What’s a post-digital hipster sci-fi bro-step apocalypse? Meet Eliot Britton – he’ll tell you

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Dr. Eliot Britton, the newest addition to the Faculty of Music’s composition department, recently returned from the January premiere of his symphonic work, “Heirloom Bison Culture,” at the Winnipeg New Music Festival. Alongside this, his extended work for percussion and electronics, “Metatron,” just saw its CD and digital release in February. Both works engage contemporary topics and approaches to new media, nostalgia, and memory -- with an eclectic array of electronics (ranging from radios to chiptune).

Dr. Britton spoke with Faculty of Music doctoral candidate Joshua Denenberg about his new job, recent projects and his creative approach.

As the newest addition to the composition faculty, how are you acclimating and adapting to the new job and Toronto’s music scene?

The new job is fantastic and the faculty have been very welcoming and supportive. Every day I feel fortunate and privileged to be given the opportunity to work as a professor at the University of Toronto. I am particularly excited about the [Electronic Music Studio] renovations, which will be a tremendous resource to the faculty and students. The majority of my current musical commitments are outside of Toronto but I am slowly meeting people and getting connected.

In January, you had a work, “Heirloom Bison Culture,” premiered at the Winnipeg New Music Festival. First, congratulations on the premiere. Second, can you elaborate on the work itself as well as the experience of the performance and festival?

“Heirloom Bison Culture” was the first of my Canada 150 commissions. The project itself began on Instagram with hundreds of bison-themed pictures. Posters, band logos, bars, trucks, graffiti, etc. As a Manitoban, they remind me of home, and it's fun to find one in L.A. or Europe. When I returned to Manitoba my bison-sensitized perception was completely overloaded. I became aware that Manitobans use the bison brand for everything. From sports teams to telecoms, janitorial services and long-distance trucking, wedding planners, book shops and record companies. Having had many hilarious and harrowing close-up experiences with bison while ultra-lite hiking, there is nothing abstract about them. They are tough, intimidating, cute and terrifying. They also have a habit of hanging out in large numbers. Bison have this particular stare where you know they are working out how to end you if you cross the line. The weight of the bison's evolutionary survival strategy becomes very apparent when one is standing alone on the prairie.

So I wanted to capture something about the humour and tragedy of having these very real creatures transformed into an endless stream of modernist branding and cartoon characters. The piece is for orchestra and electronics. The entirety of the electronic language is made from bison sounds pumped up to cinematic levels. I managed to convince the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra to give me direct access to their massive integrated sub bass system and the results were fantastic. Intimidating, cute and terrifying.

Ever busy, you also had your work, “Metatron,” released this February by actuellecd.com and performed by Architek Percussion. It’s a very complex electroacoustic music piece that uses a dizzying array of technologies both old and new. Can you break down this work as well as discuss the recording process?

“Metatron” is a chronological exploration of the audible colours of music technology. It uses Irving Berlin's “Blue Sky” as thread, leading the listener through a maze of musical formats, synthesizers and percussion, twisting them all into a post-digital, hipster sci-fi bro-step apocalypse. This was in some ways inspired by my grandfather getting me to chainsaw the family's historic piano into pieces and burn it. The history of functional musical objects is an interesting thing. The chainsaw was dull and it took a long time.

The recording happened the day after the premiere in McGill's massive subterranean sound stage. The logistical requirements to pull off a project like that will be hard to repeat and I'm looking forward to trying. Luckily I had Chris Johns and Architek Percussion on side so even when the project got difficult it was still very enjoyable. I am very grateful for their friendship and support. The ability of percussionists to quickly adapt to, and find expressiveness in, new instruments never ceases to amaze me.

Amongst these works there are common themes emphasizing technology and nostalgia. How do these themes inform your creative process?

My compositional approach involves the mixture of familiar and unfamiliar musical objects. Nobody is nostalgic for the sound of a thousand bison grunts and huffs, transformed into percussive samples and spread across the stereo field in less than a second. However, digging into the collective memory of an audience and summoning a larger than life bison spectre to terrorize the orchestra... that requires memory and history. Or at least the illusion of memory and history, because my work typically uses technology to twist sound into something that only exists to serve the purposes of the composition. I play dirty when I need to, and if manipulating the exhale phase of a bison's breathing will help people understand the themes in “Heirloom Bison Culture,” I am willing to do it. The themes and sounds might make some people nostalgic, but I'm not a bison hunter, and I wasn't alive for the golden age of radio, so to me, the colour of technology and sampled materials are just another parameter to be abstracted to take on formal function.

Read more about Dr. Britton
Listen to "Metatron V" - Valkaratron (2010)