EcoSono Institute Alaska Wrap-up

MatthewFlattp_webMatthew Burtner on Flattop Mountain recording wind, photo by Cory Kazprzyk

In June I led a group of 10 musicians through Alaska for the annual EcoSono Institute. We explored the ecology of Alaska, recording the sounds of humpback and orca whales, sea lions, puffin and kittiwake seabirds, glaciers, forest birds, and water of all sorts. We traveled from the mountains to the ocean, and held classes about ecoacoustics, digital music, environmentalism, biology, orienteering and composition at Alaska Pacific University. This was the second time I led this EcoSono project and following another incredibly rewarding experience we intend to do it again next year. I was joined by guest faculty, Daniel Blinkhorn from Australia, a wonderful composer and one of the leading acousmatic composers in the world. We were also joined by guest lecturers Leslie Cornick, the Chair of Environmental Sciences and a Professor of Biology at APU, Sam Snyder of the Alaska Conservation Foundation and Director of  the Bristol Bay Watershed and Fisheries Protection Campaign, and orienteering and wilderness experts Jen Jollif and Ian Moore.

Daniel Blinkhorn recording Holgate Glacier, photo by Hua Xin

The EcoSono Institute is an intense experience for all involved. For two weeks we live and breathe outdoor exploration and ecoacoustic composition. We spend our days traveling by foot and all sorts of transportation, seeking out unique sounds in the world. At night we archive the recordings and photos and compose new music for the final concert. Many of the places we explore are pre-planned and arranged as part of the syllabus, but others we discover along the way. When we find something interesting, we set up an outdoor recording session, a creative act in itself that may involve up to 20 microphones. Some standout sessions this year included the humpback whales bubble-net feeding, a large pod of orca whale, a skyscraper-sized piece of ice calving from a Kenai Fjords glacier into the sea, the tiny sounds of mountain birds and tundra moss in the pristine wilderness under a midnight sun, and much more

EcoSono_Institute_6.2013_LisaDemerThe EcoSono Institute 2013 participants, photo by Lisa Demer

The Institute began with the arrival of participants from all over the world into Anchorage International Airport. The EcoSono shuttle picked them up and we convened at Alaska Pacific University where we organized our mobile recording studio called the SEEL (Sonic Environment Experimentation Lab). The SEEL is a motor home retrofitted into a sound lab, a home base for our remote activities. We don’t live in the SEEL, but with a bathroom, shower, beds and a full kitchen including refrigerator and freezer, it makes an excellent mobile exploration base.

SEEL_webthe SEEL (Sonic Environment Experimentation Lab), photo by Matthew Burtner

EcoSono Institute explores the sounding natural world. We spend a lot of time being quiet and listening alone. The program enables a deeper personal relationship between the individual and the environment. The program also creates a supportive human community around the natural world. The participants become a close and supportive network that then engages with the larger community and natural settings. This summer we were welcomed by a number of institutions, particularly Alaska Pacific University, the Alaska Sealife Center and the Alaska Design Forum.  The Anchorage Daily News also took an interest in our activities and the editors published two concert previews and two detailed articles about our work.

Here are links to the Anchorage Daily News Articles:

“Musicians record Alaskas natural notes” by Lisa Demer

“Music, masks seek to connect art, science and understanding” by Mike Dunham

With our large furry and parabolic dish microphones, and strings of cables draped all over the place, we are not hard to spot. Reporter, Lisa Seton discovered us recording the Bore Tide on Cook Inlet. She followed this encounter with an interview and photo session during our Flattop Mountain Climb in the Chugach Park. Arts Editor Mike Dunham said our concert “may be the most intriguing music concert in Anchorage this year, and perhaps the most restorative”.

Thanks to this reporting from the Anchorage Daily News we performed our final concert to a full and enthusiastic house at APU’s Grant Hall.




Everyone works intently towards the final concert of the EcoSono Institute. It is our chance to share the experience with the public and the deadline helps drive the creation of new works. EcoSono invites composers and performers, and this year we had two Performance Fellows, Casey McLellan from Williams College in Massachusetts and Cory Kasprzyk from Bowling Green State University in Ohio. The Performance Fellows take charge of the concert and the composition participants can write for these two artists. Casey and Cory expertly led the concert production with grace and aplomb.  Casey performed my composition “Song for Low Tree” beautifully, and Cory and I performed Daniel Blinkhorn’s “Frostbyte”, a work I premiered in Australia in November. Each performer played several new compositions on the final concert.

This year, three of our participants came from China by way of the University of Virginia. Hua Xin, Sophia Shen, and Yingjia (Lemon) Guo are all Music students at UVA. I was very impressed by the intrepid attitude of these three, far from home but fearless and optimistic in their engagement with the Alaskan wilderness and with the program.

