a multimedia opera for voices, instrumental ensemble, computer sound, interactive media, video, dance/movement art and theatrical staging.
duration is c. 1hr (the audio excerpt above contains sound from five different sections)

Growing up on its banks and waters, I perceived the Kvichak river as a place of living mythology. We lived on and from the river. I saw the villages, the people, and the river itself change over time, and each change redefined the way we related to the world. Kuik is a story of this river told through the sounds and names of the places.
Matthew Burtner


Kuik (river) creates a multimedia map of water, as it flows from the glaciers to the ocean. In particular the piece follows the Kvichak river in Southeast Alaska as it crosses diverse cultural regions. The water originates in the mountains and it ends in the ocean, and its journey determines the form of this creative composition, a theatrical work in which the river, the ocean and the wind become animated persona in an ecoacoustic drama. The piece imagines the river as an environmental spine that draws together people of different cultures.

I: Kelek (”inviting in” ceremony)

II: Kuik (river)

IIIa: Kelek 2/transition
III: Windcombs
IV: Imaq (ocean)
V: Kaliq (light)

The work opens with a musical Kelek, an “inviting in” ceremony. Musicians and dancers move around the hall, inviting audience members to play small bells. In Kuik, a character called “Kala Alak” sings the story of the river and performs with a unique pair of oversized wooden hands containing imbedded circuitry that turns the hands into a computer controller. The soprano voice part, “Sook,” portrays the spirit of the river, singing place names to build a map of the river from interwoven cultures.

In Windcombs, four dancers perform with an interactive light sculpture called the Windtree, an instrument that senses the movement of the dancers and uses the data to control a four-channel computer physical model of the wind. The sculpture, dancers and four-channel computer model together create a complex multimedia ecoacoustic instrument. The music and dance in this section create the background for a story of the origin of wind, based on traditional Alaskan legend.

Imaq means “sea” in the Alutiq language of Southwest Alaska. The bass voice sings the role of “Emeqana”, the spirit of the ocean, using dominant languages of the region: Alutiq,Yupik and Dena’ina. He sings about the tides, intoning “spirit of the ocean, in-tide, out-tide, water travels farther than human beings”. Emeqana’s song is accompanied by music created out of the energy of the wind and sea sonified in order to generate the music.

history and background

The Kvichak river in Southwest Alaska sustains a number of unique cultures. It is here that the borders of the interior Indian, the northern Inuit and the Aleut people meet and overlap. This region drew early European and Russian explorers and supported permanent Russian settlements by the 1780s. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries the rich salmon fisheries of Bristol Bay drew people from the U.S., Asia and Europe.

The piece adopts a legend about the flow of water from the mountain glaciers into the ocean as told by Antone Evan in Dena’ina, translated by Andrew Balluta and published by National Park Historian, John Branson. The story communicates a wish for peace between diverse cohabitants of unique natural spaces. It traces the water’s movement using place names drawing on a confluence of languages including Dena’ina, Yup’ik, Alutiq, Russian and English. USGS maps of the region include few named locations, offering little insight into the cultures inhabiting the region. In fact, the places on this river have deep significance to the people, and the place names tell of a rich and changing history between the people and the land.

In 2003, with the help of a summer research grant from the University of Virginia, I spent two months following the path of this water. In each stage of the water’s movement from the glacier to the ocean, I documented the sounds and images of the water. I also asked the people living along the river what they called specific places. Not surprisingly, one place can have multiple names in different languages. Over time, these labels often become mixed between languages, adding layers of cultural significance to the place names. The mysterious origins of the hybridized name “Kvichak” itself inspired this study.

A character called “Kala Alak,” tells the story of the river and performs with the giant Shaman Hands, a computer controller modeled on a real pair of shaman hands from Togiak (see image below). The solo soprano voice, “Sook,” portrays the voice of the river. Dancers play various materials and interact directly with the audience and with the Windtree on the stage. The second part of the piece features a solo male voice, “Emeqana,” as the voice of the ocean. A sonification of wind, waves and tides, the section also features four dancers interacting with my interactive light sculpture, the Windtree.

Live performance excerpts video using footage from performances at the Kursaal in San Sebastian, Spain; the Peabody Institute in Baltimore, Maryland; and the Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton, Virginia.

“Sook” (spirit of the river) soprano voice
“Emeqana” (spirit of the ocean) bass voice
“Kala Alak” (story teller) spoken voice also performs the windstaff and shaman hands
“Windvoices”: one or four spoken voices tell the “story of wind” in Windcombs and repeat the “I am traveling on and on” text in Imaq.


percussion — 1 or 2 players: bass drum, glockenspiel, vibraphone, low toms, roto toms, crotales
violin or viola
bari sax or bassoon
cello accordian

Auxilary percussion

four aux percussionists play sand panels, bells and rattles.These parts are not technically difficult but they are an important aspect of the drama and sound.

Dancers/movement artists

Four Winds”: four dancers who perform with the Windtree on stage and play the bowed piano low sustain instrument with the ensemble.These dancers also play bells in the Kelek and Kaliq movements. In the Kuik movement they also play river stones and rattles.


2 to 6-channel computer sound:Two speakers on stage are used to project the digital sound and the recorded texts. Four additional channels in the hall, surrounding the audience correspond to the four winds of the Windtree,

Shaman Hands,Windtree and Winstaff: custom interactive instruments described inside. It is not necessary to use the original instruments, and these may be recreated for future performances.

video projection: either live video projection with Kala Alak controlling the 3-D spherical model in real time, or fixed media video projection.

Signal procesing computer running the Kuik, Windcombs and Imaq software. Kuik software is performed live with the singer. vocal micophones for amplification and processing of voices from the stage.


technology research

Kuik inspired a number of technological innovations such as new computer control interfaces and new synthesis methods for computer sound generation. Several research articles describe the development of these technologies. To learn more about the technical aspects of this work, see the following sources:

• “Perturbation Techniques for Multi-Agent and Multi-Performer Interactive Musical Interfaces” NIME 2006, Paris, France, 2006.

• Shamanic and Ecoacoustic Technologies for Multimedia Composition and Performance. Matthew Burtner, Organized Sound. Volume 31, Cambridge Press, York, England. 2005.

• The Shamanic Object as a Model for New Multimedia Computer Performance Interfaces. Burtner. International Computer Music Conference (ICMC) Proceedings. Miami, Florida, 2004.

• A Theory of Modulated Objects for New Shamanic Controller Design. Burtner. New Interfaces for Musical Expression (NIME) Conference Proceedings. Hamamatsu, Japan, 2004.


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