Interview – Warren Burt
Warren Burt has been involved with pushing the boundaries of musical tuning, timbre, and technology since the early 1970s. We talk to him to discover what motivates these pursuits.
by David Baer, July 2013
Warren Burt has been involved with pushing the boundaries of musical tuning, timbre, and technology since the early 1970s, as well as with designing and building new acoustic instruments for both community and professional performance. Coming from the non-commercial experimental art-music tradition of the early 20th century, his work represents a different point of view from the technology-based experimental dance-music scene.
He is both a composer and performer of music and multimedia. Born in the US in 1949, he moved to Australia in 1975. He has written music for orchestras, choirs, chamber groups, community music groups, as well as for every generation of music technology from the 1960s to the present. In fact, his work with Australian composer Percy Grainger’s “Free Music” had him reconstructing some of the earliest (1948-52) electronic music technology and making live music with it.
In Australia, he worked at La Trobe University, Melbourne from 1975-1981, as well as being one of the founders of the Clifton Hill Community Music Centre (1976-1983), a non-academic, non-pub-based, non-pop-music community music making facility, where an entire generation of Australian experimental musicians cut their teeth in performance and composition in a safe environment away from either the restrictions of academia or the commercial demands of the pop scene.
He was a freelance composer from 1981-2000, working in many areas of the world, doing musical installations, electronic music performances, music for radio (radio art), and an ongoing series of collaborative performances with dancers, actors and poets. He taught at the University of Illinois in 2001 & 2002, finished a PhD in microtonality (new forms of musical tuning) at the University of Wollongong in 2007, and currently composes and teaches in Melbourne, at Box Hill Institute and at Bendigo TAFE (technical and further education college), as well as pursuing an active performing and composing career.
Recent major works include 3 CDs of computer music Etudes, available for free download from his www.warrenburt.com website, music for choreographer Tess de Quincey’s “Moths and Mathematics”, a large work for dance, music and live computer graphics; and “Experience of Marfa” an composition for eight-channel electronics, and 40 voices and percussion, in collaboration with composer/painter Catherine Schieve, and the Astra Choir and Astra Improvising Choir, led by John McCaughey and Joan Pollock.
Most of his work involves working live, in real-time, with technology of one sort or another. He is very involved with getting electronic music out of the studio, out of the bedroom, and into the larger world of music making and interaction with people.
Sound Bytes What kind of music would you be pursuing if this was, say, the year 1913 … no computers, and no notable electronics?
Warren Burt What would I do if I was in 1913?
– Look up Erik Satie and tell him to stop drinking so much – he needs to live beyond 1925.
– Go to Charles Tomlinson Griffes and slip him some antibiotics from the future so he doesn’t die at the age of 35 in 1920 from flu complications from the previous year. I want to see how his transition from impressionism to atonality would progress.
– Go to Charles Ives and give him some blood pressure medicine.
– Look up Percy Grainger and discuss his ideas of “free music” with him. Maybe we could have gotten the synthesizer 40 years earlier, if Grainger had been encouraged.
S.B. Interesting responses, but I was asking what you’d personally be doing musically without today’s technology?
W.B. Well, the reason I gave personal responses about individual people is that I relate to those composers as if they were family. My grandfather, who I was very close to, was born in 1891 (he died in 1968), so I did have a living connection with that era. I relate to those guys as I would to people of my grandfather’s generation, or a little bit older. But in answer to the musical question, probably I’d be convincing people to invent musical instruments that can play microtonal scales. Why should we have to wait 23 years for Harry Partch to do that in 1935? But I then have a further wrinkle on your question – are we talking about me having stepped into a TARDIS and travelled back to that era, or are we talking about me having been born, let’s say, in 1891 and that I was raised in that era and was steeped in its culture. Let’s answer both questions:
If I were a time traveler to back then with all my knowledge intact, and it’s 1913-1916, I’m heading to Paris to study composition with Ravel and learn how he wrote the “3 Poems of Stephan Mallarme”, then I’m heading to Vienna to study with Schoenberg to learn about “Pierrot Lunaire,” then I’m heading to New York to learn about Griffes’ “The Kairn of Koridwen,” and maybe I’ll hang out with Henry Cowell in California and work on my tone-cluster technique with him. So if I were a time traveler I’d like to work with those people who were making very complex, very sensual music at that time.
