IMAGING SOUNDS OF
Txt / Eng: USO Project (Matteo Milani e Federico Placidi) / Img: courtesy Natasha Barret
Natasha Barrett (1972) works fore-mostly with composition and creative uses of sound. Her output spans concert composition through to sound-art, large sound-architectural installations, collaboration with experimental designers and scientists, acousmatic performance interpretation and more recently live electroacoustic improvisation.
Natasha Barret ama circondarsi di collaborazioni tra le più diverse, sia con musicisti come Tanja Orning (DR.OX) o Stefan Osterjo, sia con designer sperimentali e scienziati. Whether writing for live performers or electroacoustic forces, the focus of this work stems from an acousmatic approach to sound, the aural images it can evoke and an interest in techniques that reveal detail the ear will normally miss. The spatio-musical potential of acousmatic sound features strongly in her work.
Natasha Barrett studied in England with Jonty Harrison and Denis Smalley, for masters and doctoral degrees in composition. Both degrees were funded by the humanities section of the British Academy. Since 1999 Norway has been her compositional and research base for an international platform. U.S.O. Project had reached the composer, to talk about her winning acousmatic piece ‘Kongsberg Silver Mines’ at the prestigious ‘Giga-Hertz-Award for electronic music 2008′ and more (field recording, processing, composition)
USO: Can you reveal us the history of your winning acousmatic piece ‘Kongsberg Silver Mines’ at the Giga-Hertz-Award (field recording, processing and composing)?
Natasha Barrett: It was in fact the work ‘Sub Terra’ that won the prize. For the award-concert they needed a sorter composition due to the already rather lengthy programme. ‘Kongsberg Silver Mines’ was originally one of three sound-art installations used as a prelude to ‘Sub Terra’. The other two installations are ‘Under the Sea Floor (Coring and Strata)’ and ‘Sand Island’. Each of these three installations zoom in on sounds unique to three locations under Norwegian ground, creating surreal semi-narrative journeys. In the full ‘Sub Terra’ cycle the installation sites lead the visitor through underground or enclosed sound-worlds, gradually closer to the concert space. The concert work Sub Terra then crystallises into a musical form that which is most abstract from the installations. The version of ‘Kongsberg Silver Mines’ played at the award-concert was a special concert remix of the installation. This version was designed to play over the ZKM ‘Klangdom’ a dome of 43 loudspeakers. The remix intends to create as a self-contained work, to be listened to from beginning to end, rather than with open-time characteristic of the installation.
Sub Terra was commissioned by Ny Musikk Rogaland, which is an organisation working with contemporary music and art in the southwest of Norway. Long before the title and idea were set, the plan was to explore interesting features of sound-worlds hidden from everyday experience. For concerts and other events Nymusikk Rogaland often use an old brewery, which was partly converted into an arts venue. In the basement of this building you find enormous storage cellars, and it was for this space the installations were initially intended (although in the end the installations were spread out over the Norwegian town Stavanger). The pitch-blackness and crazy acoustics in the cellars started the ‘underground’ chain of thought and eventually pointed to the type of field recordings that I would make
The sounds for ‘Kongsberg Silver Mines’ are recorded during a journey into ‘Kongsberg Silver Mines’ an enormous mine complex dating from the 1700′s, extending over 1km downwards and several km into a mountain. For access to the mines I tagged onto a group of geologists who were visiting for a research conference. I made a recording of the 2 km journey on the original old miner’s train, which was used to transport silver ore and miners in and out of the mines. The deafening sound and immense vibrations of the old trucks were amazing. It was necessary to wear earplugs and so I had to guess on the recording by looking at level meters and hedging my bets on the how the microphones were responding. Inside the mines we were met by a Norwegian guide. In shaky English he explained the local history and demonstrated some of original lift machines still in operation. I recorded almost everything and soaked-up the complete atmosphere so that later I could try to re-inject the total experience into the composed work.
In ‘ Under the sea floor (Coring and Strata)’ I was looking for sounds literally under the sea floor. At this time the University of Oslo was undertaking a research project where a 10-meter long core-sample would be taken from a “pockmark” in the Oslo Fjord, 32 meters below sea level. I slipped onto this trip via a friend and was not completely sure of what to expect apart from that I had to be careful not to get in the way! So for two days I hovered in the background on a cold, wet drilling vessel, recording sounds from on deck, below water and on the sea floor (and luckily bought hydrophones with 40 meter long cables!) In ‘ Under the sea floor (Coring and Strata)’ there are also two more sets of sounds. The first originates not from field recordings but from a seismic shot created by a large TNT blast recorded by an array of 2000 geophones spread over tens of kilometers. The sound on each geophone is about 15 seconds long and records the response from the Earth’s crust and well into the mantle. The impulse and responses are very low frequency – well below 50 Hz. I obtained the geophone recordings as a seismic data set. After various tests I found that by using data from every 100th geophone the geological information was preserved while reducing the data set into a workable size. Each of these 20 data streams was converted into audible sound at the original sampling frequency of just 125 Hz. After pitch-shifting the sound was finally in a useful audible range. Using the seismic data as control data created the next set of sounds. The data mainly controlled frequency and volume modulation of sine tones. By selecting a suitable time step (speed) and modulation width (pitch variation), the simultaneous playback of the 20 data streams sonifies the seismic response. Audible interferences and correlations were also used as points of departure for compositional development.
