Vol. 27 Issue 4 Reviews
Matthew Burtner: Winter Raven (Ukiuq Tulugaq)

Old Cabell Hall, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Virginia, USA,
28 March, 2003.

Reviewed by Peter V. Swendsen
Charlottesville, Virginia, USA

Matthew Burtner’s Winter Raven (Ukiuq Tulugaq) received its premiere on March 28, 2003, in Old Cabell Hall at the University of Virginia. The Virginia Center for Computer Music produced this “multimedia electro-acoustic theater” piece, an evening-length work for instrumental ensemble, surround-sound electronics, dance and movement art, video, and theatrical staging. Heading a long list of contributors to the performance were conductor Michael Slon, choreographer Sage Blaska, choreographer and performer W. Aniseh Khan, technical director David Topper, and several guest performers. Dozens of Mr. Burtner’s students played a part on stage or behind the scenes.

The composer’s ecological and anthropological studies of the Arctic, as well as his childhood in Alaska, form the foundation for the three-act Winter Raven. The title comes from an Inupiaq creation myth, and the structure of the piece traces seasonal change from fall into winter. Eco-acoustic processes unfold throughout, as the work shifts from narrative to abstract, glacial to frenetic, dense to sparse.

The variety of performers and media was immediately evident in Act One. Already surrounded by performers carrying wireless loudspeakers, the audience directed their attention to the first on-stage event, a male woodcutter in heavy flannel chopping wood, accompanied by piano and the wireless wind. The live sound of axe on wood proved a beautiful opening, humanizing a technological performance environment and effectively transporting the audience into the natural setting of the piece.

Time and mood began to shift as the wood-cutter and pianist were replaced on stage by a less character-driven instrumental ensemble, conducted by the solid Mr. Slon, for Section Two: “Tingngivik” (The time of leaves falling and birds flying). Media elements now narrated as three large, sculpted screens filled with video of shaking leaves and branches for the first time. The video, all of which was shot and edited by Mr. Burtner, was subtle yet strong and always relevant to the piece as a whole. The luminous images accompanied an ensemble that showed impressive ability and stamina for extended performance techniques in giving the audience its first real taste of Mr. Burtner’s striking eco-acoustic sonorities.

Dancers made their first appearance as Act One’s final section, “Sikñik Unipkaaq” (The Story of Sunlight), began. Though limited by a cramped and oddly shaped stage, Ms. Blaska’s choreography was anything but tentative, and was well performed by an ensemble of six. The most striking character, a sort of shamanistic storyteller played by Ms. Khan, here representing sunlight, also made an initial appearance in this section. Throughout the three acts, the shaman appeared in a series of vibrant masks, based on those of the Inupiaq. These masks, created by Mr. Burtner, were highlighted throughout the performance by means of a live wireless video camera mounted on a staff carried by the shaman.

Act Two, “Transformation into Winter,” was the most ambitious in its variety and content, and perhaps as a result, it was also the most inconsistent of the three. True to its title, “Kunikluk” (a flat horizon line slightly obscured by blowing ice and snow), the first section was a study in the unyielding characteristics of nature turning cold. The instrumental ensemble and noise generators shifted slightly, but seldom moved, and all three channels of video showed the same stark horizon, a bright and jagged collection of rock and ice. The brief flight of a single raven across all three projections seven minutes into this mesmerizing section was one of a very few visual or sonic indications that time was still moving forward.

Section Two began against the backdrop of this suspended space and time. “Speaking Flesh” was the most challenging five minutes in Winter Raven, as Mr. Burtner chose to use the body as an instrument played by the hands of the drummer to portray flesh as spirit. Faced with a situation that demanded unusual sensitivity, percussionist Morris Palter and dancer Ms. Khan offered a poised performance of this intimate section for amplified body, percussionist, and video.

Less successful was the third section of Act Two, “Industrial Garden/Lost Voices.” This overly literal juxtaposition of nature and industry lacked the focus so evident in all other aspects of Winter Raven. The movement and lighting tended toward the cliché, and the music, though rhythmically complex, was lacking in overall shape. However, just as this section began to threaten the overall success of the piece, it yielded to arguably the strongest section of the evening: “Siku Unipkaaq” (The Story of Ice).

The masked Shaman, having moved to center-stage to signal the beginning of the section, retreated to a perfectly lit position upstage while maintaining a tremendously intense energy echoed in the live video. Ms. Blaska’s dancers returned with a welcome variety of groupings and textures, and the multi-channel audio and bowed glockenspiels filled the space with a haunting sound firmly rooted back in nature. The brief low point forgotten, Act Two ended on a high note, leaving the audience in anticipation of the final act.

Those expecting a third quiet opening were quickly brought to attention as Act Three, on the whole the strongest of the three acts, began dramatically with “Anugi Unipkaaq” (The Story of Wind). This story is not one of a light early-winter breeze, but rather a violent, stuck-on-a-mountain gale. The low drums pounded themselves into a harsh texture while the stage and audience spaces filled with kinetic bodies, video, and a deviously shifting multi-channel wind. All of these elements combined for a masochistically pleasing—and perhaps too short—sensory overload.

The moment of transition—an enormous hit of the low drums by the standout Mr. Palter—into section two of Act Three, “Snowprints,” was arguably the most successful dramatic transformation in the piece. Mr. Burtner molded temporality to his pleasing in this moment, as the sonic and visual character of the entire evening turned on a dime, pointing for the first time to the end of the work. “Snowprints” recalled elements of Act One’s “Tingngivik,” slowing time almost to a standstill in a beautifully frigid wash of sonic textures. Distant city lights flickered through the cold atmosphere on the side video channels, a more fitting “industrial” reference than the too-obvious “Industrial Garden” section of Act Two. The center video showed landscapes of whiteness and shadow, vast spaces of another world shaped only by drifting snow. Having now convincingly traversed the seasons into winter, the audience heard a distant off-stage soprano voice as a lone performer crossed to center stage with an electric violin, triggering sounds of a raven. Performers with wireless speakers re-emerged in the audience, and the embodiment of the Winter Raven itself finally made its appearance on stage. Adorned in black feathers and the last of Mr. Burtner’s handcrafted masks, the Raven moved Butoh-like across the stage, carrying a radio transmitter. The wireless loudspeakers filled with the sound of the woodcutter and piano, a memory of the beginning. Video of snow filled the space and the audience was left with the feeling of being out in the woods in the middle of nowhere, with only memory and nature as companions.

The more than forty people on stage for the curtain call evidenced the fact that Mr. Burtner chose to make this event a group effort, likely sacrificing some focus and precision in order to more completely involve his collaborators and, especially, his students. The energy and commitment of this large group was evident throughout the performance, though I am left wondering what improvements could be achieved with a smaller and more experienced team. Similarly, Old Cabell Hall’s Jeffersonian charms did little in helping it adapt to this kind of contemporary, large-scale performance. Mr. Burtner and his designers—particularly set designer Joel Artz and technical director David Topper—did all they could to challenge and transform the space, but in the end it was clear that Winter Raven demands a more flexible and fitting venue.
Still, the premiere of Winter Raven was a tremendous success. It marked a very promising entry into the realm of large-scale pieces for Mr. Burtner, who is beginning work on another this summer. It also highlighted an encouraging movement toward more contemplative multi-disciplinary pieces in which each element’s presence is carefully justified and crafted. Indeed, Mr. Burtner displayed a unique ability to combine disciplines, media, and technology, all the while deferring to nature’s talent as a storyteller.