Sophia was struck by the possibility of listening underwater with hydrophones. She composed a piece that juxtaposes above and below-water field recordings discovering and processing the magical sounds of underwater sealife. Her resulting composition, premiered at the final concert, allows us to hear and wonder at the sonic richness of the ocean.

Inspired by activist Sam Snyder’s No Pebble Mine presentation to our group, Hua wrote a political multimedia piece about Pebble Mine. The composition juxtaposes a piano solo and field recordings with images and texts, unambiguously repeating the words “Save Bristol Bay” and “No Pebble Mine”.

Lemon Guo was as obsessed with the numerous and gigantic Alaskan mosquitoes as they were with her. She developed a technique to record their buzzing using a sensitive microphone. She also photographed them with a macro lens. Our concert poster featured her photograph from this most unpleasant of recording sessions.

HuaLemonSophia_webLemon Guo, Hua Xin and Sophia Shen at the Alaska Sealife Center, photo by Matthew Burtner

LemonSinging_hua_webLemon Guo performing her composition “Four Seasons” at the final concert, photo by Hua Xin

SophiaTelinga_hua_webSophia Shen at the cabin campsite on the old Iditerod trail, photo by Hua Xin

Our US participants came from six states and brought an impressive diversity of experience and aesthetics. Bill Baird from Texas, now a graduate student at Mills College, presented an engaging political piece about the issues of pavement. His performance used a Kinect controller to track his movements on stage, allowing his footsteps to manipulate recordings of his walking on different natural surfaces. Meanwhile six performers speak, and then sing as he covers and uncovers their mouths with tape.

BillCasioEddie_webBill Baird working with a sampling keyboard in the otherwise pristine wilderness, photo by Eddie Davis

BillConcert_hua_webBill performing his composition, “Triple – Decker Footstomp Wake up Call” at the final concert

D. Edward Davis, a graduate student at Duke University, composed a stunning work for kittiwake sea birds, sea lions, saxophone and interactive electronics called “Cliff Nesting”. In this piece, the computer uses the saxophone’s pitches to set filter coefficients and process the field recordings.  

EddieCoryCliffNesting_hua_webCory Kaspryzk and Eddie Davis performing Eddie’s “Cliff Nesting” at the final concert, photo by Hua Xin

EddieResurectionBay_webEddie recording birds on Resurrection Bay, photo by Hua Xin

Matt Carey, a student at UMBC in Baltimore, composed Marshscape, a work in which the percussionist performs marsh water, a piece of slate, and an intricate piece of driftwood.

MattRecordingTelinga_hua_webMatt Carey recording an evening bird chorus, photo by Hua Xin

Casey McLellan presented her own composition, “Mosstone” a work using recordings of the tiny sounds of rubbing and plucking various types of tundra moss.

CaseyWood_hua_webCasey McLellan performing Matt Carey’s “Marshscape” at the final concert

CaseySongForLowTree_webCasey performing Matthew Burtner’s piece “Song for Low Tree” at the final concert, photo by Hua Xin

CaseyRecordingWater_webCasey recording glacier runoff of Exit Glacier, photo by Matthew Burtner

Cory Kasprzyk composed a new piece called “Eagle River Study” in honor of our cabin camping place on the old Iditerod Trail in Eagle River.

CoryMatthewSaxes_webCory and Matthew performing Daniel Blinkhorn’s “Frostbyte”

 Aaron Minick from Montana conducted research on the retreat of Exit Glacier, tracking its movement over time and converting the distance into frequencies for a harmonic system.

AaronBoreTide_webAaron Minnick recording the tidal surge on Cook Inlet

Those interested in reading more about the pieces can see the final concert program here.


Following the concert we had one more day of activities planned, featuring a recording session at the end of the Anchorage Airport runway where the international jets fly overhead, just above the trail. The power of this sound, in contrast to the quiet and stillness of some of our earlier sessions, gave us material for a final seminar discussion on human-nature dialectics.

Daniel Blinkhorn recording airplanes landing and taking off, photo by Hua Xin

The EcoSono shuttle took everyone to the airport as they departed for Japan, China, Australia, Baltimore, Ohio or to the trains, vehicles and planes that would take them on to other parts of Alaska. We leave with a changed way of hearing the natural world, and with a new support network of international artists working on ecoacoustic music. Come back to Alaska, EcoSono 2013 Participants, you are always welcome here!

MatthewCuddleFurry_webMatthew cuddles a furry while Daniel discusses things with a Sound Devices, photo by Sophia Shen

ColorfulDinner_hua_webGood Alaskan food! This campsite meal of salmon, potatoes and vegetables prepared by Judy Burtner, photo by Sophia Shen

Orca_webAn orca whale scouting us during our recording session in the Gulf of Alaska, photo by Matthew Burtner

BirdsGlacier_webWe spent a long time listening to this glacier in Kenai Fjords National Park, photo by Hua Shen