Musical Ecoacoustics embeds environmental systems into musical and performance structures using new technologies. Ecoacoustics derives musical procedures from abstracted environmental processes, remapping data from the ecological into musical domain.It draws on techniques of sonification, acoustic ecology and soundscape composition (Truax, Westerkamp, Keller and others). The data from nature may be audio information (from wind or ocean waves for example), or it may be some measurable parameter such as temperature, geological change, etc. Going beyond direct sonification, the composer may develop a syntax on the basis of the recorded natural processes, and create new patterns conforming to this syntax.

My interest in ecoacoustics arises from my experiences growing in the Arctic of Alaska, on the fishing boats on Alaska's Southwest coast, and in the mountains above Anchorage. As such, snow, ice, wind and sea figure prominently in my work. I developed ecoacoustic techniques in works such as "Mists" (1995) and "Sikuigvik" (1997) (the time of ice melting) in which the process of ice melting is used as a musical form, and in the large-scale work "Ukiuq Tulugaq" (1999-2002) (Winter Raven), in which systems of snow, wind and climate generate musical form. It has further been employed in my compositions "Fragments from Cold" (2006) for cello and electroacoustics, "Winter Falls" (2000) for bass and electroacoustics, "Windprints" (2005) for Chinese Sheng and mixed ensemble, "Windsketches" (2005) for metasaxophone, "Snowprints" (2001) for flute, cello, piano, video and electroacoustic, and others. Ecoacoustics is also at the basis of my recent immersive multimedia pieces.

© Matthew Burtner, September 2004

Large scale multimedia works:
Ukiuq Tulugaq (Winter Raven) (1999-2001)
an electroacoustic theater
for voice, instrumental ensemble (fl/picc, cl/bcl, sax, vln, vla, vcl, pno, 4 perc), 8-channel computer sound, interactive media, interactive video, dance and theater.
Windcombs/Imaq (2003-2005)
a new media opera
for voices, instrumental ensemble, 6-channel computer sound, video, interactive media, dance and theater.
Kuik (2003-2006)
a new media opera
for solo voice, chorus, percussion, computer sound, interactive media, video, dance and theater.


Instrumental techniques:

in "Windprints" for Chinese Sheng and mixed ensemble, a spectrographic analysis of an audio recording (excerpt above) of the wind was used as the basis for the musical form.

Windprints (2005) for sheng and ensemble (fl, ob, bsn, tpt, tbn, vln, vcl, db) was commissioned by CrossSound and composed for virtuoso Sheng player, Wu Wei. Windprints explores the relationship between environment and imagination through wind. An audio recording of ambient wind, made on the coast of Alaska, is used as the basis for the instrumental work. The frequencies and dynamic properties of the wind over time were mapped into the instrumental parts in a process known as sonification. The dynamic structure of the instrumental part is thus determined by changes in the wind.

The music presents the wind not literally, but as if it is heard through the imagination. Gusts of wind lead to ruptures in the imagination space, blowing melodies into being. Analysis of the wind audio file revealed seven large gusts and as a result, in Windprints, there are seven such ruptures corresponding to seven melodies. As if from prolonged exposure, certain tones become more prominent representing a process of physical memory.

in "Tingnikvik" for viola, alto sax, piano, video and noise generators, each instrument is assigned a parameter from the environment. The viola is temperature, the sax is light and the piano is the material property of the environment.

Tingnikvik (2000) is named after an Inupiaq Alaskan word meaning “the time of leaves falling and birds flying south” The piece explores the ecological process of winter approaching as an acoustic system. Each instrument is assigned a specific parameter of the environmental system. The evolution of each of these components generates the linear motion of the instrumental lines and the macro-timbre is a result of the summation of these parameters. Unlike the movement in everyday human life, environmental processes such as temperature, light, air pressure systems, etc change relatively slowly. Similarly, this piece moves slowly between acoustical states and does not attempt to push it into traditional musical forms. The piece attempts to capture the experiential rituals of environmental natural processes and to uncover the spiritual engagement we feel when coming into contact with such systems of transformation.