On the other hand, let’s say that I was born in Coshocton, Ohio in 1891 (maybe in this imaginary history I’m my grandfather’s imaginary twin brother). Now we’re talking about history, economics, opportunity, etc. Would I even have gotten into music? But assuming I did, I’d be thoroughly immersed in the culture of the day. If my penchant for the unusual survives a liberal Midwestern upbringing of the early 20th century, then maybe I’d end up in Minnesota working with John Becker or Carl Ruggles, two early-20th century modernists. Or maybe I’d just end up as a salon-music playing hack. In any case I’d be hoping that my attraction to the unusual in this era would translate into an attraction to the unusual in that era, and I’d be seeking out the most advanced musical thinkers of the day, as I’ve tried to do in this day. (Of course, if I were born in 1891, I’d be prime draft-bait for the First World War, so avoiding that would be a tricky one, too, but I guess we’re just dealing with music and not all the messy realities of living in that era.)
Maybe my music would have evolved into a combination of Ruggles-like atonal melodies with Satie’s irreverent wit and humor, combined with Ives’s juxtaposition of several musical worlds at once.
On the other hand, Gordon Mumma, the electronic music pioneer, is the nephew of Archie Mumma, a salon-music composer from the turn of the 20th century, who was interested in music made from bird-calls. So you never know how that biologically transmitted talent stuff is going to work out. In fact, if I had been born in Ohio in 1891, maybe I would have ended up working with Ohio-an Archie Mumma! (http://www.spencerserolls.com/zencart/index.php?main_page=product_info&products_id=400294400)
Tangentially, I sometimes ask audio engineering students the question – would rock and roll have evolved without electricity? I recently read about compressed air being used to make Edison cylinder and early non-electric phonograph playing very loud (120db) without much control, so perhaps we would have had a loud popular-folk based music evolve without the need for current in wires. This is all in the line of alternative histories, and if they would be possible at all.
S.B. What, no AC/DC? Oh well, no big loss really.
Clearly your musical interests focus on what most people would label “non-mainstream” or “cutting edge”. Were you always “there” or did you gravitate to such things after a more traditional musical education?
W.B. Well, regarding AC/DC, as I said, there were people who were using compressed air to make extremely loud music using acoustic phonograph technology, so AC/DC could easily have happened. Just imagine a stage with 20 or 30 steam powered compressed air loudspeakers, all going at 120dB. That would have been pretty amazing.
I wouldn’t say that what I was doing was “non-mainstream.” I unapologetically feel that I’m a part of the art-music tradition as different from various “pop-music” traditions. But over the course of the 20th century, the balance between the traditions has shifted dramatically. That old spy-master and musicologist Henry Pleasants recognized this as early as the 1940s with his book “Serious Music and All That Jazz.” Today, I don’t think there IS a mainstream any more – just lots and lots of different musics, some of which make money and some of which don’t. But if we’re going to let economics determine our aesthetics (like a lot of the society, alas, does) then we might as well just give up now. Which I refuse to do.
The question you ask though relates to an assumption many people make, which is that in adolescence, you identify with a certain kind of music, and then you are conditioned to think of that as “normal” and everything else as “weird.” And then you struggle to expand your world view to encompass more than the music you liked in high school or something like that. That never happened with me. I played accordion as a young kid, and with the accordion (in the 50s) you played everything – classical, pop, folk, and they all seemed equally valid. Also, my parents didn’t like rock-n-roll, and I didn’t get a lot of exposure to it until I was in my last year in high school. And further, I went to a military academy for high school, so I never really “got socialized” and made a particular kind of music part of my identity. In high school I was already engaged in what I called at the time my “search for the weird.” When I started college in 1967, at the State University of New York at Albany, which was beginning to have a thriving new music scene, (and new poetry and multimedia and video art and electronic-interactive dance scenes as well), I found my “weird.” And I felt so much better in an intellectual environment like a university. So if I ever got “socialized” it was in university, when I embraced being part of the art-world and it’s most exploratory wing. And it was in university that I first was able to play with a very large Moog synthesizer (the CEMS system designed by Joel Chadabe), as well as observe friends do early experiments with using a computer to write texts and make drawings, etc. So right from the beginnings of my artistic career, I was involved with things on the bleeding edge of technology.
