Keyed up

Keyed up

UVA’s Old Cabell Hall brings to mind piano recitals, string quartet performances, and the occasional comedian or lecturer, but the historic building also houses one of the University’s newest and most eccentric programs. Tucked away in the room B012 on the basement level is the Virginia Center for Computer Music. Strange but inviting noises often emanate from the room, and inside you will likely find the smiling face of Associate Director Matthew Burtner.

Listen to Matthew Burtner’s MICE performing at Digitalis on May 1st, 2007:

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Courtesy of Matthew Burtner – Thank you!

Burtner, an Alaskan native, came to UVA in 2001 to join composer Judith Shatin on the faculty of the VCCM. When asked to teach a new class, he started Interactive Media, a course that he developed while finishing his doctoral degree at Stanford. In the class, students create instruments and software programs that generate sound and exchange musical data between computers. “The class allows them to learn how to compose, program, and interact with real-time audio,” he says. “Part of the goal is to show how these aspects can all be one concentrated effort.”

Associate music professor Matthew Burtner’s pet project, MICE (short for Music for Interactive Computers Ensemble), performs on the UVA Lawn.

Burtner’s class might seem like something for only computer geeks and advanced graduate students, but with only one prerequisite course required he welcomes almost any level of experience. “It’s very empowering,” says Burtner. “You don’t have to be a virtuosic performer. No one can say you are playing it badly, unlike with a violin or trumpet.”

He speaks with experience. Though many of his students are novices, Burtner himself has spent the past couple decades studying, composing and performing computer music at places like Stanford, St. Johns and Johns Hopkins’ Peabody Institute. He developed the Metasaxophone, a version of the normal instrument that extends its capabilities with electronic sensors and a computer chip, and he recently produced Kuik, a multimedia opera composed of electronic sounds, sculpture, dance and drama that premiered at Staunton’s Blackfriars Playhouse last fall.

Though enrollment in Interactive Media does not require expertise, Burtner’s main focus has been creating a dynamic relationship between musician and instrument. “As a saxophonist, performer sensibility drove me towards interactive media,” he explains. “Peabody has a unique computer music performance program, so when I was there, that really influenced me. In Interactive Media the computer must respond with the performer.”

The culiminating effort of this two-way relationship between musician and computer is a final group performance as the Music for Interactive Computers Ensemble, or MICE.

On May 1, this year’s MICE performed at Digitalis, an annual festival showcasing experimental music by UVA students. Always eager to try something different, Burtner and his VCCM colleagues staged the event on the Lawn in front of Old Cabell Hall. This risk paid off, as a clear sky and perfect temperature made for a wonderful evening. As MICE’s 15 members hunched over their instruments and computer screens and began their performance, it was clear that the sounds from the speakers were not coming directly from the instruments. There were three electric guitars, but no recognizable guitar sounds. Two members played a Theremin (the ghostly-sounding instrument used in The Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations”), but its signature warble was absent. Instead of creating an independent sound, the performers and computers were exchanging and manipulating sounds into one collaborative mess.

And a mess is no problem, as any unanticipated results are merely part of Burtner’s vision. “MICE is one step past free jazz. Since no one person controls the sound, you are taking away the ego from the performance. Unlike free jazz, it’s not about the solo, but the complex sound that arises from a community.”

With each year’s group of students, Interactive Media produces a new and unique MICE performance. For students, the class is a way to gain new skills and perspectives on music. For Burtner, it is a way for him to take advantage of the latest technology and continue to hone his innovative musical ideas. “Each year MICE gets better,” he observes, and he shows no intention of stopping. Look for future MICE incarnations and other fascinating projects from the Virginia Center for Computer Music.

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