Natasha Barrett: Puzzle Wood

Four of the five works featured on award-winning British-Norwegian composer Natasha Barrett's latest release were composed between 1994 and 1997 when she was working on her PhD at City University in London and her compositional style was in its formative stages (composed in 2010, the five-minute “Animalcules” is the outlier). A number of electroacoustic and acousmatic works were created as part of the doctoral degree program, a selection of which is included on this, her eleventh album release. Acousmatic, incidentally, refers to sound material that's been stripped of visual information and thereby opens up the sound material to imaginative interpretations by the listener; although Barrett's sound sources are often acoustic, she typically divests the resultant material of recognizable sounds or instruments. And while she uses digital technologies to produce her works, including those composed for acoustic musicians, never is attention drawn to a specific technology, the musical result being the central locus of attention and concern.

The absence of familiar sounds invests Barrett's work with a surreal character that can be destabilizing (in the release's liner notes, she writes, “An alluring aspect of acousmatic music is its ability to evoke a multi-faceted and paradoxical listening experience, where our imagination for ‘unheard' sounds interacts with what we are actually hearing.”). Listeners accustomed to latching onto something recognizable will be challenged, but, if anything, it makes the ride all the more engrossing. Abstractly rendered elements convulse, twist, and turn before one's ears, their timbres diverse and the works' linear trajectories impossible to predict. In these works, bell tone accents punctuate thick masses of steely, sheet-metal textures and elements elastically stretch into writhing shapes. Fluttering noises that suggest origins in the real world and the music room blend into ever-combustible forms, and moments of stasis alternate with passages of crushing, eruptive force. It's worth noting, however, that none of the five pieces collapses into noise, the composer instead intent on imbuing her productions, no matter how abstract, with musicality.

All materials in the opening “Little Animals” derive from non-vocal, inanimate acoustic objects—a clarification worth making when so much of the piece suggests creature vocal sounds of one kind or another. The connotations of innocence and childhood engendered by the title is belied by the alien nature of the sounds, though it's certainly possible to hear playfulness as one of the track's distinguishing qualities; Barrett's serious about her work, of course, but that doesn't mean there can't be room for humour, too. Vocal and traffic sounds appear to form part of the sound mix in “Earth Haze,” which at moments flirts with cacophony, the raw materials in this instance sometimes capable of being identified. Tolling church bells and burbling water sounds surface alongside woozily shape-shifting masses during the twenty-minute opus “Racing Unseen,” the 1996 composition posing considerable production challenges to Barrett at the time when the computer tools she was working with made crafting the material far less easy than it is today.

There's also an intensely personal dimension to her productions, as shown by “Puzzle Wood,” an early creation that renders into aural form her impressions of a small Gloucestershire forest she visited as a child when her family moved to the Forest of Dean. Filled as the landscape is with strange rock formations and caves, it's tempting to draw parallels between such natural phenomena and Barrett's own highly personalized creations.

November 2017