SEAMUS (Society for Electroacoustic Music in the US) Journal



There is a monolithic quality to Matthew Burtner's music, that is immediately visceral, yet an intricacy to his textures, that is discovered through deeper listening. Like a Rothko painting, with its uneven brush strokes and subtle shading, or maybe more to the point, an expansive landscape, with its undulating topography and shifting textures, his work is less about the musical and timbral details, than how their combination produces an overall effect.

In his first CD, Burtner showed his tendency toward sustained ambient soundscapes and noisy timbres, in a collection of works that, although unified under his resolute aesthetic, varied widely in content. In his latest CD, “Metasaxophone Colossus”, a tribute, similar in name, instrumentation, and innovative spirit, to the great jazz saxophonist Sonny Rollins’ album “Saxophone Colossus”, Burtner again demonstrates his tenacious artistic integrity, through a series of pieces, that are neatly paired, and gratifyingly arranged, into a cohesive album.

On the first and third tracks, “S-Morphe-S” and its close relative “S-Trance-S”, Burtner takes advantage of the control, the pressure sensors attached to the keys of his saxophones provide, over the expressive parameters of sound synthesis physical models, developed by Stefania Serafin. In “S-Morphe-S”, the composer plays a soprano sax, fitted with pressure sensors and a microphone, which allow him to excite the vibration of a model of a Tibetan prayer bowl, by virtually striking and blowing the bowl. This, combined with saxophone drones, eventually embellished with trills, runs, and bends, contributes to the meditational air of the piece.

For “S-Trance-S”, Burtner uses the original metasaxophone, a tenor sax, with pressure sensors attached to the keys and bell, to control the parameters of several bowed and plucked string physical models. The piece alternates between an overwhelmingly cacophonous character, created by an ensemble of large jangling virtual strings, accompanying the saturated spectrum of an overblown sax, and moments of quiet tension, comprised of a few pulsing strings, with sustained sax. The cacophony is accentuated by increases in virtual bow pressure and simulated sul ponticello effects, and the tension builds, as the pulsing increases in tempo, and the density of layers and timbres thickens, until the listener is left with a long denouement of the overtones of a few pulsing strings, and intermittent tones from the saxophone.

The second and sixth tracks, “Delta 2” and “Delta1”, are also an aesthetic and technological pair, in which Burtner uses a microphone in his tenor saxophone, pointed at a speaker, to produce varieties of feedback. “Delta2” is reminiscent of the ambient synthesized soundscapes of Brian Eno and the mournful distorted meanderings of Robert Fripp, while “Delta1”, in which the composer also uses his polyrhythmicon, a MaxMSP patch that produces phasing rhythms, screams and pounds with a raw frenetic energy.

The centerpiece of the CD, ”St. Thomas Phase”, takes, as a point of departure, the track by the same name, from Rollins’ album. At first showcasing the dynamic drumming of Max Roach, from the opening groove of the jazz standard, the piece gradually evolves into a mix of layers taken from licks by Rollins and fills by Roach, looped and phased. The effect is a dizzying spectacle of instrumental virtuosity, that in the end erupts, and settles back into Roach’s steady rhythm.

“Noisegate 67”, the first piece Burtner wrote for the metasaxophone, uses the sensors on the instrument to control a hypnotic wash of white noise and buzzing synthetic drones, over which he performs the same kind of sustained tones and trills, heard in the previous pieces, at times mirrored by an echoing delay. Although a strong statement on its own, this piece serves as a bridge between pieces like “Split Voices” and “Incantations S4”, from the first CD, to the aforementioned “S-Morphe-S” and “S-Trance-S”, where he was able to control an expanded timbral palette, with the aid of his metasaxophone and Serafin’s physical models.

The last track, “Endprint”, shares its instrumentation and temperament with the first track of Burtner’s previous CD. Scored for nine tenor saxophones, the piece explores the combination of microtonally detuned sustained intervals, producing glimmering textures with subtle beatings, and dense clusters of passage work, creating a seething tapestry of sound.
The cover photo for this CD, a sculpture Burtner made with parts of a disassembled alto saxophone, is an apt metaphor for this collection of pieces. Burtner excels at assembling interesting original work from bits and pieces of his environment, musical influences, and various technologies, leading the listener through an engaging sonic exploration, in the process.