Vol. 38 Issue 3 Reviews
Matthew Burtner: Noise Plays Burtner

Compact disc, 2013, Innova 871; available from Innova Recordings, ACF, 332 Minnesota Street #E-145, St. Paul, Minnesota 55101, USA; telephone: (651) 251-2823; electronic mail innova@composersforum.org; http://www.innova.mu/.

Reviewed by Ross Feller
Gambier, Ohio, USA

CD CoverAlaskan-born composer Matthew Burtner specializes in chamber music and interactive new media. He is the inventor of the Metasaxaphone, MICE (Mobile Interactive Computer Ensemble), and NOMADS (Network-Operational Mobile Applied Digital System). For over a decade he has worked with the San Diego-based ensemble Noise, and Innova Recordings. The present compact disc harnesses these three forces, joined together in three electroacoustic and electroacoustic-inspired works in which noise features prominently. The Noise ensemble is an instrumentally mixed sextet with flute, violin, cello, guitar, piano, and percussion. Here they are joined with the composer on saxophone, and an additional member on the computer.

Burtner worked in Paris at IRCAM (Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique) and with Iannis Xenakis’s UPIC (Unité Polyagogique Informatique CEMAMu) system at the Centre d’Etudes de Mathématique et Automatique Musicales (CEMAMu). His work at these two institutions profoundly impacted his approach to computer music composition. He was able to employ technological tools that were unavailable at most other institutions. This was especially true with the UPIC system, which provided him with a real time composition environment to transform graphics into sounds. It also affected the way he composed his scores for acoustic instruments, providing them with an iconic sense of time.

According to the one-sheet for this compact disc, “Burtner’s interest in the whole world of sound originated from his childhood experience growing up in Alaska where the snow, wind, and sea create a ceaseless soundscape.” These elements served as the background for an ecoacoustic work entitled Snowprints (2001), the second piece on this disc. Burtner creates a sense of place by mixing recordings of snow and acoustic instruments. The recordings of snow, taken during different conditions and at different times of day, were employed in the creation of a fluctuating noise bed that acoustically supports and surrounds the instruments. Each instrument has a computer-generated counterpart, produced with physical modeling and granular synthesis techniques.

Snowprints begins in a spectral manner with a low frequency fundamental that gives way to high frequency overtones. When he first began working with computer music, Burtner saw it as a way to create different sound resources, produced at the spectral level, which could blend with instrumental timbres. Snowprints amply demonstrates this principle. The spectral treatment is occasionally disrupted with dissonant breaks in the texture, and embellished with breath tones and microtones performed by the ensemble. Both the electronic and acoustic sounds are shaped by synthesis and filtering techniques. One gets the sense that the constant hiss/noise drone serves as a frame from which the music emerges. It also colors the music in the sense that it conjures the experience of listening to recorded music with a low dynamic range (LPs, cassettes, etc.). The intentional use of noise in this case presents the listener with an intriguing contradiction, especially if the listener is a composer or sound engineer and routinely filters out such noises. Ultimately, I would say that Burtner conjures a sense of nostalgia without hinting at loss of melancholy, two concepts that are normally associated with it. At one point in the piece Burtner employs a simple repetitive pattern that increases in speed until it begins to sound as if it were produced with granular synthesis techniques. Toward the middle of the piece the composer introduces slow hocketing rhythms between the flute and cello, playing pitches that are rendered tonally unstable because of glissandi and microtonal inflections. This piece is a tour de force featuring all of the composer’s techniques found elsewhere on the disc, but here they become solidified into a unified whole.

The first piece, Polyrhythmicana (2002), lays out Burtner’s compositional terrain, especially with respect to his approach to rhythm, in a five movement, 15 minute composition. For this piece, the composer designed a computer instrument called the Polyrhythmicon, based on the Rhythmicon, an instrument made by Henry Cowell and Leon Theremin in the 1920s. The instrumentalists in this piece perform with click tracks that follow various polytemporal trajectories. The listener encounters noise in two respects. First, Burtner produces metaphorical noise as he introduces small perturbations between the constantly changing tempi. And second, the instruments are wrapped in tinfoil in order to create sympathetic resonance. This kind of sonic noise is a common element in African drumming and the mbira.

Metal XY, the first movement of Polyrhythmicana can be heard as a shock to the system, or a wake-up call to listen. One encounters loud bursts of noise along with instrumental ostinato, each evolving at a different rate of speed. In the second movement, Split/Joined Diamonds (in Wood), woodblocks and other percussion instruments are set against sustaining instruments such as the flute. The separate tempi are clearly in evidence thanks to the composer’s consistent use of attacks and pulses. C Acceleration Phase sounds like several clocks ticking that slowly become out of sync with each other. Burtner composes out these pulse streams using flute, cello, and percussion blended with harmonics and their computer-generated counterparts. The fourth movement, Slow 2:3 (in Noise), presents dramatic percussive strikes followed by single-pitch sustains and glissandi. The result sounds strangely like the music for Japanese Noh dramas. Overlaid onto this, one hears a sustained whooshing noise like a fan, or hiss from a very slow tape deck without noise reduction. Melody Triangles, the final movement, initially utilizes unison rhythms and pitch lines. Gradually each part separates as the texture thickens, giving the music a pronounced sense of urgency. The final slow tremolo gesture provided closure, yet given the previous 14 minutes, seemed like an arbitrary close to a piece that could easily have had many more sections or movements.

