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Science and Art join in music from Alaska's natural places

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Alaska Public Media
Matthew Burtner composes using sounds recorded in Alaska's wild places.

A sound artist who makes music from the natural world is in residency this week at University of Alaska Fairbanks. Alaska composer Matthew Burtner gave a workshop this afternoon, that brought together science and music. He will join Fairbanks musicians for a community concert Thursday evening.

Emmy award winning composer, Matthew Burtner, and Percussion Professor Sean Dowgray are on the stage at Davis Concert Hall, looking at a bucket of melted snow, and a bowl of seed pods and spruce needles.

Dowgray and his music students will “play” these natural materials like instruments as part of Burtner’s composition "Syntax of Snow.”

“There’s a lot of amplified natural materials in this music, so a lot of my work is about the environment, and one of the ways that I compose for the environment is for natural materials such as water or snow, ice or wood. And small changes in the water that you may not hear in the hall are actually pretty dramatic when they're amplified,” Burtner said.

Dowgray says he wants his students to take advantage of having Burtner in residency.

“ Listening. I, I want to expand their listening. Finding ways to hear things differently. – ‘Oh my gosh. I started listening to the snow in a way that I've never, I've never thought about it like that before.’ -- And expanding what we consider to be musical,” Dowgray said.

Percussion professor, Sean Dowgray rehearses Matthew Burtner's compositions with conventional instruments and natural materials.

Mathew Burtner was born in Naknek, grew up in Nuiqsut and lives in Anchorage and Virginia. The ecosystems of Alaska influence his music, and they are part of his music.

“ To be able to present the work that I've created in Alaska about Alaska, things like using the sounds of the glaciers. My work has also been closely aligned with the sciences, and so this residency is with the music department, but it's also with the Institute of Arctic Biology and the Wildlife biology program. This residency at UAF can bring together those two interests and those two ways of working that I've developed. It's actually quite unusual for me to have a residency of this kind anywhere in the world,” Burtner said.

Mary Beth Leigh is a Professor of Microbial Ecology and Arts. She says music and science can be researched together.

“We’re really trying to spark this sort of interdisciplinary collaboration across all of UAF's different missions to help cultivate this spirit of innovation that will help us solve the grand challenges that we face like climate change. This is the kind of interdisciplinary approach in collaboration that we need.” Leigh said.

Thursday afternoon in the Davis Concert Hall, Burtner and Associate Professor of Biology and Wildlife, Todd Brinkman presented recordings they have made on the North Slope, and talked about some of the challenges for students as artists and scientists.

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Percussion set up at Davis Concert Hall.

“I would like the students to observe this kind of confluence of arts and sciences, and there may be a student out there who is very interested in science and in music, and they can see that the, the possibility of bringing these things together.”

Tonight at 7:00pm there will be a full program of Burtner's compositions called, "You Sink Into the Singing Snow," which will feature percussionists on glockenspiels, amplified snow, field recordings and songs featuring UAF music faculty and students.

Robyne began her career in public media news at KUAC, coiling cables in the TV studio and loading reel-to-reel tape machines for the radio station.