Matthew Burtner is a young composer, originally from Alaska, who, after substantial international wanderings, is now at Stanford's CCRMA as a doctoral fellow in composition. He has produced a most-impressive debut release, containing six works, all from 1996-1998, for computer sounds, saxophone, and stones. Mr Burtner's command of extended saxophone sounds is virtuostic, and, as impressive as is his computer work, it was his playing that blew me away. Portals of Distortion, the opening track, is a phenomenal work for nine multitracked tenor saxophones. By combining so many tracks of saxophone multiphonics, unusual trills, etc., Mr. Burtner produces some rich, amazing sounds with unique spectra. This is additive synthesis of a very refined order. I hang out with some pretty exceptional new-music reed players, and this piece still knocked me out. If only for this work, the disc would be worth having.
There are, however, other delights on the album. All the pieces feature what I might call a "West Coast drone" sense of time. That is, the traditional European sense of phrase, gesture, antecedent, and consequent (as exemplified in much French electroacoustic music) is absent here, replaced by broad bands of sound that surge and twist, almost like natural forces. (The liner notes emphasize nature metaphors, so, clearly, the mean a lot to Mr. Burtner.) Once a piece starts, it stays pretty much in the same sonic territory for its duration. There are, however, surprises along the way, as in the granular synthesis piece, Fern, with abrupt dramatic gestures erupting from its turbulent surface. There is a clear sense of sustained harmonies hanging behind the rushing textures of sound. This might just be an aural illusion, but it's a most powerful one.
Split Voices and Incantation S4 are both pieces for amplified saxophone and computer-generated sounds. Of the two, Split Voices is the more active and unusual in form, with Incantation being gentler and more sustained. In both pieces, Mr. Burtner's playing compares favorably with Evan Parker, the contemporary saxophone master. In Split Voices, the rushing gray-noise bands of the computer part sometimes complement the saxophone, sometimes envelop it, and sometimes stand behind it. The piece is in an unusual two-part form. The first section (about half the piece's length) grows with the computer noise bands getting wider and wider, the sax getting more and more active, and things getting louder and louder, eventuating a great climax. This is immediately followed by a long section of sustained purer tones. I kept expecting this section to act like a coda, but to my delight and surprise, it didn't; it just kept developing with its own internal logic.
Mists and Glass Phase are both pieces where Mr. Burtner explores another interest of his, extended polyrhythms. He has designed a Max patch called the Polyrhythmicon, after the Cowell-Theremin Rhythmicon of the 1930s, and he uses it to control samples or live performers. In Glass Phase, percussive glass samples are played in a complex polyrhythmic and polymetric system, creating an elaborately patterned, icy texture. I was reminded of the patterns of oriental carpets, or of labyrinths and mazes. The music begins with one of the highest-register sounds I've ever heard on disc, and the swirling stereo effects created by the intricate phasing are engaging. this is the phasing concept of early Steve Reich carried to an extreme one could only have dreamt of back in the late 1960s. The overlapping samples converge into a texture not unlike cicadas near the end, and when all the voices come together for a unison final attack, I was extremely surprised, just a I would be in a performance of Indian music when all the patterns converge into the final beat. Mists, for stone trio and computer noise controller, actually predates the Polyrhythmicon. In this piece, the three performers use metronomes (heard through headphones) to maintain strict rhythmic relationships. The playing of the stones is heard through the veil of filtered noise, reminiscent of rushing wind or water. As mentioned earlier, Mr. Burtner makes much of his outdoor experiences in Alaska and Canada. In addition to its other attributes, this is a very attractive disc of "winter" music.