For recordings in the third installation ‘Sand Island’ I simply buried two hydrophones under the sand in the tidal zone of a small bay on Søndre Sandøy in Hvaler, Norway. After 4 hours the tide lifts the hydrophones out of the sand and carries them into a floating bed of seaweed.
When it comes to processing it’s easier to talk about the ‘why’ rather than the ‘how’ as I use any technique and software that is appropriate. Whether it’s techniques originating in traditional ‘tape methods’ such as editing, mixing and montage or the latest spectral manipulation software, for me the point is to explore that which I find most interesting and important to the composition. This process normally begins by exploring on the one hand a sound’s spectrum, temporal and spatial shapes (the intrinsic content), and on the other hand the way the sound directly and abstractly connects to our experiences (the extrinsic content).
Composition then involves making sense of the discovered information, further transformations to reinforce emerging connections, exploring counterpoints and motions and so forth. Specifically in the installations it was important to maintain compositional narrative journeys and a tight connection to my own original experiences during the field recording.
USO: How did you decide which sounds to use for this particular work called ‘Sub Terra’?
Natasha Barrett: The installations were not originally intended for concert performance, even though now there exist concert remixes. Each installation is intended to be open for a listener entering and leaving as they wish, while the concert work ‘Sub Terra’ requires the listener to be attentive to the complete 16-minute work an approach with involved somewhat different approaches to sound and structure. I wanted to tie narrative and recognisable sounds to the installations while the concert work would be more abstract and ‘intrinsic’. Here we have a paradox which I hope creates some degree of tension in the listening process: the installations are semi-narrative yet non-linear enough to allow a listener stay as long as they wish, while the concert work is more abstract, yet contains a level of detail and structural connections that require a continuous and concentrated listening process. For Sub Terra I created a new network from the more abstract installation materials. You may also hear materials clearly referencing the installations, but their development is somewhat different.
USO: In the latest years you received a lot of commissions by many institutions. Did their request influence your ideas and work itself?
Natasha Barrett: Normally I am free to compose what I wish within two types of guideline. The first is whether the work is acousmatic or involves live instrumental performers. The second is the duration and an agreed degree of involvement reflected in the time the work takes to compose. Even for a commission that is part of a thematic festival I am normally able to specify what I would like to do. Only in few cases am I strictly controlled. For example last year I composed some sound materials for a visual artist where the requirements were clearly specified
USO: Which software resources are you using for composing your pieces? What make them specials?
Natasha Barrett: Well, as I mentioned above it’s easier to talk about the ‘why’ rather than the ‘how’ as I use any software that is appropriate and probably the same as everyone else. It’s all down to how you use the tools! 14 years ago I would maybe have discussed how I use university mainframe systems or software that was non-commercial and custom made. Now, most non-commercial sound transformation algorithms we used in the mid-late 90′s are embedded in commercial software, which is accessible to all and significantly easier to use than the buggy programmes of the last decade. Even if we build a custom-made MaxMSP patch we are still working within a defined collection of MaxMSP objects (which I do quite a lot). We can of course write our own programmes and our own objects but are nevertheless mainly coding existing algorithms. I can however talk about one main area that I find interesting, and that is the difference between software intended for haptic ‘real-time’ control and software more suited to scripting and ‘out-of-time’ control. For many reasons ‘real-time’ and ‘out-of-time’ control of the same algorithm can produce markedly different results
USO: What’s the importance of Ambisonics in your works?
Natasha Barrett: I first used “Ambisonics” in 1999 and discovered how three-dimensional spatial structures (rather than stereo phantom images) may be transmitted directly to the listener without the need for headphones. Prior to this time, for me, three-dimensional sound lived either metaphorically in the stereo phantom image or in concert sound-diffusion performance over a large loudspeaker orchestra. In my work since 2000 ambisonics has opened up a new layer of compositional potential in terms of both sound and temporal structure. I should point that I am referring to 3-D sound through the spatial continuum, rather than sound being positioned on specific loudspeaker points. I do however regularly perform traditional sound-diffusion.
