UVA Arts, University of Virginia

Vol 13 Winter 20 Library

Matthew Burtner Wins an Emmy!!

Many people have seen the devastating impacts of global warming with their own eyes in the form of shrinking glaciers. Now UVA’S Matthew Burtner, Eleanor Shea Professor of Composition and Computer Technologies (CCT) in the Department of Music, is bringing another sense into the mix. Burtner is a world-renowned composer who regularly uses the sounds of the natural world to complement those made by musical instruments, giving a literal voice to nature itself in the telling of its own story. 

His recent work, The Glacier Music Project hits quite literally close to home as the Alaska native brings a musical heart and soul together with a scientific mind and ear to capture a world quite literally crying out in retreat. The project was recently highlighted on an Emmy Award-winning episode of Indie Alaska (above), a program on Alaska Public Media. Burtner invited producer Valerie Kern to join him on some expeditions to capture his process as he headed out into the field to hear what was happening. “My basic approach is to sonify these environmental forces into expressive musical instruments that make us feel something in the way music can make us feel,” he said. “It really brings our aesthetic and emotional inspiration into dialogue with the environment.” 

Matthew Burtner Wins an Emmy!!

In addition to the subject itself, Burtner said that the show’s award-winning success is partly due to the immersive approach that Kern and her crew took. “They made an extra effort to come into the field and to try and understand the research, and that really comes out in the show.”

Like most composers, Burtner is content to let the music lead him throughout the composition process. “I think that any kind of melody evolves as you are writing it,” he said. “You can’t always predict what is going to trigger certain emotions. That is driven by the material itself.” In this case, the material and the reality led to an elegiac feel. “That wasn’t necessarily what I intended,” Burtner said, “but it made me realize that we can bring that visceral connection to the environment that we experience through music.” 

The project finds Burtner returning to a subject he has, in one way or another, studied all his life. “I grew up with these glaciers,” he said. “I have seen them change, and now this project allowed me to bring a nuanced focus to their retreat through sound.” Over decades, he explained, glaciers change, with each stage of these changes featuring distinct “audio signatures.” By simply listening, he added, one can often tell where a glacier is in its lifecycle.” 

You can’t always predict what is going to trigger certain emotion. That is driven by the material itself.
Matthew Burtner

Burtner regularly shares methodologies and data with his colleagues in the scientific community. “There is a very rich research methodology in the science of glaciology related to sound, and it has been a lot of fun to connect with the scientific community on this.” He recently gave a presentation on glacier music to more than 40,000 scientists at the American Geophysical Conference. The scientists see value in the combination of the arts and the sciences to advance the work beyond the research itself. “Music,” Burtner said, “has the capability to contribute to science and to help address the complex problems in an interdisciplinary way that opens up new avenues for understanding critically important problems.” It also has an ability to open up emotions and memories, he said, and to connect us in a holistic way to systems of change. “I lean into that when I do my work because I think it is such a valuable thing that music does for society.”

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