The Ceiling Floats Away

The Ceiling Floats Away was commissioned by the NEA Art Works Grant and premiered in 2016 at the Atlas Center for Performing Arts in Washington DC. The piece features Matthew Burtner’s musical settings of 13 poems by Rita Dove. Burtner recorded Dove reading her poetry and wrote the music to the pace and cadence of the poet’s voice. The piece is either performed with Dove’s recorded voice or the poetry can be read live with the instrumental ensemble.

Instrumentation: flute/piccolo, Bb soprano saxophone or Bb clarinet, soprano voice, piano, cello

The title of the piece comes from Rita Dove’s poem, Geometry:

I prove a theorem and the house expands:
the windows jerk free to hover near the ceiling,
the ceiling floats away with a sigh.
As the walls clear themselves of everything but transparency, the scent of carnations leaves with them.
I am out in the open
and above the windows have hinged into butterflies, sunlight glinting where they’ve intersected.
They are going to some point true and unproven.

1) November for Beginners
2) Mississippi
3) Describe Yourself in Three Words or Less
4) The Snow King
5) Singsong
6) Pithos
7) Ozone
8) Lint
9) Lamentations
10) In the Bulrush
11) Happenstance
12) Five Elephants
13) Geometry

Each chamber movement is interspersed with an audience interaction bridge during which the audience members use the Nomads software to respond to the music and poetry, creating an audience reflection on the work we perceive as a new composition. The audience music/poetry is projected onto a screen behind the musicians.

The piece was premiered by the EcoSono Ensemble in Washington DC in 2015. Lisa Edwards-Burrs, John Mayhood, Kelly Sulick, Kevin Davis, Shawn Earle. With Nomads technology by Matthew Burtner, Jon Bellona and Travis Thatcher.

All of the audience texts are merged onto one screen and each input inspires a unique response from the poet’s voice through a specially designed database of Dove’s poems. The Nomads software also knows where each person is located in the space and can place poet responses panned to the location of the person inputing the data. This creates a rich surround sound atmosphere, and gives a feeling that the poet is communicating uniquely with each audience member. In addition, sounds emit from the audience member devices, and the input affects the music.



The video shows how the Nomads Ceiling Floats Away software works. In a gallery setting, the piece can be installed and left to run indefinitely.

The Ceiling Floats Away Nomads software demo from Matthew Burtner on Vimeo.


Score Excerpts


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Ceiling Floats Away score and electronics
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