Notes on Burnt Cape Theo Mathien

Comprised entirely of sounds captured at the North-Western tip of Newfoundland, the majority of which were recorded at the Burnt Cape ecological reserve and the Cape Norman light house, “Notes on Burnt Cape” was inspired by past-Poet Laureate of Canada, John Steffler’s poem of the same name. The extreme contrasts in natural scale that sweep across this desolate terrain are both impressive and humbling, and entirely unavoidable. They conjure a powerful visceral connection to the land — one in which the point of origin lies just out of grasp, yet feels as though it has, for the entirety of our existence, been an essential component of the human psyche. The exploitation of these differences is present in both the poem and the composition. Yet, while the poem distorts visual perspective, the piece distorts aural perspective, both magnifying and distancing the textural, timbral and harmonic qualities of the recordings to create a work that extracts and heightens the primary aural elements that confront those who venture onto the stark landscape. Much as they dominate one’s sensory experience of the environment, the wind and waves play an omnipresent role in the work, their natural dynamic structures dictating those of both foreground and background gestures alike. Distortion amplifies the power of these elements as they rage across and onto the rough-hewn landscape. Along with the poem’s imagery and my own experiences gained from traveling to the region, I made use of descriptions given to me by the poet via email correspondence as a tool to foster compositional ideas. They read:

“The sounds are mostly those of the sea and wind with the cries of birds woven into the mix. At Cape Norman there is an outstanding foghorn. Noisy brooks cross the old road bed in the Watts Point ecological reserve.”

“Everywhere there is the sound of your footsteps, of course -- always changing with the terrain. Shards of limestone often ring and clang underfoot like bells and bits of iron.”

“The sea itself makes a remarkable range of sounds depending on what the waves are striking. Sometimes they thump and boom inside hollowed rock walls and caves. On gravel beaches, the backwash of waves produces an amazing rattle of small rounded stones.”

The poem follows (Notes on Burnt Cape by John Steffler):

frost causes rock to boil — wedging ice into cracks, it
splits stones, then slips its water blades deeper in,
levers them, spades the gravel up in rolling domes

on the scraped-bare cape each strewn boulder has a wind
shadow (pointing south-east) — a tapered green plant-woven
satchel stuffed with silt

trees, split like puzzle pieces, grow their branches
down among stones as though into air

you must lie down to distinguish the crowns of the willows
and birch

sky and sea vault away beyond reckoning — your car,
the road you followed, your house, you have to work
to recall

sometimes caught in the wind’s cold pelt,
pure sounds — waves’ leisurely slosh or thump, gulls’
high slow staccato — brush past the ear
like ocean’s barbed seeds.

  • Year of composition: 2010
  • Genre: Electroacoustics
  • Format: Fixed media
  • Hardware used: 2009 MacBook Pro, 2007 Mac Pro, RME Fireface 800, Euphonix MC Mix/Control, Schoeps Double M/S microphone system, Sound Devices Digital Recorder.
  • Software used: Digital Performer, Peak, Reaktor, Max/MSP, Melodyne, MacPod 2.0.
  • Duration of the submitted work: 12:10
  • Production: Home & University

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