Saturday, February 21, 2015

Christopher Burns 13 Questions

Christopher Burns (Milwaukee, USA, ) is a composer and improviser developing innovative approaches to musical architecture. His work emphasizes trajectory, layering and intercutting a variety of audible processes to create intricate forms. The experience of density is also crucial to his music: his compositions often incorporate materials which pass by too quickly to be grasped in their entirety, and present complex braids of simultaneous lines and textures. Several recent projects incorporate animation, choreography, and motion capture, integrating performance, sound, and visuals into a unified experience.

with Hal Rammel

Christopher's work as a music technology researcher shapes his work in both instrumental chamber music and electroacoustic sound. He writes improvisation software incorporating a variety of unusual user interfaces for musical performance, and exploring the application and control of feedback for complex and unpredictable sonic behavior. In the instrumental domain, he uses algorithmic procedures to create distinctive pitch and rhythmic structures and elaborate them through time. Christopher is also an avid archaeologist of electroacoustic music, creating and performing new digital realizations of music by Cage, Ligeti, Lucier, Stockhausen, and others. His recording of Luigi Nono's La Lontananza Nostalgica Utopica Futura with violinist Miranda Cuckson was named a "Best Classical Recording of 2012" by The New York Times.

A committed educator, Christopher teaches music composition and technology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Previously, he served as the Technical Director of the Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA) at Stanford University, after completing a doctorate in composition there in 2003. He has studied composition with Brian Ferneyhough, Jonathan Harvey, Jonathan Berger, Michael Tenzer, and Jan Radzynski.

Christopher is also active as a concert producer. He co-founded and produced the strictly Ballroom contemporary music series at Stanford University from 2000 to 2004, and has contributed to the sfSoundGroup ensemble in the San Francisco Bay Area since 2003. Since 2006, he has served as the artistic director of the Unruly Music festival in Milwaukee.

What do you remember about your first guitar?

The first guitar I ever played was a beautiful vintage Gibson SG (which at the time, I didn’t really know how to appreciate). I was playing drums in a rock band with two friends, and we were recording a bunch of original material to four-track cassette, low-budget and lo-fi. I had written some lyrics to go with a straightforward blues progression, and my bandmates persuaded me to try recording some solos to go between each verse. I attacked the SG as though it were a set of hand drums, trying to use enormous amounts of energy and intensity to make up for the fact that I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. I treasure the memory of my bandmates howling with joy and laughter when they realized how I was going to play — and it all ended up on the finished recording.

The next time I played guitar was more than a decade later — and my technique probably still has as much to do with drumming as it does with “proper” guitar playing.

What's the relevance of technique in music, in your opinion?

To me, it’s crucial — but only as a means to an end, and not as an end in itself. I don’t aspire to play the guitar “correctly” or in the style of another player. And I’ve been known to deliberately sabotage my technique to get out of a creative rut — at a recent show I played standing, wearing a strap, where usually I sit with the guitar in my lap. But my technique, idiosyncratic as it may be, means that I can reliably translate my ideas into sound — and new technique makes new ideas possible.

Define the sound you're still looking for

An almost endlessly sustaining, subtly evolving, thick, howling chord. Finding that sound is not so much a question of technique or equipment as it is making that vast, slow texture fit into the musical context of my playing — which is so often about energy, density, and angular rhythm. I’ve probably come the closest in a performance with Skøefst — we played in a large art gallery space, with a concrete floor, and the acoustic demanded that we slow down, open up, and let the sound hang in the air.

How would you define discipline?

Patience, persistence, commitment to critical evaluation and refinement of my work, commitment to learning and development.

What are your motivations for playing music?

The moments when playing absorbs my consciousness — when there’s no difference between “self” and “music” — are transcendent. And I often think that I became a musician precisely because it’s the most difficult thing I’ve ever done — I welcome that endless challenge, and the ways it encourages me to learn, grow, and evolve.

Audiopaint (2009) is a audio-driven interactive animation system. The visual contents of the work are derived entirely from software analysis of the electric guitar performance, and are designed to create a dialogue between music and animation.

What do you recall about your playing learning process?

Milwaukee artist and musician Thomas Gaudynski dared me to play guitar as part of a duo performance we gave together, and backed up his dare by loaning me an instrument (a charming Fernandes backpacker with a built-in speaker). I didn’t return the guitar for eighteen months — at which point it was clear that I was going to become a guitarist! Because I knew I was going to be thrown directly into a gig, I very quickly established a basic approach — playing with the guitar flat on my lap, thinking about it as an amplified percussion instrument, and using only my hands, no picks, tools, or preparations. From there it’s been a process of discovery — gradually broadening my repertoire of gestures and techniques, gradually getting a better handle on pitches and intervals in the context of the fretboard, and gradually making my technique more reliable and repeatable.

Dream about your perfect instrument

I don’t know what a “perfect” guitar would be — and I’ve no interest in trading in my current instrument. That said, I often play with live electronics, and I dream of being able to control the signal processing applied to the guitar, just by changing the sound and musical approach that I’m making at the instrument. No footpedals, switches, knobs, or devices of any kind, just the software “understanding” my guitar playing. I’ve played with using pitch-tracking, crude music analysis techniques, and various automatic systems to approach that effect, but they are a long way from my ideal “do what I’m thinking” interface.

What is your relationship with other disciplines such as painting, literature, dance, theater ...?

