Composer Matthew Burtner’s Arctic recordings come full cycle

The environmentally inspired “Ice Cycle” will be performed at UVA’s Climate Cultures Symposium on May 4 at Old Cabell Hall. Photo: Publicity photo The environmentally inspired “Ice Cycle” will be performed at UVA’s Climate Cultures Symposium on May 4 at Old Cabell Hall. Photo: Publicity photo

Like many of us, Matthew Burtner gets nostalgic when he recalls his hometown.

“It’s different now than the place I remember as a child,” he says. “In the north, where I was born, the time of ice was a time when you could move across the land. The ice gave you a way across. Otherwise you’d sink into the tundra or into the ocean itself. Now that the permafrost has melted, the houses tip over. Some of them fall off the cliffs into the sea.”

The Alaska-born composer and chair of the UVA music department spent his formative years in a fishing village in the Arctic Circle. “We didn’t live in igloos, and we didn’t ride moose around, but we did hunt moose for food. We did ski to school, and we did snowshoe everywhere to travel across all that snow,” he says. “I remember one time when it got so cold that the thermometer broke, and the thermometer went down to -75.”

For Burtner, the loss of ice is a powerful symbol of lost communities, lost culture, lost animals, and what he calls “the key to resilience and sustainability of the place. The whole system goes out of balance. That’s what’s happening now.”

The professor of composition and computer technologies has dedicated his career to studying and preserving the music of snow and ice. Most recently, he’s collaborated with New York-based choreographer Jody Sperling to create “Ice Cycle,” a multimedia piece featuring the Time Lapse Dance company and chronicling the transformation of Arctic sea ice as the climate changes and warms.

“Ice Cycle” began when Sperling accompanied a 43-day scientific expedition to the Chukchi Sea, north of the Bering Strait, and danced on the polar sea at a dozen ice deployments. After her return, she reached out to Burtner, who used his experience sonifying glacial melts to create an original score.

Together, they developed a show that brings a sensory representation of climate change to Washington, D.C., New York and now Charlottesville, where “Ice Cycle” will be the marquee event for the Climate Cultures Symposium at UVA.

“We worked together to draw from science into the artist realm,” Burtner says. He describes the change of sound and movement over time, the common language between dance and music. Ice crystals form. Water flows. Melt begins.

“In our lifetime, we will see no ice in the Arctic in the summer months,” Burtner says. “By now, everyone should understand that ice is melting in the Arctic. There’s lots of data establishing this, and we’re using the data to create artwork.”

Data as artistic medium has become Burtner’s calling card. His particular branch of sonic exploration, called eco-acoustics, replicates the sounds of nature through computer modeling.

“When I was growing up, I was much more interested in the sounds of nature than I was in human music because they were the most powerful sounds I heard,” says Burtner. “There’s this great sonic quality to the environment in Alaska, to the wind and the storms.”

It was at the Peabody Conservatory of the Johns Hopkins University that he discovered how to make music from the sounds he loved most. “At the spectral level, I could use computers to create new instruments that were more like the scratchy sounds of snow or the swishy sounds of wind,” he says. “Technology enables the connection between imagination and the environment.”

Every summer when school lets out, Burtner goes back to Alaska. He lives in a cabin where he does his composing and his research, immersing himself in snow and ice to understand glacial behavior. He says the act of listening to the physical environment informs and inspires him in a way a sound effect never would.

“For the last few years, I’ve been going back to the same glacier,” he says. “I put microphones all over this glacier and down inside it, and I just listen to it and learn how it behaves. You can hear it melting.”

Then, somewhere between listening, recording and computer lab modeling, “you find the music.”

Burtner believes art can ultimately aid the science of climate change.

“I did the music for these NASA videos, and they were so excited because they do ice core samples in Greenland, and one of my pieces uses underwater tubes that play at different depths,” he says. “That’s an area that’s valuable for music. We won’t necessarily contribute to scientific knowledge, although that can and has happened. But we can forward scientific knowledge by connecting and inspiring the imagination, the emotional connection to that research through the music that we’re making.”

Ultimately, of course, inspiration to action is the goal of “Ice Cycle.”

“Whether it’s a musician using climate change as the instrument to create music, or the dancer using the forms of ice to drive human movement, we all do whatever we can to address the problem of climate change,” he says. “So if the audience leaves feeling activated to address climate change in their own way, in their own life, that’s my best hope for this kind of work.”