"Winter Falls " uses the sound walk as a way to create musical form. The sound walk is a defining technique of soundscape composition, and I am indebted to and inspired by the work of Barry Truax and Hildegard Westerkamp.

Winter Falls (2000) for amplified double bass and computer-generated tape tends from isolated sonic objects towards sonic environment, from string sounds into waterfalls, and from waterfalls into noise. The piece is a celebration of the Yosemite Falls and the acoustic double bass as resonating bodies. A connection is formed between these two “instruments”through the use of electronic transformation. The waterfalls were recorded in Yosemite National Park. These recordings took the form of acoustical “walks”, moving the microphone upstream and gradually approaching the falls as a means of controlling the intensity of the water sound.

"Snowprints" scores instruments with the highly varied sounds of snow. During an extended period of sub-zero outdoor recording sessions in the winter of Alaska, I recorded snow in many different states. Powdery, icy, crunchy, soft, new, wet, etc. all created different dynamic qualities. The music arises from the transformation of snow types in counterpoint with the instruments.

Snowprints (2002) for flute, cello, piano, video and electronics explores snow both metaphorically and sonically. Snow relates to bodies through the analogy of "impressions" or "prints". In snow, prints of bodies are captured and transformed by wind and changing temperature. The wind leaves impressions in the form of drifts; changing light creates shadow prints on its surface; and animals seeking shelter also leave fading tracks. In Alaska, I photographed and recorded the images and sounds of snow. Many types of movement in different kinds of snow were recorded. The sounds were then mixed into the electronic part, combined with three “digital prints” of the acoustic trio. The digital prints were created from a “Scanned Synthesis” string (by Max Mathews), a “Physical Modeling Synthesized” flute (controlled by a Theremin in Miller Pucket's PD), and a “Granular Synthesis” piano. Macintosh and Linux computers were used to create the piece. The orchestration of the composition is thus an acoustic trio of flute, cello, piano; and a digital trio of flute, cello, piano. The expressive noisy sounds of the snow bind the sonic world, creating a background environment for the instrumental/digital prints. Snowprints was commissioned by Trio Ascolto with support from the German Ministerium of Culture, Heidelberg.

"Sikuigvik" was the first piece I identified as "ecoacoustic".

Sikuigvik (the time of ice melting) (1998) was commissioned by Musik i Nordland for the ILIOS Festival in Norway. The work is dedicated to Torleif Torgersen and the MiN Ensemble who gave the premiere performance in 1998 under the direction of the composer. Sikuigvik (the time of ice melting) explores musical formal processes generated from the natural environment of Northern Alaska, the composer’s home. In particular, musical processes derived from the form of ice melting, create the basis for melodic generations and harmonic evolutions. The time of ice melting is an occasion of celebration and happiness for all people living in the far North. Sikuigvik attempts to capture, in music, the process and feeling of this time.


In a White Light (1997/2000) for violin, piano, and Arctic wind explores the region between music and environment. In this piece the inner spirit of sound is discovered through the interrelation of ecological and musical elements. The codependence of instrumental, human, and environment in the piece forms a “musical ecology”, the music being formed inside of a larger environmental compositional context. Environmental body, instrumental body, and the performer’s bodies create a hierarchical musical ecosystem from which the music arises and into which it decays. Clearly visible objects recede into a white light leaving only traces of their passing.

Each performer vocalizes carefully notated sounds which are intended to add noise to the instrumental sound, thereby forming a link between the body of the instrument and that of the performer. Arctic wind sounds recorded in the far North of Alaska and mixed onto CD are played into the concert space. The wind acts as an ecoacoustic musical context defining the psychological boundaries of the piece. The wind also forms a larger link between the concert environment, and the performers themselves through the timbral unity of noise as the result of changing air pressures against a body (wind in the trees and breath from the mouth).


Interactive media techniques:

New interfaces and technological instruments such as the nWinds (above right) and the Windtree (above left) allow ecoacoustic systems to be projected in real time on the concert stage.