The visual arts and literature are especially inspirational to me. Cy Twombly and Gerhard Richter’s paintings, Sol LeWitt’s wall drawings, and the novels of Thomas Pynchon and David Foster Wallace are particular touchstones. I don’t think in terms of translating those influences into sound directly — but I do strive to create experiences which are similar in their richness and information density. I’m also fascinated by artists’ creative process (across a wide variety of media), and I’ve often tried to incorporate elements of those processes into my own compositional work.

Where are your roots? What are your secret influences?

The core of my work as a musician is as a composer — writing chamber music with pencil and paper, and electroacoustic music via code. I think one of the things that distinguishes my work as an improvising guitarist is my particular perspective on musical structure - my concern for large-scale form, and for making connections over time, comes directly from my experience working in composition.

What would you enjoy most in a music work?

If a piece of music does something I haven’t heard before, and it has a satisfying relationship between materials and form, then the odds are that I’m going to be excited about it.

What is some valuable advice that someone has given to you in the past?

My friend and once-upon-a-time bandmate Tom Hyry taught me that playing music in a group is an exploration of friendship. With the ensembles I play in now, and especially in Minor Vices, the group I lead, I’m aiming for the highest aesthetic standards I can — but I also want to cherish and nurture the social dimension of our work together.

Amanda Schoofs (voice) and Christopher Burns (guitar)

What instruments and tools do you use?

I play a parts Telecaster, built by the good people of Wade’s Guitar Shop in Milwaukee, with a huge single-coil pickup at the neck, a humbucker at the bridge, and a Bigsby vibrato. It’s the only guitar I’ve ever owned, and I don’t feel like I’ve come anywhere near exhausting its potential.

When I was shopping for an amp, my friend and colleague Greg Surges insisted that I purchase a tube amplifier rather than something solid state or digital (certainly the best piece of gear advice I’ve ever been given). From there I mostly tried to find something lightweight — I’ve already schlepped more equipment in my life than I care to remember! — and ended up with a Blackstar combo that I’m very happy with.

Away from the guitar, composing requires a good mechanical pencil, a straightedge, and a plastic eraser; I usually format and print my own manuscript paper using notation software. When I’m working as a technologist, my primary programming tools are Pd and Processing.

What projects are you working on now and what does the future hold?

At the moment I am finishing a duo for cello and piano; it’s very much a collage work, continuously stuttering, restarting, and making unexpected turns. I’ll follow that with some music technology projects — my colleague Kevin Schlei and I have a plan for an interesting iOS app, and I am feeling the need for some new performance software of my own. Looking farther down the road, things are murkier. I am very poor at predicting the future — if you had told me fifteen years ago that performance and improvisation would be such a large part of my work, or that I would write something as spare as my recent duo Yggdrasil, or that I would become guitarist, I wouldn’t have believed you! Here’s hoping there are more surprises to come.



  • Triptych: Innova 761 | iTunes
    Solo CD documenting the music from Triptych, an evening-length multimedia project created in collaboration with Luc Vanier and Leslie Vansen. Features recordings of three percussion works by longtime collaborator Christopher Froh, along with two electroacoustic compositions.
  • Melting the Darkness: Urlicht AudioVisual CD | iTunes
    Compilation CD including Come Ricordi Come Sogni Come Echi (2011) for solo violin, performed by Miranda Cuckson.
  • This Place/Our Body: Blue Leaf Records 2xLP
    Compilation double vinyl LP including Second Language (2005) for snare drum and hi-hat, performed by percussionist Morris Palter.
  • Agents Against Agency: Ecosono DVD
    Compilation DVD including Before The Seiche, a multimedia work (video + 5.1 surround audio) made in collaboration with David Dinnell.
  •  541 volume 1 : Innova 635 | iTunes
    Compilation CD including Xerox Book, nine miniatures for piano and percussion, performed by Christopher Froh and Ann Yi.


 Luigi Nono La Lontananza Nostalgica Utopica Futura: Urlicht AudioVisual | iTunes

MiLO (the Milwaukee Laptop Orchestra) performs a set of improvisations and pieces for the Kenilworth Open Studios, Spring 2012. 
The performers were: Chris Burns, David Collins, Nolan Dargiewicz, Adam Murphy, Elliot Patros, Kevin Schlei, Steve Schlei, Amanda Schoofs.


  • Scrawl: Penumbra CD018
    Duo CD featuring improvisations for electric guitar and amplified percussion, with legendary Wisconsin musician, artist, and instrument builder Hal Rammel.

    • Cadmium Dust: Universal Reptile DL/CD
      Download/CD release by Skøefst, an improvising trio with Trevor Saint (glockenspiel) and Amanda Schoofs (voice and electronics), featuring looping, twisted polyrhythms, obsessive repetition and fragmentation, metallic, clattering textures, and guitar and voice as percussive elements.
    • Xenoglossia: Universal Reptile DL
      Free streaming/download release featuring polyrhythmic and densely layered single-take electroacoustic improvisations.

    • Wild Fermentation: Universal Reptile DL/CDR
      Free download/limited edition CDR release featuring solo guitar improvisations post-processed by glitchy generative electronics.
    • Milwaukee Laptop Orchestra: Live at Woodland Pattern: MPRNTBL 011
      Free netlabel release featuring three improvisations by MiLO, performed May 17, 2009.
    Download as a ZIP file.