And not just mechanical technology either, but also with aesthetic ground breaking as well. As an undergraduate, I managed to meet and talk with people like John Cage, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Gyorgy Ligeti, Robert Ashley, Kenneth Gaburo, Lejaren Hiller, Salvatore Martirano, while studying with Joel Chadabe, and this was the period when many of them were doing their most experimental work. So that kind of thinking didn’t seem strange or challenging to me – it just was the way people were thinking.
S.B. OK, two part question. Since you do teach at a university, I assume you acquired some academic credentials along the way to make you qualified for that position. Do your academic qualifications align with your musically “exploratory” proclivities, and to what extent are you permitted to draw upon those experiences in the classroom? Also, do you find the academic environment especially conducive to your extracurricular musical pursuits?
W.B. I did my BA at the State University of New York at Albany between 1967 and 1971. While there I studied composition and electronic music with Joel Chadabe. I had access to their very large Moog synthesizer, and worked with a lot of guest visitors, as outlined above. I then did my MA at the University of California, San Diego between 1971 and 1975. I worked mainly with Kenneth Gaburo and Robert Erickson there, but also with a number of other people on the faculty. Off-campus work with cellist and Yiddish music scholar Ronald Al Robboy and composer/environmental artist David Dunn was also crucial for my development. So my entire training was in making experimental music and working with technology. In my teaching now at Box Hill Institute (not a University, but a Technical College, to keep things accurate), most of my training is directly applicable to my teaching, although I do teach a couple of straight history courses as well (I’ve even managed to make learning about the 19th century fun!). My composing is a direct outgrowth of my training, but has extended the ideas that were prevalent in the early 1970s. If people want to see some of my work, they should go to my website, www.warrenburt.com, where I have links to my YouTube channel, as well as reports of music I’m making, and some sidebar features about my early history with music technology, etc.
S.B. Critics of the type of music you champion have been known to dismiss it as emotionless and/or purely intellectual. How do you respond to this kind of criticism?
W.B. I usually respond to those kinds of questions by pulling the questions apart. For example, if the criticism is about something being “purely intellectual,” I ask the person to define “intellectual,” “emotional,” what they think is the difference between the two, how does this affect their listening, how DO they listen, what triggers things off in them, etc. A lot of time, I find that people actually examining HOW they FEEL makes them very uncomfortable. Easy, familiar emotional responses are usually brought about by familiar material. A lot of people just want to feel comfortable with what they know. I make it clear to people, in a very friendly way, that I’m more interested in exploration of new material and new emotional reactions, and that the journey is a friendly one, and that they’re more than welcome to come along for the ride. As I sometimes say to my students, “There’s music you know how to write, and there’s music you don’t know how to write. I enjoy making music I don’t know how to write because it seems to be more fun and more of a challenge to do that.”
Then, if they begin to get interested in a more positive way, I can tell them about some of the ideas behind my work – such as algorithmic or generative music, in which I use various systems (like DNA protein patterns) to make music in order to hear what those patterns will sound like, or the ideas of working with new tuning systems – and explaining why one would want to work with tuning, anyway, or working in an interactive way with intelligent machine composing systems – that is, inventing different kinds of improvisational partners than my carbon-based biological friends can do, etc. Once we get talking about that kind of stuff, their original criticisms seem to fall away, and they begin to understand about the idea of music as a way of exploration, as well as a way of familiarity.
Three examples of my recent work with live performance of computer things can be seen on my website at http://www.warrenburt.com/journal/2013/5/13/concert-at-box-hill-institute-may-9-2013.html. In these pieces, I’m dealing with sound poetry, microtonal scales, movement controlled music machines, and interactivity with both a phenomenally talented human (Craig Schneider), and a pretty talented machine (my netbook with AudioMulch, ArtWonk and Glitch2).