Better Know a Composer: Samuel Burt

Refrain of Athanasius

Fountain Resonances


Samuel Burt is a Baltimore based composer, improviser, clarinetist, and teacher.

He is one of the essential volunteer organizers of the High Zero Festival the same non profit that runs the weekly Red Room Series. He helped found After Now with Asha Srinivasan, Brian Sacawa, Mark Lackey, Andrew Cole, C.R. Kasprzyk, and Rose Burt. After Now is a Baltimore based project that solely performs premieres of chamber music by Baltimore area composers. In the winter of 2006, he and C.R. Kasprzyk took Illusory Correlations on the road to Philadelphia and New York with Baltimore instrumentalists performing their compositions. 

Mobtown Modern has included him on their new music series performing Alvin Lucier's Music for Solo Performer and John Zorn's Cobra. He performs frequently with Death in the Maze, a reed trio plus percussion intuitive music ensemble and with Geodesic Gnome, a improvisatory troupe led by John Berndt to the outer edges of experimental performance. He is also a member of Second Nature, another ensemble guided by John Berndt that focuses on large group intuitive improvised real-time composition.

In his own words:

I learned to compose by attempting to uncover the secrets of music. At first it was more of a mystical experience. Without a teacher, I fumbled around with triads and chords developing rule systems that didn't quite sound right but worked in some way. Once I had obtained a teacher, I began to explore the many mechanisms for generating musical material that other composers had employed. In college, the art of counterpoint and the rigors of total serialism interested me, but my teachers encouraged me to avoid such limits. Today, each new work demands a novel method to guide the music and give it its uniqueness and consistency. This is what drives me as a composer: the daydream of a new musical construct and the obsessive realization of the intricate details that give the concept life.

In order to better know this composer I have posed him with a collection of short questions which will hopefully give listeners an insight to his personality and thereby his work.

When was the first time you heard a piece of music and knew that you were going to be a musician for life?

Senior year of high school.

What was that piece or experience?

I was staying after school to write a piece for the wind ensemble on my band director's computer, listening to the ridiculous Quicktime sounds performing my Finale score.

Of course dedicating myself to a lifetime of music making feels a little crazy as technology extends our lives into the distant future. I can't say for sure my interests will always be musical. Someday, they might be virtual world building or biohacking.

If you fell out of an airplane and luckily had your headphones on while you fell to your ultimate demise, what would you want to be listening to?

I'm sure whatever would be on the headphones would suffer unfairly from my inattention. Even if I tried to listen, I'd probably be constantly worried that I would hit the ground before it finished.

List the last 5 records you listened to?

Most recently, I have been listening to Cory Doctorow's podcast of readings from Jury Service and to podcasts of this Dungeons and Dragons game called Critical Hits. I listened to the album Potrzebie of this great Baltimore instrument-building duo, Thus. I listened to Ohm, a historical collection of some of the major electroacoustic works. I also listened to a little of Kagel's 1898, the other day.

I don't want to give the wrong impression, though; I have Melt Banana, Wu-Tang, and Dragon Force on my iPod, too.

What is the inspiration for the first piece of music that you wrote?


What was the inspiration for the last piece of music that you wrote?

The dire need to continue creating things, despite working forty-five hours a week. Well, that and material from a previous piece I wrote called Fountain Resonances that incorporated one of the most impressive extended techniques I had never seen implemented in a concert hall. Fountain Resonances asks some unreasonable demands of the performers, but this new piece, with the working title Plumbing, leaves behind the ridiculous performance difficulties and keeps the interesting sound environment.

What is your favorite bird call?

the crow

Mozart of Mahler?

Mahler, I say with reservations. Being an exhausted human who works a full time job, I can understand why few people would want to sit and listen to two hours of continuous music. Both composers tend to meander a bit for my tastes, but Mozart sounds clunkier.

Do you know what I more often prefer? Music from composers' old age. I like late Beethoven and late Boulez. Mozart, Mahler, and Mendelssohn all expired before they were ripe. Of course it could be that I like "B" names instead of "M" names.

Name one musician who has made a profound impact on your work whom listener's might not expect.

Can you hear Samuel Barber in my music? I don't think it is that surprising, but it might be for some. I always found his balance of chromaticism, lyricism, and counterpoint gratifying. His melodies have just the right number of leaps in them.

What is your favorite extended technique for any instrument?

My clarinet's cork is ruined from it. It works great on single-reed instruments, although I've heard it done by bassoonist Katherine Young. I have started using the euphemism "spectral gargle" instead of the more offensive sounding "spit technique." It involves inclining a wind instrument so one can blow water into the mouthpiece without it running down through the instrument. The water sits in a pool at the reed so when one blows, one gets the pitched popping sounds and hiss that one can control with embouchure to produce plenty of ringing overtones.

*C.R. Kasprzyk – saxophone – performing Sam Burt's Fountain Resonances with spectral gargle

Have you ever asked a musician to perform a technique that they are simply unwilling to do?

I have had plenty of performers come to the first rehearsal with a lot of trepidation, but once they learn to trust what they are asked to do, they get excited. Eureka! They suddenly understand that I really do know what I am doing! Actually, I think a lot about the performer before I write a note. If they play a Stradivarius, I'm probably not going to ask them to rub the wood with a coiled spring.

Name the album that you have listened to the most times?

I can't confidently answer that, but iTunes shows that I have listened to Ethiopiques vol. 3 the most of anything currently on my hard drive.

What's the shortest piece you ever wrote?

There are some song settings of Donald Rumsfeld's encounters with the press that are quite short. I think some of the little two line songs I wrote when I was a kid taking piano lessons were shorter. Even more petite are the ringtones I made.

What's the longest piece you ever wrote?

Global Tranquility, Unstable Locality is probably my longest fixed length piece. It consists of twenty four chords played by a string quartet. Each chord lasts about one minute and must be retuned slowly by the string players to sine tones that fade in and out. It is a really strange experience for the performers and a surprisingly active sonic environment for the listeners. Some of my more instructional constructions have closed forms with open lengths. Unwound for instance could go on into infinity if the performers wanted to get out their instruments once a day, week, year, and then decade to play the next note.

If you could resurrect any musician to collaborate with, who would it be?

Many of the people I admire are either still alive or have passed with completeness and maturity. To bring them to this time period would present some terrible incompatibilities. I do wish that