The Rotunda as seen from the east colonnade
Lifetime Learning

Discover the Secret Music of Glaciers With Matthew Burtner

The intricate song of glaciers generates “a rich complex of interwoven voices” that can “affect us emotionally,” says Matthew Burtner, composer and eco-acoustician. Burtner is the Eleanor Shea Professor of Music in the McIntire Department of Music in the College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences and co-director of the Coastal Futures Conservatory at the University of Virginia. He provides excerpts of his music in this post. Listen and enjoy!


People travel from around the world to Alaska to visit the glaciers. Indeed, it is a wonder to be in the presence of these giant “earth beings,” these frozen walls of water and rivers of ice that flow from the mountains to the ocean over centuries. Even those lucky enough to see the glaciers rarely get to listen to their dramatic and intricate sounds. My work as a composer and eco-acoustician has taken me deep into the glacial landscape of Alaska, where I was born and raised.

Courtesy of Matthew Burtner

My teaching at UVA is directly informed by my experiences growing up in Alaska and focusing on the dynamic sounds/music of this changing landscape. Over the last decades, I listened to the sounds of climate change and developed an approach to music composition I call ecoacoustics. I teach this to UVA students who study with me from fields as diverse as environmental science, biology, engineering, landscape architecture, art, and the field in which I was trained, music! I composed the album “Glacier Music” and am currently creating a second album of glacier-based works to be released in 2021.

This excerpt is from “Sound Cast of Matanuska Glacier,” composed for the U.S. State Department under President Obama for the GLACIER Conference in Anchorage. We hear the sounds of the glacier set in counterpoint with its electroacoustic sonifications and an instrumental ensemble.

Courtesy of Matthew Burtner

Like whales, birds, and humans, glaciers are songful beings. Glaciers express their state through an intricate sonic outpouring which is the result of their melting. But these are not like biophonic songs; rather, the glaciers generate a rich complex of interwoven voices, threading together into a symphonic tapestry of noise. This song of the glacier, despite its infinite complexity and lack of lyrics or melody in a traditional musical sense, can still affect us emotionally because we understand these sounds to be an expression of loss, of death, ultimately tied up with a changing climate central to our behavior as a species on this planet. The glaciers sing because they melt, and they melt in retreat, passing away before our ears, disappearing into the oceans to eventually wash upon distant coasts as waves.

“Threnody (Sikuigvik)” is a work of glacier sounds and sonifications. The work will be featured on Earth Day 4/22/2021 at the Artivism4Earth Festival, a collaboration between the University of Virginia, the University of Iowa, Harvard University, and Stanford University.

Aialik Glacier. Courtesy of Matthew Burtner

We might similarly refer to the song of a city or the song of a forest, but somehow the imperative of the glaciers’ soundings as they retreat into extinction during these very years resonates with us emotionally as listeners. To be sure, describing glacier sounds as a form of music and further considering them expressive songs is a human interpretation projected onto these sounds. But we make similar assumptions of human-created sounds as well. For example, think of the first time you heard an unfamiliar type of music. It might have sounded bewildering at first, but you knew it was meant to be heard as music, so you gave it the benefit of that interpretation. Environmental sound can similarly be considered music by a listener who hears the world as expressive and who feels connected to the environment. In other words, it seems completely natural and reasonable to listen for expressions of the environment as music, just as we would listen to any human-created sound as a form of music.

Courtesy of Matthew Burtner

With microphones tied to the bow of the kayak and hydrophones suspended underwater, I paddled inside an ice cave of a glacier in Southeast Alaska, listening to the sounds underwater and above. The melting ice rained down from the crystalline, iridescent cave, and the ice creaked and groaned underwater. A persistent roaring noise in the background reminded me of the giant river of glacial melt cascading down the ice above the cave, rushing to the sea. Inside this glacial cave, I became immersed in the sound of this melting. The soundscape was arresting, immobilizing, actually, and I couldn’t even breathe to disturb it.

Meanwhile, I was aware of the critical risk that at any moment, the entire structure could give way and crush me into the ice water below. I pressed “record” on the listening device and let the machine digitally encode the sound for later study in the lab. I wouldn’t stay longer than ten minutes in the ice cave for fear of its collapse, but it was among the most impressive minutes of my life. The aquatic noise of the glacier amplified on headphones was overpowering while the intense, iridescent blue glow of the ice filled my vision. This was not the first ice cave I entered to record the glacier, nor would it be the last.

The most impressive ice cave I’ve experienced is featured in my recent audiovisual composition, Dwelling in the Enfolding, created in collaboration with digital media artist and UVA Drama Professor Mona Kasra. Our piece features 360-degree video and sound of a cathedral-like cavern inside a massive glacier in south-central Alaska. It is an immersive audiovisual experience that was to premiere in museums in 2020/21, but as the venues closed, we published the work as an Oculus headset download so viewers could experience it at their socially distanced convenience.

Most recently, I have been working from a kayak in the Gulf of Alaska, recording the outwash of tidal glacier icebergs and composing music based on that transference of continental ice into the ocean. In this video, we hear “Sonic Physiography of a Time-Stretched Glacier” for percussion and glacier ecoacoustics, performed with elegance and care by Brandon Bell. The video  shows the icebergs being carried south by the ebb tide.

Courtesy of Matthew Burtner

Discovering this secret music of glaciers has changed how I hear music and the environment. The sounds of the glacier can provoke complex emotional responses that are not unlike being moved by expressive human music. For example, listen to Puccini’s aria Tu che di gel sei cinta from the opera Turandot. Go all out and listen to the Maria Callas recording – so beautiful! Even if you don’t understand the Italian, the song is gripping. She sings, “You who are girdled with ice, once conquered by so much flame, you will love him too. Before this dawn, I will close my weary eyes, to not see him anymore.” Now listen to this excerpt of the sound of a skyscraper-sized piece of Aialik glacier calving off into the bay, crashing into the sea as if in slow motion, fracturing into icebergs set on their path to becoming the sea. Both sounds are riveting and meaningful, and yet the glacier music remains a secret for us to discover as listeners. The whole world is waiting for us to hear it as music.

To learn more about UVA’s ecoacoustic research, please visit the Coastal Futures Conservatory. Our work intersects locally with scientific research at the Virginia Coast Reserve and engages with collaborators from the Alaskan Arctic ice to the Australian coral reefs.

All of this music is included on the Glacier Music album, available streaming on all listening platforms and as a CD or high-resolution download in music stores.


Continue your education with Lifetime Learning’s online resources available to alumni, parents, and friends.

The Thoughts From the Lawn (TFTL) blog is published by Lifetime Learning at the University of Virginia’s (UVA) Office of Engagement. This platform features UVA faculty and staff articles for the benefit of UVA’s alumni, parents, and friends. The views expressed in TFTL blog posts reflect the views of the authors and not those of Lifetime Learning. Lifetime Learning reviews the content and links in each article before publication; however, we take no responsibility for inaccurate information and/or links that lead to post-publication, unintended sites. Lifetime Learning is not responsible and will not be held liable for blog comments and reserves the right to remove malicious or mean-spirited responses.


Thoughts on “Discover the Secret Music of Glaciers With Matthew Burtner

    Thanks for this musical treat! Glacier music? A revelation.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *