Matthew Burtner’s Alaskan Musical Journey

The Declaration – scene – August 24, 2006

By John Ruscher

When Matthew Burtner met me for an interview in Alderman Cafe, he brought with him a wrinkled and slightly torn map that was around eight feet long. “Can I lay this out somewhere?” he asked. We stretched the map across a couple tables and he began eagerly pointing to places on the map. “Here is Naknek, where I grew up. Here is the Kvichak.” He flipped through an accompanying stack of photographs. This is a typical image of Burtner: enthusiastic, friendly and involved in musical and artistic projects on scales far beyond the typical concert or recital. A music professor, composer, and associate director of U.Va.’s Virginia Center for Computer Music, Burtner is known around the world for his work in both computer music and innovative instrumental music. At U.Va., he teaches classes such as Interactive Media, in which students learn to collaborate with both each other and technology to create music that provides an interactive relationship between human and computer, and Technosonics, which details the history of digital music.

Burtner’s own projects delve into even more complex and innovative channels of music and art. He is the inventor of the metasaxophone, a saxophone fitted with sensors and a microprocessor that extend its sounds and capabilities beyond the normal physical realm. In 2004 he presented a composition that turned Jefferson’s Dome Room in the Rotunda into a giant virtual singing bowl, a traditional Tibetan instrument. He has also composed multimedia pieces, including Winter Raven, which was performed in Old Cabell Hall in 2003. Burtner’s latest composition is a multimedia opera entitled Kuik, which tells the story of the Kvichak River. This story, as well as the experience that led Burtner to compose it, is an incredible tale.

In 2003, Burtner took a trip to his native state of Alaska. This was no normal homecoming. Instead of going to visit his family, who live along the Naknek River, he set out to explore the nearby Kvichak River. He planned to document the river’s flow from its beginning in the glacial peaks of southwestern Alaska to its emergence into the Bering Sea. “When I was young we used to take boat trips up the Kvichak,” Burtner said. “I could have explored the Naknek, but there is something interesting and magical about the Kvichak.”

Burtner started his journey in Lake Clark National Park, the location of the glaciers which are the initial source that feeds the Kvichak. He volunteered for a post in the park, where he stayed in a small cabin with no electricity. “I had two jobs,” he explained. “If any planes landed on the lake, I was supposed to go meet them, and each day I had to climb on top of the cabin and radio in the weather.” The cabin lacked electricity, but Burtner was not without technology. He brought with him a video camera, laptops, and recording gear, as well as a 60-pound power supply to keep his equipment charged. During the day he hiked the nearby peaks of the glacier and began documenting both the sights and sounds of the area.

After finishing his stint at the cabin, Burtner began his journey down the river. The experiences that lay before him are like an inverted Heart of Darkness. “I can’t even begin to describe what it was like,” says Burtner of his time on the Kvichak. Instead of attempting any description, he let nature and the inhabitants of the area speak for themselves. Stopping frequently during his trip, he recorded video and audio of the river and the people who lived along it. “Wherever I stopped I asked the people ‘What is this place called?’ and recorded the names that they gave me.”

Burtner likens his trip to an odyssey, and the experiences that he describes are indeed much like an epic adventure. At the beginning of the Kvichak, the water of the large Lake Iliamna is pulled through one narrow passage, where it rushes quickly by. This place is called Igiugig, which means “water down the throat” in the native Yupik language of the region. During one stop on his trip, Burtner took a job at a salmon counting tower, where he looked down into the river and counted the fish one at a time. “Once the count reaches a certain number they let people begin catching them again.” A section of the river known as “The Braids” consists of many intertwined streams that randomly weave through the terrain. “Some of them don’t even lead anywhere. They loop back on themselves or they are just dead ends. You have to hire a guide to get through them.” His experiences on the river helped him better understand the relationship that it has with the surrounding nature and culture.

Burtner’s journey, like the river itself, had different stages. He traveled from the cabin where he began to Lake Iliamna on a small skiff. From there he traveled along the Kvichak on a larger boat manned by his brother. When they reached Bristol Bay, where the Kvichak opens into the Bering Sea, Burtner and his brother joined the rest of the family, who make a living fishing, on their boat. While his family caught fish, Burtner continued catching the images and sounds around him.

Describing Burtner’s experience cannot be achieved merely through words, but luckily Burtner is a talented artist in many other media. In Kuik he employs spoken word, video, dance, interactive computer instruments, and digital sound processing to help tell the story of the river. Kuik is not a tale of Burtner’s personal adventure, but a portrayal of the nature and culture that he witnessed and documented on his journey. He describes how he views the river “as the backbone of the culture. It’s not only life-sustaining, but also a source of unity.”

