Checking in with Matthew Burtner


What are you working on right now?

I’m working on a large-scale multimedia project about climate change, what’s taking place in the Arctic Ocean underneath the ice. I’ve been recording the sounds of ice melting in the Arctic and using them in a piece for instruments, percussion, voices and video. We’re looking at a premiere of a big chunk of it in New York in October 2010, and then we’re doing the full production in February 2011.

That’s no robot jellyfish Matthew Burtner is holding. It’s the MICEtro (y’know, like “maestro”) which causes a computer to “celebrate” when it finds interesting patterns of behavior in a computer network.

I’m teaching a computer music class at UVA, so I was just working with a student on a project. We always have a great team of students working on creative sound art and music, so I was looking at some of the pieces they were making today. Nothing of my own right now, but that’s the nature of being a professor. You work with lots of talented, up-and-coming artists, and try to work on your own stuff in between.
What is your first childhood memory of an artistic experience?
My mom was a piano teacher, so I had this kind of close connection to music when I was growing up. I studied piano with her and then started playing saxophone. This all came in a kind of environment that was severe, in the north in Alaska, with the sounds of snow and wind and ocean. I remember the sound of this ice floe near my house, when spring came and the ice would break up on the river, it would make this really particular glassy sound. And the instruments that I was playing, piano, saxophone—you couldn’t make those sounds with these instruments, and that’s ultimately what drove me to working with technology, because these kind of noisy, complex sounds are more idiomatic for synthesizers. 
Do you have a favorite building?
I love the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. I love that you can get on I-64, stop at Bodo’s Bagels on the way out of town, and just keep driving down 64. And you drive all day, and when the sun sets you’ll be in St. Louis, with the sun setting on the Arch. And it’s just this beautiful, glowing Arch and I like to drive by the river there and park, hang out under the St. Louis Arch.
If you could have dinner with any person, living or dead, who and why?
I really want to have dinner with Al Gore. It just comes off the top of my head because I’m doing this new recital; it’s a PowerPoint lecture recital. But I perform and play different natural materials, with a saxophone, and I have a PowerPoint that goes along with it, and I talk in between the pieces about the idea of the pieces, and show images, and I’d like to open up for Al Gore—be the opening band on his PowerPoint presentation for An Inconvenient Truth.
Who is your favorite artist outside your medium?
I want to say Andy Goldsworthy, because I love his kind of way of moving in the world. If you watch this film made about him, called Rivers and Tides, there’s this great little scene in there that lasts about ten seconds. He’s walking and it’s just starting to rain, and he lays down in the pavement with his arms outstretched, and lets it just rain on him, and he gets up and walks away, and what he leaves behind is this dry patch of cement that is a shadow of his body. It’s an incredible thing, just doing it on his way to do something else. I love that, how he creates beautiful form in symbiosis with nature. Really organic and touching in its impermanence.