Composer and sound artist Matthew Burtner says he understands the sound of snow.
“Growing up in Alaska, the sound of snow is what really got me into computer music,” said Burtner —professor of composition and computer technologies and chair of the McIntire Department of Music at the University of Virginia — in a recent phone interview. “I just understand the sound of snow really well, and I’ve used it in my music for a long time.”
Snow is the first thing you hear in The Ceiling Floats Away, an innovative work of texted electroacoustic music Burtner created with Akron native and former U.S. Poet Laureate Rita Dove. Ravello Records released the first commercial recording of the work earlier this year.
The Ceiling Floats Away joins Dove’s recitations of her poetry, backed by Burtner’s original chamber music compositions with “bridges” of audio created from audience-generated feedback translated by Burtner’s own mobile software application, called NOMADS.
“The main idea is that the audience is engaged with the work through mobile technology,” Burtner said.
Creative Process, Processing Creativity
The collaboration between Burtner and Dove came about after Dove heard a performance of an aria from Burtner’s climate change opera, Auksalaq, at a function in Virginia, where Dove also serves on the faculty of the University of Virginia.
Burtner had developed his NOMADS software application specifically for Auksalaq, in order to enable audience feedback during performances, and to turn that feedback into audio output that becomes part of the performance.
“(Dove) saw the NOMADS system working and how it dealt with text,” Burtner said. “And we talked about it. So we started kicking around the idea of a collaboration on poetry and music.”
Dove gave Burtner a number of her works that she thought would be appropriate for the collaboration.
Burtner, a saxophonist, read through the poems with his saxophone in hand and allowed each to inspire musical improvisations, which he wrote down as sketches. Then he selected a subgroup of Dove’s poems to work with further.
“And then we went into the studio, with me on the saxophone and (Dove) reading,” Burtner said. And she read (the poems) live, and I played my sketches, and I would play along with her, and then we’d talk about it — what was I trying to do with the music, what was I hearing in the poetry, what was the poetry doing, how were they working together?” Burtner said.
The process eventually led Burtner to compose the 13 movements of chamber music that appear in tandem with Dove’s own recitations of her poetry on the recording of The Ceiling Floats Away.
Between the chamber music movements are what Burtner calls “audience creation bridges,” sections of audio made from audience members’ interactions with NOMADS-generated prompts that they receive through their mobile phones. For instance, after a chamber music movement, NOMADS might ask audience members use their phones to enter a thought or a response into the system.
“Sometimes people repeat what they hear in the poem, they’ll repeat a few words of it, or they’ll think of something else that the piece is inspiring in them — or they’ll say something that maybe is disconnected from the whole experience, but it’s something that matters to them,” Burtner said.
“The (NOMADS) database looks at every word that they’ve sent and it looks at every word from Rita’s poetry, and then it puts together some response to what they’ve put in,” he continued.
NOMADS processes the audience responses into electroacoustic audio that then becomes part of the musical work. In this way, the audience becomes an active creator of the work, which can vary significantly from one performance to another.
“The audience is also an artist in the piece,” Burtner said. “It’s supposed to be inspiring in that respect, as well —that we all live creative lives. It’s not just the poet and the composer who are the creative artists here; it’s every single one of us.”
The title of the work, The Ceiling Floats Away, comes from a line in Dove’s poem “Geometry” that Burtner included in the final chamber music movement of his piece.
“It’s this idea of the structures that we inhabit just opening up and disappearing or flying away around us and opening up the possibilities of our lives and opening up our creative imaginations,” Burtner said. “So this is, for me, the inspiration — that the ceiling floats away and we’re not contained by these structures.”
He explained the opening of musical structures in The Ceiling Floats Away also expands the art experience, bringing everyone, in surprising ways, into the act of creating art.
Said Burtner, “That’s the kind of bravery of the piece — that’s where it’s trying to decenter the art experience and bring the audience into that, or open the art in a new way outside of the audience’s expectations.”