Matthew Burtner: Glacier Music - Ecoacoustics of glaciers. © 2019 Ravello Records LLC

CD Spotlight

Melting Ice

Music from glaciers by Matthew Burtner,
recommended by KEITH BRAMICH

'... a slightly romanticised account of the effects of climate change in the far north, which doesn't affect the pure beauty, and often sadness, of these vivid and intriguing natural sound recordings and ideas.'


Speaking at the 2015 GLACIER Conference in Anchorage, Alaska, USA, then US President, Barack Obama stated:

... if we do nothing, temperatures in Alaska are projected to rise between six and twelve degrees by the end of the century, triggering more melting, more fires, more thawing of the permafrost, a negative feedback loop, a cycle - warming leading to more warming - that we do not want to be a part of.

And the fact is that climate is changing faster than our efforts to address it. That, ladies and gentlemen, must change. We're not acting fast enough ...

Even if we cannot reverse the damage that we've already caused, we have the means - the scientific imagination and technological innovation - to avoid irreparable harm.

This last sentence may have been true in 2015, but four years later, with changes of US command and direction, this is no longer likely.

Two of the works here by Alaskan-born Matthew Burtner were written especially for this 2015 conference. The first, Sound Cast of Matanuska Glacier, was composed for the US State Department for Obama's 2015 visit to Alaska. It's scored for string quartet, plus flute, clarinet, horn and chapman stick: a guitar-like electric instrument invented in the 1970s. But before we hear any of these man-made instruments, Burtner, climbing over the glacier with recording equipment, presents us with over ninety seconds of the sound of the glacier itself. I assume that the sound is that of the glacier melting.

Listen — Matthew Burtner: Sound Cast of Matanuska Glacier
(track 1, 1:25-2:24) © 2019 Ravello Records LLC :

The second work connected with the 2015 conference is Threnody (Sikuigvik), and this time the music was written for an installation at the Anchorage Museum of Art, consisting of a huge block of glacial ice with this Threnody sounding from the centre of the block. Here we have the sound of popping cavities of ancient air, frozen inside the Aialik Glacier, as the ice melts, combined with what's described in the six-page booklet as a 'computer-generated sonification of the glacier'.

Listen — Matthew Burtner: Threnody (Sikuigvik)
(track 3, 0:00-0:57) © 2019 Ravello Records LLC :

The Threnody has an unusual central climax of natural sound, which could be a recording of a large block of ice coming loose.

The disc's five tracks are all very different. Sonic Physiography of a Time-stretched Glacier combines Brandon Bell's (mostly tuned) percussion with a gradually slowing field recording of a glacier melting. It's a wonderful concept to gradually slow down global warming, a kind of sonic map for what mankind must try to achieve. As the music proceeds, the field recording (at least to me) sounds unrecognisable after the first ninety seconds or so, and what we hear sounds increasingly artificial, but still beautiful and spaceous.

Listen — Matthew Burtner: Sonic Physiography of a Time-stretched Glacier
(track 2, 5:41-6:18) © 2019 Ravello Records LLC :

Syntax of Snow for amplified snow and glockenspiel quartet, with credited percussionist Trevor Saint presumably playing all four parts, is radically different from the other pieces on the disc in that there is no sound of running water in the background. It's ethereal and different, consisting of bells and shuffling noises. The liner notes point out that people and animals living in the far north pick up many signals from the sound of the snow in their environment, including time of year and time of day.

Listen — Matthew Burtner: Syntax of Snow
(track 4, 0:00-0:53) © 2019 Ravello Records LLC :

The longest piece comes last - Muir Glacier, 1889-2009 uses detailed recordings by Matthew Burtner on various glaciers, combined and modulated by measurements of ice retreat, to put into sound 120 years of retreat of the Muir Glacier. Again, as with Sonic Physiography of a Time-stretched Glacier, this twenty-six-minute track ends with very little natural sound remaining.

Listen — Matthew Burtner: Muir Glacier, 1889-2009
(track 5, 25:28-26:01) © 2019 Ravello Records LLC :

Overall, the compositions here form a slightly romanticised account of the effects of climate change in the far north, which doesn't affect the pure beauty, and often sadness, of these vivid and intriguing natural sound recordings and ideas. Repeated listening is highly recommended ... much extra comes to light each time through.

Copyright © 8 January 2019 Keith Bramich,
Worcestershire UK


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