 'musical silence' that isn't really silence. This is like hearing the earth before a fern opens."

On the PowerMac's monitor, a graphic representation of the constituent sounds of this low rumble scrolls across the screen, like a sort of musical score. The sounds themselves are computer files labeled "bass resonant.1" and "bass resonant.2" They are actually French horn tones, though you wouldn't know this unless Burtner told you. He recorded the horns, then used the computer to first "stretch" the tones, increasing their duration by 100 to 200 times without any change in pitch. Then he divided the sound into thousands of quanta by a process called "granular synthesis." It's like taking a piece of beach and breaking it down into grains of sand. Each quantum is part of the tone created by the horn, but without the computer to pull it apart, you'd never know it was in there. Burtner likes to use the computer in this way, to pry open a tone or a chord and see what's inside. He says, "When you process a sound, you can do anything with it. I may work with jungle sounds, violin tones, whatever, but you'll never hear them as such. It's freedom of sound."

And freedom to exert microcontrol. Burtner explains that on a conventional musical score, the distance from C to D is a point-- to--point progression: C to C sharp to D. But the computer, like a violinist sliding his finger up a string, lets you greatly expand that progression. Burtner can take the quanta of his digitally recorded horn tones, and play them forward, backward, slowed down, sped up. He can bring certain harmonics to the foreground, or pass them through a resonator that enhances the aural spectrum, like a prism that takes light and breaks it not into 7,000 colors rather than seven. "My idea here is to make a sound of the earth rumbling. I don't want anyone to hear a horn."

He talks while he watches the dancers on the video monitor move to a rehearsal tape of his score--in--progress. On the Mac, a vertical line traverses six diagrams that look like voiceprints. As the music progresses, the line moves from left to right. Burtner hears something he doesn't like, clicks on the computer's mouse, and extends the length of a crescendo. "One of the hard things in the studio is keeping your musical sensibility, to use your ears and really listen, rather than get caught up in the software and the equipment," he says. "You need to work like a composer. You don't want to make things complex just because you can."

Before him is a note from Mansur, the choreographer, that sketches out Fern's basic choreography: "K does set solo phrase--S does improv. S does set solo phrase--K does improv. Floor phrase [space] unison. Jumping phrase [space] canon." Burtner says, "They have a lot of action, so I don't want to clutter it up. But I do want to create another level of tension. Okay, let's see what this looks like."

He plays the videotape again, and listens. Overhead, the vane on an air--conditioning unit opens and closes, at times in synch with the music as if it, too, were dancing.

"Gotta find a new sound," he says, suddenly. "I need something harder"--he clenches his fist--"to bring more tension to that section." He digs out a soft--shell case of digital audio cassettes, and selects one labeled Burtner Banff D2 11/96. "I try to hang on to stuff. These are all granulated soundscape environments. I collect these, trying to keep new sounds. One of the hard parts is finding a repertory of sounds that go together, that are consistent. It's an obligation of the composer to use sounds that make sense."

Burtner sometimes wanders about, recording sounds for later use. He has digital audio tape of cicadas and crickets recorded on a summer evening near Annapolis, Maryland, and wind blowing through a spruce in Alberta, Canada. Wind, he says, is not easy to record; too often, what you get on the tape sounds like someone blowing into a microphone to see if it's on. He once recorded the sound of a bus pulling up and scattering a flock of pigeons. When he began manipulating that sound on a computer, he discovered that the squeaking of the brakes formed a lovely melody.

He decides he needs a sound that begins with an attack, then becomes a hiss, like cicadas. "With computer music, you start getting the sense that sound is alive, changing and moving through time." He plays back what he has so far, then moves pieces of sound around on the computer screen, creating a diminuendo, then adding something new selected from the 39 sounds in the open computer file. "I think of these as absolute sounds," he says. "I'm not thinking of the source. I probably don't even remember where Noise 1 came from."

A little before noon, he's satisfied with what he's put together. The eight minutes of digitally manipulated sound has, for all its artificial construction, a natural, deep--woods--in--the--night feel to it. "You can come to the studio with nothing, start fooling with sounds, and come out with a piece that's music," he says. "If you're lucky."

Views of a Landscape, for violin, soprano, cello, and piano

On April Fools Day, the program for the latest in the Sylvia Adalman Artist Recital Series at Friedberg Concert Hall lists those three mainstays of the chamber music repertory: Mozart, Beethoven, and Burtner. Tonight, the Peabody Trio will premiere Burtner's Views of a Landscape, a composition in five movements inspired by various techniques of the painter Cézanne. The trio commissioned the piece, and Phyllis Bryn--Julson, the grande dame of Peabody vocal teachers, will perform the soprano part. There's a good crowd, about half elderly patrons of Peabody's Elderhostel program, and half students from the composing and computer music programs. Burtner sits next to his girlfriend, Chrysa Prestia, another Peabody composer. I slide into a seat beside them.

"So what do you hear about this Burtner guy?" I ask him.

He grins. "I hear he gets thrown out of places."

The Mozart piece, Trio in E Major, K. 542, is, well, Mozart. Familiar. Comforting. Pretty. At its completion, the stage crew adds a fourth chair to the ensemble, and Burtner straightens a little in his seat. Bryn--Julson takes the fourth spot on stage to applause from the audience, and Burtner watches intently as the ensemble begins. He has never heard the piece all the way through, except in his head.

It begins with "Resonances," which, according to the program notes, "explores the spectrographic amplification of a resonating harmony." Whatever. As the piece unfolds, a few characteristic elements of Burtner's compositions emerge. He seems to enjoy working with the low end of the register. The soprano part is wordless; Bryn--Julson sings sounds, not lyrics. In places she growls--one cannot imagine Kathleen Battle performing this part. Views uses the concert hall's long decay time; after one chord fades away for several seconds, the audience is strikingly silent. No stirring, no coughing, no rustling. Burtner has the attention of the house.

The third movement is a vigorous, percussive piano solo titled "Le Château Noir," and Burtner drums his fingers on the program as he listens. His head jerks when the ensemble plays a strong attack in the fourth movement, and when Bryn--Julson lets out the wail that he has written into her part, he grins broadly. She will later concede that Views is rough on a soprano's voice: "It's fun for me, but while I'm doing it I'm thinking, I have to sing Mahler next week."

When the piece ends, the father of Peabody Trio pianist Seth Knopp turns and shakes Burtner's hand. Violanie Melançon, the Trio's violinist, holds her hand to her eyes, as if scanning the crowd, and Burtner takes this cue and bounds down the aisle and onto the stage for a bow. Afterward, his friends in the Computer Music Department line up to congratulate him.

A few days later, he says of the evening, "I was very happy about the way the piece turned out. I could hear clearly everything that is supposed to be going on. That's always very exciting." Now that he's heard it, he says he has no desire to revise it. "I'm not a big fiddler. My tendency is to move on and let the piece be what it is.

"With me," he continues, "it's trusting what my intuitive ear is thinking. Sticking with your imagination and not worrying what your teachers or friends will say."

With his degree work complete, he's on the verge of having to figure out how to earn a living. He has applied for some teaching positions, and he's pondering a fellowship in Barcelona, but he'd rather compose full time. He intends to try. "In the U.S. there is no profession of just being a composer," he says. "But you've got to give it a shot, you know?"

Says Bryn--Julson, before she hurries off to teach a class, "A lot of composers need many pieces to get to a finished product. Matthew is really about there, at this point. He's ahead of the game. To my mind, he's a knockout. He's going to be in everybody's face soon."

Dale Keiger is the magazine's senior writer.