Sounds Like: Christopher Burns “Drones and Monsters

Dan Willis

Swarms of robot bees cascading downward like television rainsticks; babbling mercurial brooks flowing through forests of blipping blockish brain trees while lip-licking slime lords escape from church fire alarms: This is what may have been going through your head as you sat listening in a darkened Wriston auditorium during Christopher Burns’ “Drones and Monsters” performance on Monday.
Burns began the concert by explaining a little bit about his computer program, giving the audience a peak under the hood at the sophisticated devices he uses to create his visceral and layered sound worlds.
Describing his computer programs as “more specific than an instrument, but less specific than a composition,” Burns showed how the complex feedback loop structure of his “Kepler’s Monster” program made it impossible to predict exactly what would happen next in a performance.
While controlling only the basic synthesizer assignments of certain rhythmic modules in the program, the ultimate sound product was left up to the ravages of the internal feedback environment.
This dialogic relationship with the computer allowed Burns to wrestle with the intellectual challenges of performance, and the result was challenging, fascinating and exhilarating.
He may have described the nature of the program best when he described it as a shopping cart with a broken wheel; you can push it in a direction but from then on there’s no guessing where it will go.
Listening to his music is by no means easy. It lacks the safe and familiar rhythmic and harmonic structures we have grown used to as listeners of Western music.
There were no time signatures, and no warm fuzzy tonal centers. What you did have was a buzzing, blooming, aural onslaught of synthetic plampos, blippie farties and clomping twitters all convulsing and evolving together to create spontaneous polyphony of a radically Neptunian sort.
Grinning kickballs would rain down on cardboard roofs, and in head-swiveling shifts in texture, the sound would explode into vast vibrating fields of lightsaber cornstalks rippling in cascading waves under the force of a gentle radioactive breeze. Such were the musical phenomenon in his first piece “Kepler’s Monsters,” inspired by the mathematical visions of the 17th-century astronomer Johannes Kepler.
The second piece of the evening, a drone piece titled “Pipe Dream,” drew inspiration from pipes in Burns’ apartment that curiously buzzed a major third. The piece was structured around the drone of a major third. Various pulsating and crackling sounds would enter the fray in odd harmonic intervals, building the drone into a rippling mass of texture motion.
Perhaps his somewhat ironic employment of the benign and traditional major third underscores the compositional context in which Burns operates. Citing 20th-century visionaries such as Stockhausen, Cage, Xenakis, Tudor and Nono as influences, this irony affirms Burns’ conscious departure from traditional compositional means. If Burns continues to create music this exciting and challenging, the next generation of composers may add his name to their list of 21st-century visionary influences.