In the first large section of the opera, the recorded names of all of the places along the river help represent this cross-cultural bond that it creates. These names are looped and repeated to form a rhythmic, evolving story of the Kvichak and the cultures through which it flows. The names flow through the piece as the river flows through southwestern Alaska. The video and audio of the river that Burtner collected also documents the progression of the river. Though he ended up using a small portion of the material that he collected, the sounds of the different parts of the river help emphasize how it flows and transforms.

Just as Burtner’s journey followed the river through its different stages of terrain, Kuik moves through different sections. The opera begins with Kelek, a welcoming ceremony that invites the audience to become part of the performance by playing bells. Following this is the libretto of places along the Kvichak, which is accompanied by the singing of Sook, the voice of the river. The flow of the piece begins as a calm movement and, like the water itself, gradually gains energy and momentum as it moves along.

As the story moves towards the ocean, the next section, Windcombs, focuses on the important coastal element of the wind. Dancers representing the four winds dance around a light sculpture called the Windtree. The Windtree, a specially designed instrument, uses the light to track the movements of the dancers, and this information controls a physical computer model of the wind.

The other major role in this part of the opera is Kala Alak, the shaman of the wind. Kala Alak dons a pair of oversized wooden hands designed and crafted by Burtner. “I modeled these hands after a pair of shaman hands that I saw in a museum in southwestern Alaska,” he said. A picture that Burtner found shows a shaman wearing the oversized hands and using them to shield a sick boy. “The hands were sometimes called flying hands. They are said to have magical powers, such as healing and flying around on their own during the night.” Burtner takes this idea of magical shaman hands and intricately incorporates it into Kuik. Kala Alak’s hands are made out of wood salvaged from one-hundred-year old fish barrels found at a cannery along the Kvichak. These hands are also equipped with sensors that capture their movement, so that, like the dancers, Kala Alak can control the computer model to help tell the story of the wind. Accompanying this representation is a spoken word part that describes Alaskan mythology about the four winds.

The next section, entitled Imaq, is the point at which the Kvichak meets Bristol Bay and the ocean. “The main character in Imaq is emeQana, the spirit and shaman of the sea. His name is a contraction of the Yupik phrase “emeq qanaa,” which means “water speaks.” Fourth-year Paul Tiffany, a self-trained throatsinger, plays the part of emeQana. Tiffany taught himself the Tuvan art of overtonal throatsinging after hearing it on a Bela Fleck album. “I looked it up online and checked out books from the library to teach myself,” says Tiffany. Burtner saw Tiffany sing in an 8-channel sound piece for last spring’s Digitalis festival, and later asked him to be in the cast of Kuik. “I’m really excited to be involved in this,” says Tiffany. “It’s not an opportunity that comes along every day.

The wind of the previous section is transformed into low harmonic sounds that accompany Tiffany’s deep singing and chanting. The libretto of Imaq uses the native Alaskan languages of Dena’ina and Yupik along with English and is based on a sea song with the lyrics “I am traveling on and on / I am flying on and on / the ocean is speaking / Water travels farther than human beings.”

The opera ends with a section entitled Kaliq, in which “the music evaporates into a blinding light.” Though the story follows the flow of the water from its beginning to end, Kuik portrays a more cyclical process. “I wanted to represent the circular nature of the river,” he explained. “Not just the water traveling to the ocean, but also the cycle of evaporation and rainfall.” The beginning of the story in the high, glacial region and the final transformation into light help connect this cycle. The air and the sun both contribute to the cycle that sustains the river. The piece itself also contains many cyclical elements, from the repetition of the place names to the singing and chanting of the shaman of the sea.

Burtner describes the upcoming version of Kuik as a “special chamber version” with a somewhat smaller scale of production than specified in the original score. “Since it’s in the Blackfriar’s Theatre, I though the best way to approach it was to make it simple,” he said. “In some of my pieces I’ve tried to erase the character of the performance space. For one of my pieces in Cabell Hall I built a screen and two giant wings to hide the mural on the wall. But for this I think a simpler approach is better.” Burtner sees this version of the piece as more raw and affective.

Along with Tiffany, who is an economics and music major, the cast of Kuik includes Michael Bakkensen, an actor from New York; I-Jen Fang, a percussionist and music professor at U.Va.; and Haleh Abghari, an Iranian soprano whom Burtner met while studying at the Peabody Institute at Johns Hopkins University. The dance elements of the piece were choreographed by Burtner’s wife, Aniseh Khan-Burtner.

Kuik is not something easily described in words, so don’t miss this chance to see the world premier presentation. It will be performed along with Purcell’s Dido at the Blackfriar’s Theatre in Staunton on Saturday, August 26 and Sunday, August 27. Both performances begin at 8p.m., and U.Va. students can purchase tickets at the door for $7 with an ID.

John Ruscher is a fourth-year English major who has peace like a river.

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