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The Music Of The Northern Lights


Even if you've been lucky enough to see the northern lights, you probably never heard them turned into music. "Auroras" is a new composition by Matthew Burtner. He's a sound artist and composer in Alaska, and he was commissioned by the BBC to contribute to a radio documentary called "Songs Of The Sky." He was given a very low-frequency recorder called a VLF recorder.

MATTHEW BURTNER: It basically converts the electromagnetic signals into sound waves. So it allows you to listen to electromagnetic signals, and those could be from cars or from lightning, any kind of AC electrical current. But they can also be from the northern lights.


BURTNER: I had always heard stories about the northern lights making sound. That was something that I was told as a child, and I grew up with this kind of mythology that the northern lights made sounds. I never heard the northern lights make sounds. Even when I could see them, you know, really brightly and they're dynamic and moving and it's perfectly quiet, I could never hear the sounds of the northern lights.

But with this device, those changes are very audible, and they sound like all sorts of characters. I mean, there's a lot of kind of crackling noise sounds, snapping sounds and then more focused pitched sounds like chirps, kind of squeaks and sweeps of frequency. When they're very prominent, you'll hear this sweeping frequency from high to low or low to high. And that's, you know, I think a very kind of special and distinctive sound of the northern lights.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The recording device Burtner used for this project picks up everything. So to record the aurora borealis, Burtner had to hike or snowshoe miles away from all other human activity. He says he spent a lot of time outside, waiting to hear something. Then Burtner took his recordings, along with BBC archival tape of northern lights recordings, and turned it into this piece of music.

BURTNER: The recordings that the VLF created were not very crisp and clear, and so I worked on a way to map those sounds into synthesizers that had a more crisp quality and could then blend better with other electronic sounds and instrumental sounds. We transition in the music from the real sounds of the northern lights - that is the - they're not real sounds but the remapped VLF recordings - into the audio spectrum. And then those patterns get mapped into electronic synthesizers. And then those synthesized sounds get mapped into instrumental sounds.


BURTNER: I wanted the listener to feel like they're experiencing the northern lights. So the idea is that when you're outside and it's a clear night and the auroras happen to be out and you can see them, it's really quite an amazing experience, and you really feel like you're in touch with the solar system. And I think that's a really beautiful feeling.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That was Matthew Burtner talking about his composition "Auroras," which he produced for the BBC radio documentary "Songs Of The Sky." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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