Matthew Burtner-Rita Dove collaboration takes flight

A new creative process brought Rita Dove, Matthew Burtner and the EcoSono Ensemble together to make The Ceiling Floats Away. Courtesy subjects A new creative process brought Rita Dove, Matthew Burtner and the EcoSono Ensemble together to make The Ceiling Floats Away. Courtesy subjects

What was the last thing you made? Be honest with yourself. Perhaps you made dinner last night, but think hard about the last time you spent an afternoon knitting, strumming a guitar or doodling in a sketchbook. Maybe instead you’ve been reading, listening to albums, looking at paintings or watching “Stranger Things” on Netflix? Are you creating, or are you consuming?

Too often, “our own creativity gets written out” in place of consuming media, says Matthew Burtner, a sound artist and professor of computer and compositional technologies in the University of Virginia’s music department. “We are not creating spaces for imagination and free thinking in our society,” he says, and that worries him. “Being creative, being imaginative, is part of the human condition that’s unique. It not only defines us as an animal, but defines us individually among our species.” When we let go of our creativity, we risk letting go of our humanity.

With The Ceiling Floats Away, a collaboration with Pulitzer Prize-winning former U.S. Poet Laureate (and fellow UVA professor) Rita Dove, and the EcoSono Ensemble (a collective of performers bringing ecoacoustic music to the public), Burtner isn’t ready to let us lose our grip entirely. “It’s about re-engaging with creative art-making,” he says. “Even if you’re sitting in the audience, you’re supposed to be making something in this piece.”

The Ceiling Floats Away is a series of 13 composed poetry-and-music movements interspersed with audience-produced bridges. Officially issued in album form on January 12 by Ravello Records, a contemporary classical label dedicated to forward-thinking orchestral, chamber and experimental music from composers around the world, the piece has its origins in Charlottesville, during the OpenGrounds opening in 2012, where Burtner performed music from his telematic opera Auksalaq and Dove read from her work.

As Burtner tells it, Dove was intrigued by the audience participation software Auksalaq employs, and she thought it might be something poets could use. Not long after, Burtner called Dove and asked if she wanted to collaborate.

“I’m always interested in ways to expand the perceived boundaries of my own primary art form, poetry,” Dove wrote in an email to C-VILLE. And as an amateur musician herself, she was “curious to see how [Burtner] would approach this from his side.”

“Poetry began as an oral tradition; speech was a musical instrument, and language its mode of notation. In this album, poetry turns into music, while music melts into utterance and communal murmurings.” RITA DOVE

Burtner and sound engineer Mark Graham recorded Dove reading her poetry aloud. That recording session turned into a bit of a jam, Dove recalls, with Burtner feeling inspired to create music in the moment. After that, Burtner wrote the music over a few months, considering the phrasing, cadence and tonality of Dove’s voice, as well as the strengths of the EcoSono Ensemble, as he composed.

As Burtner composed, he sent Dove bits of what he was working on, which surprised her—she thought her part was done when she walked out of that first studio session. “When it comes to collaboration—especially one like this, involving a number of moving parts—it’s best to leave your ego on the stoop; so I bowed out to allow Matthew some artistic ‘elbow room,’” says Dove. Once the EcoSono Ensemble recorded the composed parts, Dove re-recorded her parts, speaking along with the music (an experience she describes as “quite exhilarating”). From there, Burtner added electronics until he was satisfied with the overall piece.

“It was exciting to hear what he had done with the texts, extracting syllables and repeating words,” says Dove. “And then to experience the final product, with those amazing audience interaction interludes…well, I was blown away.”

During live performances of The Ceiling Floats Away, the audience is invited into the creative process by using what’s often accused of zapping our creativity: a smartphone.

Equipped with the Burtner-invented NOMADS software, audiences can reply to what they’re hearing in real time. Text “the ceiling floats away” into the NOMADS system and the sound responds, either via the musicians or in Dove’s recorded voice. Because the software knows where in the audience you’re sitting, it can send an individual sonic reflection directly back to you. So you might hear something completely different from the person next to you. The ensemble plays along with this improvised sound until it feels like time to move into the next composed part.

“Poetry began as an oral tradition; speech was a musical instrument, and language its mode of notation,” says Dove. “In this album, poetry turns into music, while music melts into utterance and communal murmurings.”

The Ceiling Floats Away has been performed a handful of times, including at Second Street Gallery and during the ACCelerate: ACC Smithsonian Creativity and Innovation Festival in Washington, D.C. In 2016, it received a judge’s citation in the American Prize in Chamber Music competition for its “unique nexus of acoustics, electronics and audience interaction.”

It sits on the threshold between experimental and classical music, says Burtner, and it’s not likely to sound like anything you’ve heard before.

“By participating, and becoming part of the creative artwork itself, the listener can understand the creativity that goes into writing poetry or composing music,” he says.

When the ceiling floats away, when there’s no longer a limit to the possibility of creation, there’s endless opportunity for the imagination to grow.

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