Musicians with outdoor microphones capture Alaska sounds

Lisa Demer
Daniel Blinkhorn of Sydney, Australia, carries a microphone up Flattop to record the sound of the wind.
Lisa Demer
Aaron Minnick of Missoula, Mont., and Casey McLellan of Miami prepare to record the surging tide Monday at Beluga Point.
Lisa Demer

BELUGA POINT -- Maybe you've seen them, a seriously happy group of young adults with giant microphones capturing the sounds of Alaska.

They've been in Kenai Fjords National Park and at Beluga Point, on Flattop and on forest trails, recording the crack and grind of glacier ice, the frenzied feeding of humpback whales, the rush of a surging tide.

Matthew Burtner, a born-and-raised Alaskan who is a music professor at the University of Virginia with an international reputation for innovative work, started the EcoSono project four years ago. It now operates as a nonprofit organization that melds environmental preservation and creation of music that he calls "sound art."

The project includes an intensive educational element, the EcoSono Institute, that for the second summer running has lured a group of young musicians and composers from around the world to Alaska. They're performing their avant-garde creations Sunday at Alaska Pacific University.

In this program, musicians become sound designers and nothing is traditional.

"Some people have very specific ideas about the way music should be and it doesn't always include ravens and water and ice sounds," Burtner said last week as participants gathered outside the home where he grew up, at the edge of Chugach State Park near Glen Alps.

They were headed for a hike up Flattop Mountain to record the sounds of wind and grinding and clicking rock. Earlier, on a chartered boat out of Seward, they captured the sound of humpback whales fishing with a bubble net and ancient air popping out of calving Holgate Glacier. They put underwater microphones into Turnagain Arm to record the bore tide but weren't in the right spot. They captured a big surging tide anyway.

Along with the music of nature, the experimental work will feature percussion and a saxophone as well as computer-manipulated sound.

Aaron Minnick, 26, of Missoula, Mont., is working on a musical piece that illustrates the decay and melt of Exit Glacier using data and research about its retreat.

"The form of the piece is derived from these 200 years, from 1815 to 2015," Minnick said. In his song, each year spans 3.65 seconds, or more than 12 minutes in all.

"Depending on the rate of decay, the music will be more or less intense," he said. "The times when it was melting very fast the piece will be more intense and involve more water sounds, calving, things that suggest the loss of the glacier. During more stable times, it will be more peaceful or crystalline, kind of like the state of the ice." For much of the 1800s, the glacier retreated just 3 feet a year on average. But between 1914 and 1917, it lost more than 900 feet, almost a foot a day.

The music is being created from long recordings of scraping rocks, calving glaciers, melting ice and more -- "a carpet of sound," Minnick said.

"It's kind of a mathematical piece that uses space as a function for frequency, for pitch," Burtner said.

Burtner, a 1988 Service High graduate whose parents were Bush school teachers turned commercial fishermen, has a doctorate from Stanford University in composition and computer music. A few years back, he and media artist Scott Deal created a multi-dimensional opera called "Auksalaq," Inupiat for melting snow and ice, that was performed simultaneously in spots around the world last year.

The pieces planned for Sunday include Burtner's "Song for Low Tree." He said he based it on "tree respiration data" from a scientific study that he mapped into the range of human song. Participant Casey McLellan will hum the song into a computer that then transforms it into sounds that represent the breath of trees.

McLellan, 21, from Miami, is a percussionist and music student at Williams College in Massachusetts who heard about Burtner's program last summer while at a music festival in South Carolina where he was a guest composer.

While percussionists normally play drum kits, she'll be playing "plant kits" at Sunday's show. Some are familiar like wood blocks. But she and others will also be working with pond scum, tree needles and other unusual items in the concert.

"A lot of cool stuff," she said.

As the group hiked up Flattop on Thursday, Daniel Blinkhorn, 38, carried a big microphone. He's a composer and lecturer from the University of Sydney in Australia and part of the program faculty. He created a piece called "Frostbyte" for Sunday's show out of glacial sounds, political debate on climate change and live saxophone.

Some of the 10 participants came from China. They connected with Burtner at the University of Virginia, where they are music students.

"It's a highly creative program," Blinkhorn said.

There's nothing else like it in the world, he said.

Reach Lisa Demer at or 257-4390.

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