Each movement in Polyrhythmicana maps out a specific timbral and/or rhythmic territory through fluctuating accent and stress patterns, and timbral modifications such as sul ponticello. The composition clearly owes a debt to Henry Cowell, but also resembles the important work done by Conlon Nancarrow, except Burtner composes his expanding and contracting pulse streams onto a variety of instruments with noise added for seasoning. Burtner’s use of noise does not merely encompass the sonic, but also includes semiotic noise in which various associations (like the passing of time represented by a clicking clock sound) or meanings are suggested, subverted, and masked.
The final piece on this disc, (dis) Sensus (2008), is an explosive, multi-movement piece that explores principles of formal contrast, dissent, and consensus. According to the one-sheet this piece was inspired by the political philosophy of Jacques Ranciere. Ranciere is known for his ideas about disagreement and visual aesthetics. The percussionist plays the role of a provocateur, at times mocking the saxophone soloist by playing a saxophone mouthpiece, and doing the same to the piano soloist by playing on a toy piano. In Dissensus, the first movement, the percussionist injects loud bursts of snare drum noise in order to initiate sectional changes, and writes a quotation from Ranciere’s work, with a pencil on paper that is amplified and used by Burtner’s computer program to generate chaotic pulse patterns that sound as if they are triggered every time the pencil is replaced on the paper after first being lifted up, presumably between words, or at the ends of sentences. All of this happens in just 32 seconds.

Sxape immediately follows the end of Dissensus. This movement is ushered in with the attack of a small bell, followed by sustained resonance produced by the computer and the ensemble playing a micropolyphony of attack points. Underneath this is an ominous, low frequency rumble sound. The saxophone, featured in this movement and performed by the composer, oscillates between raucous multiphonics and more refined materials.

Modification 1, the third movement, is a short 24 second exercise in atonal polyphony, initiated, and brought to a close, by rim shots on the snare drum. (vio)Lens offers a potpourri of styles and musical inflections mixed into a tasteful mélange. The sounds are so well integrated that it is difficult to tell the difference between the extended acoustic sounds and their electroacoustic counterparts or modifications. Along with these, the composer presents us with the by-now familiar pulse fields, but in more urgent and distorted forms. One timbre sounds suspiciously like it came from an early video game soundtrack (e.g., Pacman). It accelerates right up to the end of this movement, accompanied with fast, spiccato glissandi in the violin. In video game music this technique usually accompanies ever more difficult challenges faced by the gamer as time is running out. To include this sonic trope in a piece of concert music is highly suggestive.
Modification 2 begins with a barrage of snare drum attacks sounding like fireworks or gunshots. Following this the violin performs a series of high frequency glissandi suggestive of certain insects or birds. This, in turn, is followed by a dense, atonal piano barrage straight out of the Cecil Taylor songbook, punctuated by the percussion and scratchy violin sounds. All this happens in the space of 37 seconds.
The sixth movement, ianopianop, focuses on the live processing of sound. The piano and vibraphone sharply attack notes that are then processed through filtering, reversal, and spatialization techniques. There is also a pronounced emphasis on harmonic resonance. This movement could have benefitted from a longer duration than its four minute length. A longer duration would have allowed for changes of textural density, and instrumental variation.

Sensus, the last movement, begins with a motoric, tutti pulse pattern not unlike the octave Cs (C7 and C8) in Terry Riley’s In C. Surprisingly, 20 seconds into this 95 second movement, the ensemble performs a crazed, circus-like series of asymmetrical rhythms that would have made Frank Zappa proud. As if to underscore the circus quality, midway through the piece we hear a whistle, loud airstream sounds, humorous bird sounds, and a clave-like sound (all of which can also be found in Zappa’s compositions).

Given the variety of styles and techniques found in the pieces and movements on this disc, pinpointing Burtner’s compositional style seems near impossible. Nevertheless, Burtner has consistently applied the tools of his trade, even in cases where the sonic surfaces are markedly disparate. Noise Plays Burtner offers us some intriguing approaches to electroacoustic composition with live instruments engaging with interactive technologies. The Noise performers are seasoned professionals, clearly evident from their fine performances. The computer-generated parts are so well timbrally integrated with the live performers that it is difficult at times to tell them apart. One gets the impression after hearing this disc that the compositionally ideas contained therein required the technologies and instruments that were employed, and this is no trivial matter.