Trade Winds

Natasha Barrett

Trade Winds

  • Natasha Barrett
  • Year of composition: 2004-06
  • Duration: 52:00
  • Instrumentation: 16-channel fixed medium
  • Commission: Notam with support from the Norsk Kulturråd and the Norsk Komponistforening

The ocean’s physical nature, mystery, drama, mythology and concept have inspired art and culture throughout history and throughout the world. Trade Winds is a 52-minute electroacoustic composition inspired by this vast expanse of sea. Barrett unleashes the musical potential of acoustic recordings from a 100-year-old sailing ship, interviews from a retired Norwegian captain and recordings from above and within harbor, shore and open oceans around the world. The music takes the listener on a journey from culture into nature, through storm, fables, ugliness and beauty in a way unheard before.

From a narrative listening position Trade Winds’ macrostructure consists of two halves: the first exploring culture, the second exploring nature. A central pivot is marked by a section inspired by the chapter “Mobilis in Mobili” from Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (Vingt mille lieues sous les mers) by Jules Verne (1828-1905). Professor Aronnax and his companions are rescued (captured?) by the Nautilus. After being submerged in pitch blackness “… a sliding sound became audible. You could tell that some panels were shifting over the Nautilus’s sides.” revealing a sight that no pen could describe. Throughout Trade Winds the reference to Captain Nemo is evident in various manifestations of organ recordings. From a pure music position, the listener will hear a paradox: on one hand there are two clearly cyclical halves, while on the other hand the linear unfolding of less referential material reveals a complex counterpoint of tiny details in spectra, articulation and morphology. Woven throughout are physical, conceptual, and musical spatial relationships that form climax and release in counterpoint to both cyclical and linear listening positions. These narrative and musical comments are the surface. Beneath, the music yields an increasingly richer experience on repeated listening.

The original concert format is a 16-channel source comprising second-order ambisonics and conventional spatialization techniques. To set the concert musical-drama video material has been created by Marianne Selsjord. Unlike a conventional video, this material is not intended for direct viewing. It is designed to create lighting effects and imagery drawing on the listeners’ conscious and subconscious connection to sound imagery.

“I can begin with an episode that happened to us in 1972 when we left port from Skagway in Alaska and were to sail over to Japan. It was my first trip as captain in the North Pacific and I was undecided as to which route I should choose. As a starting point I chose a Southerly route. In the meantime I met a “veteran” of Pacific Ocean shipping, who gave some advice. He said, “go directly to the Aleutians — to the Aleutian Islands,” and, “there you can” — to say it colloquially — “can you sail slalom between the islands, whether there is a Northerly wind, or a Southerly wind.”

This sounded wise. So we sailed from Skagway, left Lotion, and set a course for the Aleutians. To being with there was relatively good weather, but when we were near the south of the islands there came a low pressure. As low pressures normally do, they go in a North Westerly direction, and we found we had to go to the north of the Islands to find a route there.

We got there, to the North, and found a route between two islands. But there we sat, “laying on the weather,” with just the ‘steering speed’ to hold the bow up against the wind.

And what happens, with a low pressure, when it passes, that is that the wind shifts 180 degrees, and how fast it shifts is a factor of the low pressure. This happened while we were lying on the north side, and it had an enormous speed. The sea dug itself up and the wind speed just increased and increased.

We waited there, for the weather, and while that happened, as I said, the wind changed direction 180 degrees.

And what we should have done, at an earlier time, obviously, was to go to the south of the islands, and find lee.

But when that decision was made, it was already too late.

So we were stuck, in that weather, for nearly two days, and dared not turn the boat for we were sure of breaking in two.

And what happens when the boat is ‘lying on the weather’, is that the boat rises up on the wave crest, then stoops down in the wave trough and then the whole sea smashes down on the deck.

So the boat lies underwater, and you know the boat is working and working and working to cascades from the violent sea. Then the boat finally comes up and the whole sea just cascades away from the deck. I had never thought that the sea could be such a nightmare, as it was then, and I was sure that it was may last hour at sea.

… and they vanished.”


Trade Winds was commissioned by Notam (Norsk nettverk for Teknologi, Akustikk og Musikk / Norwegian network for Technology, Acoustics and Music) with support from the Norsk Kulturråd (Arts Council Norway) and the Norsk Komponistforening (Norwegian Society of Composers). Thanks to Ove Evensen (interview text), Storm Weather Shanty Choir (sea shanty extract), Jon Varhus (captain of the 100-year old sailing ship Dyrafjele), and soprano Jane Manning.


  • February 5, 2006, Ilios Festivalen, Harstad (Norway)