USO: Can you talk about your menthors and how they affected your work?
Natasha Barrett: Hmm. Well mentors change, don’t they? Maybe I don’t really have any mentors, rather people whom I admire, or works that I admire or find inspiring and the list grows all the time, spanning electronic music, instrumental music and visual art. To throw in a few classics: The early works of Stockhausen. Xenakis. Luc Ferrari. François Bayle. Brian Ferneyhough. Early electronic and tape works from the 50′s to 70′s some are inspiring for the composition, others for the pioneering spirit and shear commitment to the immensely time-consuming process of the time.
USO: What does it mean to be an electroacoustic music composer in Norway today?
Natasha Barrett: I guess the same as anywhere else in Europe one needs to be open-minded and active in a broad definition of electroacoustic music as composition and as art involving sound, while staying true to personal beliefs and knowledge .
USO: How should a composer survive nowadays in the global community, where the market and profits determine the reality that surround us, acting like a natural selection process, leaving the outsider thinkers behind?
Natasha Barrett: If you give in to market and profits then you may be able to live through working with sound, but then you need to ask yourself if you are surviving in what you believe in and what you find fun? The point is that no contemporary marginal art-forms survive in a free market economy. But there is rarely a completely free market. Public funds and private grants are there for marginal art-forms. In some counties they are of course very sparse, tricky to get and unfortunately sometimes distributed on a collegial basis. Collaboration can be both interesting on creative terms and useful in opening up new funding opportunities. I would say to be faithful to your ideas yet to be flexible enough to imagine how an idea could function in an alternative setting or framework.
USO: Is there room for a contemporary music scene in our western culture?
Natasha Barrett: Yes. There will always be people who wish to be actively stimulated by music or art rather than simply ‘absorbing’ or using music as a function for example to dance or work to. I know I am not alone in finding intellectual experience one spice of life and contemporary music is one area that offers such an experience
USO: Pier Paolo Pasolini said that progress without a true cultural development is irrilevant. What is for you the actual relationship between technological progress and the living electroacoustic music community?
Natasha Barrett: One needs to be careful not to confuse cultural development and technological progress. They are of course tightly linked but not exactly the same thing. Cultural development is more complex to define than technological progress (which is also problematic and it is maybe better to discuss ‘technological change’). During recent years, technological change, which has made tools easier to use, has had a two-fold effect. We see a greater interest in non-pop electroacoustic music (everyone is ‘hands on’ for a small cost) – which we can say is good, coupled to a wave of similar sounding works – which we can say is not necessarily bad because the people who are active clearly have a lot of fun! But its difficult sifting out the really good work – simply the number of hours of music you need to listen to before funding a gem. Another change is in the music storage and distribution system. Currently Internet distribution is open and easy, which we could view as both a technological and cultural development. But as new laws and market forces come into place these changes may involve a cultural recession .
USO: What is it that makes your collaboration with Tanja Orning (DR.OX) particularly inspiring?
Natasha Barrett: I find that working with a real, responsive person in an improvisation setting demands a different way of working and thinking to when sitting alone composing. This variety I find important. For someone else to throw in ideas that aren’t your own always makes collaborations interesting, but specifically to my live electronics improvisation it means I have to think very fast and that’s fun! I also have similar project with a Swedish guitarist Stefan Ostersjo.
USO: What is the main difference between composing for a fixed medium and for a live performance involving real players?
Natasha Barrett: There is a lot to say about this, but here are some points concerning only acousmatic versus live electroacoustic music with visual performers. I leave out lap-top performance as that opens up a slightly different discussion: The point of the acousmatic is that there is nothing to perceive via our eyes that will concretise the original sounding object, nor where the sound came from, nor the situational context in which the sound was made. In the visual context we receive a layer of visual information that renders the sound concrete. Acousmatic listening is part of our everyday. Listening, understanding and ‘getting into’ acousmatic music is simply to focus on the acousmatic experience within a realm where human experiences are moulded, reconfigured and reconnected by the composer. Listening to acousmatic music is therefore natural. The perception of complex structures requires no understanding of Western instrumental music no training beyond life in general. When we involve an instrumental performer, even if we avoid connection to history in our compositional material, the listener on the other hand identifies the instrument and enters a listening mode based on their understanding of instrumental music at least to some extent.
Visual electroacoustic music may incorporate pre-made sound material and create ‘live’ electroacoustic material from sound or data derived from the live performance act. We need to consider the many relationships between these layers and the live instrument. When a live performer is introduced the composition needs to consider this performer to understand where human limits lie, to understand and take advantage of the live act, to incorporate the live human element in the fixed composition.