The Sound of Nature Itself

Written by Robinson Meyer

From Atlantic article by Robinson Meyer.

Many classical musicians turn to climate science—and sometimes even climate data—as a direct inspiration for their work. Matthew Burtner, an Alaska-born composer who teaches music at the University of Virginia, also presented at the American Geophysical Union, describing his music written about—and sometimes with—glaciers.

Burtner is an “eco-acoustician,” meaning he brings both the sounds and the data signatures of the environment into his work. Sometimes, he’ll take climate data and convert it into musical sound, a process known as “sonification.” (Think of it as the aural equivalent of data visualization.)

His work also includes the sound of nature itself: Burtner has traveled to Matanuska Glacier, a 27-mile-long ice run near Anchorage, Alaska, to bring the object into his composition. In 2013, he scattered 19 microphones across the glacier: Some mics sat on top of the ice, listening for the wind; others were lowered into openings into its interior; and a few sat beneath the glacier’s melt pools, catching the drip-drip-drip of its lost mass.

The goal, Burthner says, is to create “a single audio representation of the glacier and bring that into the studio, the gallery, the concert hall.”

Burtner isn’t the only musician who has worked on environmental themes—or with environmental data specifically. He told me that Iannis Xenakis, the Greek-French composer, influenced his work; Xenakis once wrote a piece that represented certain statistical qualities of gases. But other composers—including Pauline Oliveros, R. Murray Schafer, and John Luther Adams—have written music about the environment, sometimes using environmental recordings.

Burtner’s work—and Williams’s discovery of the climatological pop record—suggests that music and science about the environment may share some deep connections. Both rely on qualitative experience quantified; both require patience and exhaustive focus. Recently, the literary critic Amitav Ghosh wondered why so few novelists today are writing fiction about climate change: “Why does climate change cast a much smaller shadow on literature than it does on the world?” Perhaps we can answer: People are writing music about it instead

Read full article by Robinson Meyer in the Atlantic.


McIntire Department of Music
112 Old Cabell Hall
P.O. Box 400176 Charlottesville, VA 22904-4176