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How composer Matthew Burtner is putting climate change into song

Matthew Burtner is a composer and "eco-acoustician," weaving sounds he finds in the Alaskan tundra into his musical compositions. With climate change headlining the news, he hopes artists documenting the glacial melting might awaken their audiences -- and contribute to discussions about solutions. Valerie Kern of Alaska Public Media joined Burtner on a recent sound collection trip.

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  • Nick Schifrin:

    We return to climate change, but on a very different note.

    Valerie Kern of Alaska Public Media explores how one artist is examining the melting of glaciers to create music.

    It's part of our ongoing arts and culture coverage, Canvas.

  • Matthew Burtner:

    I was out recording the wind sounds, and I was — it was really snowy and icy.

    And I came back down into the building, and I was just covered in like ice on my beard and snow. And, you know, my — everything was frozen up.

    And someone said: "Matthew, what are you doing?"

    And I said: "I'm composing."

    Well, I'm a composer, and a sound artist, and an eco-acoustician. So I work with environmental sounds, and I create music and sound art in dialogue with nature.

    So I particularly focus on climate change. So, you know, I'm interested in composing music that reflects changes in our climate, and I try to bring attention to that and work with the natural world as a musical instrument.

    So I'm very often composing with glaciers and with the snow or the wind, and things — any way that I can discover how we hear climate change.

    By thumping it, I hear like the snow bank as a bass drum.

    You know, some days, I'm out in the mountains, listening and recording sounds. There are days where I sit at the computer programming. There are days when I sit at a music paper writing music.

    No, it's never dull. I made an album called "Glacier Music." It's published. So it kind of fixes in time snapshots of these glaciers. As the glaciers are retreating, they go through a rapid kind of time of retreat, and that has a certain sonic signature.

    And then the glacier goes through a period of thinning. And you can hear that too, because the water that's thinning comes out of the glacier on the sides, and usually makes these rushing rivers on the sides of the glaciers.

    That sound, to me, is a signature sound of a glacier that's in advanced retreat.

    When I was studying music, I was impressed by the sounds of the natural world, and, in general, the power and the presence of the Alaskan wilderness. And so I naturally made music with those things.

    As I got older the — you know, the environment started changing, and I started hearing those changes in the sounds that I loved.

    I want people to feel something. If the music is made by a glacier, for example, will we feel more connected to the glaciers and think about them in a different way?

    Through composing these pieces, we're kind of documenting the world now. And, in the future, maybe a glacier like Matanuska will sound very different, if it sounds at all.

    And I still hope that we can change that, that the glaciers won't disappear. It's stressful to think about, you know, a million species of animals being — becoming extinct in the next few years.

    You know, to think about all the Arctic animals that are among those million, like what can I do to help with that? Is the music really going to stop the extinctions? No, it's not. Maybe the music can be used in a kind of joint science, policy, art discourse that does change that in some way.

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