Natasha Barrett paints with sound… but the color of her canvas is black.
After not hearing this wonderful release for several years, I recently went back and revisited much of her catalog (through headphones) and was amazed at the, lets call it 3-D’ness of this release, as well as the other empreintes DIGITALes release Bouteilles de Klein from 2010. The sense of multi-dimensionality in these recordings (and others not on this label) is at first curious, as in “wow, this is unusual” but then quickly graduates to utter fascination and childlike marvel at the sound tableau that is laid out in front, above, below and behind you.
I mean, this stuff is totally surreal! What’s interesting to me is, as much as Ms. Barrett seems to live and breathe technology, her sound sources are primarily natural and elemental. Reading some of the notes on her website/blog she’s not afraid to go out into the world to capture the environment as field recordings. Some of these excursions sound downright risky. The longest piece on this record, Viva la Selva! takes us on an 18-minute sonic trip through a Central American rain forest. Incorporeal / intangible sounds seem to approach the listener from all directions. Human sounds are sometimes substituted for animal sounds, and the distinction is often blurred. The rain forest at night sounds at once inviting, and at the same time menacing. The spatiality of it all is astounding.
Speaking of spatiality, this is a quality that turns up in most of her music. I opened this write-up by saying she paints on a black surface. I say this because the sensory perceptions that this listener gets while experiencing her music seems to come from some dark landscape and not from any particular direction in space. In the piece The Utility of Space, human voice and other indeterminate sounds appear to be materializing from a pitch-black velvet source, only to be momentarily illuminated to allow the brain to register that they are even there. My favorite piece on the album Red Snow has so many sonic easter eggs that delight the listener upon discovery it’s almost overkill. Between all the micro sounds that are spinning around the 3-dimensional sound stage and the more organic earthly sounds like footsteps in crunchy snow… the mind just struggles to keep up with it all.
The shorter pieces on this album are no less appealing. The opening 3 works form a trilogy entitled Three Fictions and each presents the listener to a different micro-climate or meteorological event. Upon these backdrops, the composer added a whispered female voice that imbues a phantasmagorical / mystical quality to the piece. The whispered voice takes shape out of nowhere with nothing concrete holding it in place… a whisp of nothingness that somehow forms itself upon the listener’s psyche, if only for a few seconds before disintegrating into something less than its molecular structure… forever.
This is music that does not reveal itself completely on the first, or for that matter the tenth listening. Instead, each visit back to these works is like listening to it fresh. New sounds that you swear you’ve never heard before appear out of nowhere. One can only relax and let it wash over you. If you are a fan of ambisonic or binaural recordings, recommending Natasha Barrett will be an easy sell. If you are a more seasoned Acousmatic listener but have never heard her, I would suggest running (not walking) to your favorite vendor and take the plunge. Careful headphone listening is strongly recommended. The composer makes ample use of deep, subsonic frequencies. Personally, from a guy who likes to listen to Acousmatic music at fairly high volumes, Barrett’s music doesn’t require this at all. In fact, as a word of caution, these deep (not bassy, but DEEP) sounds can really do a number on headphones or earbuds. Lower volume is in order here, and it in no way takes away from the enjoyment of the experience. Without headphones, a subwoofer will work wonders. Isostasie is a fantastic point of departure! I plan on doing a future write up of Bouteilles de Klein soon.