PORTALS OF DISTORTION:
MUSIC FOR SAXOPHONES, COMPUTERS, AND STONES
Listening to the music of young Alaskan composer Matthew Burtner, one is struck by the singular sound world that his work evokes. The subtitle of this recording, Music for Saxophones, Computers and Stones, more than lists an instrumentation—it implies a philosophy of music in which technology and organic elements are indelibly linked. These pieces fuse the most innovative developments in music technology with ancient aesthetic principles inspired by a natural sonic environment. Primitive musical sources such as stones are juxtaposed with instrumental writing influenced by techniques of digital audio synthesis. Computer generated sounds are inspired by the compelling expressiveness of natural materials, further melding ancient and newly forged elements in a unique and harmonious sound world.
These pieces convey a strong physical sense that originates in the idea of a “spirit of place.” This philosophy is inspired by the complexity of eco-acoustic environments, which create their own sense of place and time. These environments continue to animate indigenous music, an illustration of how the outer environment influences the inner world of imagination. In Burtner’s work, these two worlds merge to create music that conveys a strong organic sense, music whose properties are as diverse and dynamic as the stark Alaskan wilderness where the composer spent his youth.
One interesting aspect of this work is the way Burtner uses computer technology as a means of delving into the fabric of music. This exploration involves scientific analysis and resynthesis of sound microstructures. Through the use of a variety of digital signal processing techniques, the listener is guided from the outer world of sound to its inner spheres. Concepts of digital synthesis influence Burtner’s compositional language in several ways. Harmony is treated as frequency distribution within prescribed bandwidths out of which poles of consonance and dissonance arise, rhythm is treated polytemporally, and form arises naturally from the unique spectral components of the sound sources.
As a saxophonist, Burtner specializes in performing works which utilize the unique acoustic properties of the instrument. In his own compositions, experimental performance practice is combined with electroacoustic digital audio synthesis techniques creating an individual approach to the saxophone. Central to his performance practice is an acoustical phenomenon he has termed “metaresonances,” an element developed through exploration of the saxophone’s characteristic harmonic spectral properties. Conceived outside traditional instrumental concepts, the saxophone is treated as an acoustical sound synthesis system. By splitting the air column of the instrument in various ways through the use of non-standard fingerings and embouchure pressures, multiphonics are created. Performing certain trills utilizing these multiphonic fingerings creates acoustic feedback in the air column. These metaresonances, relying inherently on chaotic aspects of the instrumental body, are controlled by the performer. Overtones, noise, and other residual sonic material become as musically valuable as conventional pure tones. The instrumental body of the saxophone is treated as a sonorous acoustic object that possesses attributes of both acoustical order and chaos. Compositional exploitation of these polar attributes contributes to the resulting music a powerful expressive element and a dynamic sense of spontaneity.
The title piece, Portals of Distortion (1998), for nine tenor saxophones, clearly illustrates this approach to the saxophone. The work evokes a unique sonic landscape in which rich bands of sound result from the homogenous effect of the acoustic saxophones’ blending. Exploring ideas of multiplicity and fissure of sound, the microtonal harmonic language based on simple spectral harmonic functions arises from the interrelation of the nine unique saxophone spectra.
The two works for saxophone and computer-generated tape, Split Voices (1998) and Incantation S4 (1997), reveal how an acoustic instrument and a computer can function as cohesive musical elements cohabiting a unified sonic space. In these pieces the computer is an indispensable and fully integrated element in all aspects of the compositional process. To create rich, life-like computer-generated sounds, Burtner begins by constructing each sound beginning with the microlevel and creating large structures from minute particles of sound.
EXAMPLE FROM SPLIT VOICES
While working with Curtis Roads at Iannis Xenakis's UPIC (Unité Polygogique Informatique CeMAMu) studios in Paris, Burtner became interested in the technique of digital granular synthesis. This technique involves the division of a sound source (either computer-generated or sampled) into tiny particles of sound generally from 2 to 100 milliseconds in duration. These particles are statistically organized into larger textures and forms to create music. Fern (1997) and Incantation S4 were entirely generated using granular synthesis, and the other electronic pieces in this recording make some use of the technique. Incantation S4 is dedicated to composer Barry Truax, whose work with the World Soundscape Project and exploration of sonic microstructures using granular synthesis has influenced Burtner’s work. This piece and Fern were composed using Truax’s PODX system for quasi-synchronous granular synthesis, and both works utilize principles derived from the natural transformation of organic systems as a basis for forming musical structure.
EXAMPLE FROM INCANTATION S4
Much in the way he organizes discrete microgranules of sound to create larger formal structures, Burtner also makes extensive use of rhythmic units to form complex polyrhythmic structures. His exploration of computer-generated rhythmic structures began in 1994 at the Peabody Institute in Baltimore. His rhythmic ideas led to the creation of his computer instrument, the Polyrhythmicon. The name is inspired by the Rhythmicon, an instrument invented by Leon Theremin to realize rhythmic ideas of the pioneering composer Henry Cowell. The Polyrhythmicon is a computer hyper-instrument designed to explore a variety of polyrhythmic compositional devices. The instrument is essentially a group of tempo modules that operate independently from one another (to user-specified degrees) and generate MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) data. Each module contains a series of objects working in tandem to create user-specifiable rhythmic streams which can accelerate or decelerate in imperceptible increments, generate their own note number information, amplitude information, note sustain information, accent placement, and independent accent amplitude. Multiple modules work together to create polyrhythms of any possible complexity and interdependency.
