Natasha Barrett – Reconfiguring the Landscape

by 5:4

Reconfiguring the Landscape is the title of a new album of acousmatic works by Natasha Barrett, though in some respects, as presented here, it could just as well be titled Reconfiguring the Room. The five works on the album originate in site-specific projects, all of which sought in some way to capture, engage with, reflect back and otherwise integrate with their respective environmental contexts. As such, they were in different ways complementary, acting as a sonic focal point from which perceptions about the listener’s surroundings could be highlighted, altered, expanded and, yes, reconfigured. Heard on this album, from the comfort of a listening room, they become something else, part of which is to reconfigure that room, manifesting within it soundworlds that began life in Venice, Graz, Oslo and a Norwegian fjord.

In my extensive Dialogue with Barrett, one of the topics we discussed was the sense of hyperreality that tends to pervade much of her work, and this is demonstrated again here, particularly so in the two Impossible Moments from Venice. In both cases they go far beyond anything naturalistic, moving swiftly between various forms of water over which bells, people, animals and birds swiftly pass by in the midst of less identifiable but nonetheless ostensibly real-world noises. In the first of these works, there’s an abstractness that suggests a collage approach to the sound materials, while the second more overtly indicates a kind of whistle-stop tour around the city, rapidly encountering things that move by as a blur or a slow-moving overload, most prominently here in the form of a massive bell texture that erupts halfway through.

Both of those works, for obvious reasons, feature water prominently, as do many of Barrett’s compositions (something we also discussed in the Dialogue), and water is also something of an undercurrent in Remote Sensing on the Beach. Using recordings made in Hvervenbukta, on the banks of the fjord, the relationship between reality and artifice is considerably intensified here. Indeed, the opening of the work is a relatively rare example in Barrett’s work of an almost entirely saturated space. Heavily processed and energised sounds are everywhere, pitches rise and fall, while a torrent of noise stuff swirls around. Though it seemingly threatens total destruction, the work dissipates into detail, a mix of water and murmurations of electronic glitter. Considering the relative extremity of those opening minutes, it’s interesting to hear how Remote Sensing on the Beach ends up somewhere opposite, via increasingly vague shapes to a place of real intangibility, alluding to the natural world from a distance, reinforced at its close through deep bass that, if anything, only makes it all the more nebulous.

Speaking Spaces 2: Surfaces from Graz began life as a pair of indoor and outdoor installations. One of the most striking aspects of this piece is its persistant duality of nature and character. Field recordings and electronic sounds; sustained pitched noise and sporadic bleeping elements; burbling details and drifting ambience – these dualities create a soundworld that’s simultaneously restful and energetic, pulling the ear between these different (but not exactly polarised) frames of reference. Later Barrett extends this with a central / peripheral duality of sound location, all the while maintaining a delicate balance between yet another duality of vagueness and clarity. We’re thereby continually caught between ever-shifting forms of contrasts, leading to a listening experience that similarly tilts between relaxation and high alert.

The final work on the album i was fortunate to experience myself last year. Presence / Nærvær was an installation in Oslo’s Akershus Fortress that i explored as part of Ultima 2022. Then, the most arresting aspect of the piece was its melding of previously captured sounds from the surrounding area with the real-time soundscape, to the extent that the piece “melted away into a kind of ‘in between’ state, where it was no longer possible to be sure of which sounds were happening now in the city, and which were coming from the loudspeakers”. The situation is entirely different listening at home, of course, which no doubt explains why Presence / Nærvær sounds very much more active than it did in situ. Perhaps more than the others, this piece feels less a work to be ‘followed’ (from a narrative perspective) than inhabited. It’s no exaggeration to say that the experience of being ‘inside’ Presence / Nærvær was a virtual but very real reconfiguring of my listening space, relocating me back to that hill by the harbour in Oslo, surrounded by the manifold sounds of the city embellished by electronic, synthetic and processed sounds to create a hyperreal, surreal environment that was fully enclosing. Barrett’s compositions are at the forefront of surround sound ambisonics, yet despite being reduced here to a mere two channels, her work remains powerfully, amazingly, immersive.

Released earlier this week on Persistence of Sound, Reconfiguring the Landscape is available on limited edition CD and download, and there’ll be a launch event taking place tomorrow night at Iklektik in London, featuring performances by Barrett and Beatriz Ferreyra.

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