When I entered the music major program at UVA, I expected to learn things like the overtones of diminished thirds. While classes initially provided me with a grounding in music theory, the first class to challenge my imagination was taught by Matthew Burtner. We built microphones from scratch, composed and performed modern art pieces with the sculpture and dance departments, and made interactive musical experiences and programs. His courses completely changed my perception of the audible world. I recently got the chance to interview Matthew for a cover story in my Publication and Art Direction class at Portfolio Center in Atlanta, Georgia. By "interview" I mean that I sent him questions via email, and he answered them from Castellina in Chianti, Italy.

Okay Samurai Multimedia: How did your childhood in Alaska influence the way you perceive music?

Matthew Burtner: People often ask me how my experiences growing up in the wilderness of Alaska, sometimes without electricity, could give rise to my current work in computer music. For me these things are not separated. In Alaska, I experienced nature as a close and powerful presence. The cold and the snow are undeniable and gripping. One is acutely aware of the "grain of nature" (if I can say that). Dealing with weather like this can take over all aspects of your attention, making everything else seem trivial.

As an artist I have tried to apply this same intensity to the arena of sound. The "grain of sound" is the undeniable and gripping power of the sound to draw the ear away from pure references to its source. The ear is always asking "Am I hearing a guitar? Am I hearing a trumpet? Am I hearing a bird? What does it sound like?" I have tried to use technology to isolate the power of pure sound, abstracting it from the point of reference.

OKSMM: So where does technology fit into the picture?

MB: New technology arises from the presence of harsh environments because as humans we need it to survive. Clothing, shelter, and tools such as snowshoes, sunglasses or shovels, are all technologies we need to live in the arctic for example. As these technologies improve, our life in that environment can improve and we can get closer to nature, enjoying it even more. This is how technology embraces environmentalism: it allows a more symbiotic relationship to evolve between the human and the environment.

My computer music work stems from these two inspirations from nature: the power of pure sound and the ability to work with it closely at the micro level. Both of these things I see coming from my close experiences with nature in Alaska.

OKSMM: You created a unique instrument called the metasaxophone. How does it work, and how did you come up with the idea for it?

MB: The metasaxophone itself came out of a larger project related to saxophone performance and composition in general. My intent was to extend the saxophone into the world of electroacoustics. The metasax was the result of that.

The Metasaxophone is an acoustic tenor saxophone retrofitted with an onboard computer microprocessor, and an array of sensors that convert performance data into independent continuous control messages for a computer. The instrument has additionally been outfitted with a unique microphone system allowing for detailed control of the amplified sound. While maintaining full acoustic functionality, the metasax is also a versatile computer controller and an electric instrument.

The instrument was finally developed in 1999 at Stanford University's Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics. While performing compositions such as Incantation S4 and Split Voices, it became clear to me that, in the context of these slowly evolving musical textures, a good deal of the performer's tactile sensitivity was being unused. While the saxophone allows for detailed control over embouchure changes and changing air pressures, the manual interface of the instrument has certain limitations. In particular, aside from the rapid change of key positions, the fingers of the performer have no direct haptic control over the instrumental sound.

By giving the keys pressure sensitivity or "aftertouch", a feature common on MIDI keyboard instruments, direct tactile control over the electronic signal processing could be given to the performer. This computer interface could be placed easily in the expressive zone left unused by the instrument, namely finger pressure on the keys. In essence, the saxophone keys which normally execute only on/off changes of the air column, are converted to continuous control levers. This initial realization led to a vision of seamless integration between the instrumental acoustic and instrumental electronic worlds.

OKSMM: Inventing an imaginative instrument seems like an arduous task. Was the actual physical creation of the metasax difficult?

MB: The technology was not hard to do once all the pieces were in place conceptually. I had an idea and just followed it through. I was lucky to stumble onto great people like Max Mathews, Gary Scavone, Perry Cook, Brian Ferneyhough, Jay Kadis, all at the right time, people who in some way helped push me through. Gary and Max were especially inspiring for the metasaxophone in particular.

OKSMM: Your latest album is Metasaxophone Colossus. What's the concept behind its creation?