The Polyrhythmicon was designed to explore two aspects of rhythm: polytempo and polymeter. Polytempo is the qualitative division of time, such as three beats in the time of four. Polymeter is the quantitative division of time. Cross rhythms such as accents on every third and fourth note of a single tempo pulse are an example of a polymetric structure. Burtner has created a variety works using this instrument, each piece exploring different aspects of rhythmic structure and transformation. In pieces such as Taruyamaarutet (1995) for soprano, marimba, bass clarinet and polyrhythmicon; Rend (1995)for snare drum quartet and polyrhythmicon/bass drum; and Symphony in Metal (1995-7) for large orchestra and live electronics, he has explored a variety of transformational polyrhythmic systems.
Glass Phase (1998), for solo polyrhythmicon, deals with transformational phase relationships as a means of generating rhythmic structure. Percussive glass samples constitute the basic sound material of the piece. In the first section a polymetric technique is used in which three voices in single-unit differentiated tempo phase relationships (such as the relationship of consecutive units 21 : 22 : 23) contain a nested polyrhythmic phase structure using meter phase (such as accents on beats 7, 8 and 9 of each respective voice). Five of these linked polymetric sets are used in the piece, each set controlled independently by the performer. The phase groups are listed as a tempo/metro unit (tempo relationships on the left, metric relationships on the right). Glass Phase contains the following rhythmic system: [( 5 : 6 : 7 / 3 : 4 : 5 ) : (9 : 10 : 11 / 4 : 5 : 6 ) : (14 : 15 : 16 / 4 : 5 : 6) : (23 : 24 : 25 / 7 : 8 : 9) : (29 : 30 : 31 / 9 : 10 : 11)]. In the second section large-scale phase sets are created from three groups of 10 voices offset by 1/100th of a rhythmic pulse. The result of each 10 voice phase set is a single expanding and contracting rhythmic group. The three sets are presented in a macro-polyrhythmic relationship of 6 : 10 : 15 or (3 : 5) : (2 : 3).
Mists (1996), for computer noise controller and stone trio, utilizes the masking, blurring properties of noise as a screen through which the listener perceives a multi-dimensional rhythmic structure. The controlled rhythmic structure invokes the illusion of a three-dimensional object partially obscured by a mist (the piece's noise component) of "memory and perception." The computer noise controller functions as an expressive noise generator. In this recording there are eight polyphonic lines of filtered noise. Timbre is modified by the use of another controller that adds layers of noise-based sounds to accentuate rhythmic structure.
The stones (high, medium, and low) are sounded by striking two of similar size together. Each performer uses a metronome (heard through headphones) to maintain the strict rhythmic relationships. The metronomes are activated simultaneously and each player follows his or her tempo independently. The relational tempi in the main section of the piece are derived from multiples of thirteen in the ratio 65 : 52 : 39 (a simple 5 : 4 : 3 polyrhythm). Accents are placed on every 13th beat of each voice. At three points in the piece the beats coincide rhythmically as all the voices simultaneously converge on a strong beat.
-Chrysa Prestia, November 1998
There is weather in his compositions, as well as landscape: open, brooding, sometimes ominous, often wintry...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”.
-Dale Keiger, Johns Hopkins Magazine
A native of Alaska, Matthew Burtner (1970) spent his early childhood in a small village on the Arctic Ocean. His earliest musical memories include the sound of wind rushing over the tundra, the sound of storms on the ocean, and the traditional music of Alaska’s native peoples. As a young boy, he spent his summers on fishing boats on the southwest coast of Alaska and his winters in the mountains above Anchorage.
In 1986 Burtner left Alaska to live in Australia, travel through Japan, and then to study philosophy at St. Johns College in New Mexico. He began studying music formally at Tulane University in New Orleans in 1990 (BFA 1993 summa cum laude). After graduating, he moved to Paris where he studied computer music at Iannis Xenakis’s Center for Mathematics and Automation in Music (CeMAMu). He returned to the United States to study computer music and composition at Johns Hopkins University’s Peabody Institute (MM 1997). Between 1996 and 1998, he was composer-in-residence at the Banff Centre for the Arts, Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, and the Phonos Institute in Barcelona.
Burtner has written for a wide variety of ensembles and media, and has received numerous commissions and prizes for his work. His music has been performed throughout the United States and Europe, as well as in Japan, Canada, and Brazil. Currently he works at Stanford University’s Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA) as a doctoral fellow in composition.
Matthew Burtner would like to acknowledge the computer music studios in which the pieces were composed, including the Peabody Computer Music Studios, the Phonos Foundation/Audiovisual Institute, the Communications and Computer Music Studios of Simon Fraser University, and the Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA). Special thanks are extended to Jonathan Berger, Gabriel Brncic, Jonathan Harvey, Xavier Serra, Barry Truax, and Geoffrey Wright for their support of this work.
Photograph by Mark Lee
While in Canada, I spent much time watching and photographing the ice formations on the Banff River, observing the changes of various weather and lighting conditions on the ice. Deep slabs of ice, split and creaking, revealed glimpses of darkness and running water beneath. These frozen gateways offer an aural analogy: portals of distortion, cracks in the fabric of the sonic world. Beyond, we catch an elusive glimpse of the turbulent music of the imagination.