MB: As a saxophonist, I've always been a huge fan of Sonny Rollins. Along with John Coltrane, Rollins has been a top influence. It's not the jazz style so much but rather these performers' approach to their instrument, the tenor sax. Sonny Rollins has this great album called Saxophone Colossus from 1956, noted for its adventurousness and technicality. When I was thinking of a name for this album, I just couldn't pass up the chance to play with the Rollins name and draw a parallel to this tradition almost 50 years later. So the music of Metasaxophone Colossus builds upon the innovative tradition of American sax music we hear in Rollins, combining it with the most recent resources of computer technologies. It's a playful and audacious title, but the music is quite serious. I can say without doubt that like Rollins' album Metasaxophone Colossus moves saxophone music into new territory.

OKSMM: What will Rollins think?

MB: I hope he will like it. I mean, this clearly isn't jazz so he might not acknowledge it as part of his tradition but the idea of making tributes is inherent to the process of jazz, through quoting and covering. With Metasax Colossus, I am outside jazz, looking in, and drawing broader connections outside of a particular style. The influences for my art are instrument builders such as Adolphe Sax, acousticians and scientists such as Fourier and Tesla, composers such as Xenakis and Scelsi, performers such as Rollins, Coltrane and Jimi Hendrix, and the free impact of new technologies on music.

OKSMM: What software do you use?

MB: I'm a bit of an omnivore when it comes to software. My computers are currently a G4 Apple laptop dual booting between OSX and OS9, and a Dell Latitude that dual boots between Linux and Windows. I use a range of software in my work from open source Linux stuff we develop at the VCCM (Virginia Center for Computer Music), to high-end commercial applications. I basically use the software we support in the VCCM because that's what we have - so that means apps like Peak, Digital Performer, SuperCollider, Max/MSP/Jitter, RTCMIX, etc. I tend to use different tools wherever I go and don't have a lot of software loyalties except to Max/MSP which I always use as the interactive interface for the metasax and do most of my development on.

In addition to being technologically omnivorous, I'm also nomadic so everything needs to be portable. A normal metasax concert may use three computers, a couple of saxophones, and a bunch of peripherals so everything I get is tiny so that it can be hand-carried onto an airplane or easily packed onto a train. I also teach with the same tools I concretize with and since my department at UVA is technologically impaired, I am required to set up a studio every time I teach class. Normally this is a laptop, projector, MIDI synth, mixer with audio output from the laptop and synth.

OKSMM: I'm curious to hear what an artist like yourself thinks about the current state of pop music.

MB: I think that (so-called) pop music is at an exciting stage now because new forms are emerging and technology is changing the sound radically, broadening the type of music we can here and breaking the standard pop song form. Some things I'm listening to in the dance music world are symphonic in scale (I'm thinking of Deep Dish or DJ Crush). I like the use of longer, more multifaceted forms of experimental dance music because commercialism has driven pop culture and music specifically to such a level of instant gratification. And there are strange song forms in the hip hop world as well, changes of texture that mimic the changing of presets on a drum machine. I'm thinking of Dr. Dre or Notorious BIG, or more recently Missy Elliott. My taste in hip hop tends to older stuff, even back to NWA which I listened to in college, but I also like the sound the Neptunes are bringing to recent recordings.

The use of computer music in rock is also an exciting innovation, The way people are pulling in sounds, I feel like we're back in the 1970s with disco influences and Pink Floyd psychedelia again. Dark Side of the Moon suddenly sounds very current. My personal taste in rock gravitates towards female vocalists. I've been a big Beth Orton fan since she hit, and I still really get lost in her voice. I like many of the contemporary female rock vocalists, also jazz female vocalists. Billy Holiday is my favorite with Ella a close second. There are exceptions of course and I'm a huge Tom Waits fan, and that guy from the Tindersticks has a great sound.

I've been listening to Sonic Youth since I was a teenager and I still love them. They made a record called Goodbye 20th Century recently which is fantastic, performances of new music compositions by composers like Cage, Phil Kline, Pauline Oliveros. I would like to play sax with them sometime.

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