Natasha Barrett is a composer of acousmatic and live electroacoustic concert works, sound and multi-media installations, and interactive music. She is coming to Bodø with the piece Involuntary Expression.
She is highly active as a composer and is a leading voice in the new wave of artists working with ambisonics, 3-D sound, and its contemporary music context.
Her inspiration comes from the immediate sounding matter of the world around us, as well as the way it behaves, the way it is generated, and by systems and the traces that those systems reveal. These interests have lead her into worlds of cutting-edge audio technologies, geoscience, sonification, motion tracking and some exciting collaborations leading into the unknown – involving solo performers and chamber ensembles, visual artists, architects and scientists. Binding together these inspirations is an overarching search for new music and the way it can touch the listener.
Her work is commissioned, performed and broadcast throughout the world by festivals, organisations and individuals, and includes a regular schedule of portrait concerts and featured programs. Besides commissions for specific works, throughout her career she has received grants and artist’s residence invitations, and a solid list of awards and prizes, including the Nordic Council Music Prize, (Nordic Countries), Giga-Hertz Award (Germany), Edvard Prize (Norway), Jury and public first prizes in Noroit-Leonce Petitot (France), Five prizes and the Euphonie D’Or in the Bourges International Electroacoustic Music Awards (France), prizes at Musica Nova (Prague), TEM – international composition competition (Italy), CIMESP (Brazil), Concours Scrime, (France), International Electroacoustic Competition Ciberart (Italy), two prizes in Concours Luigi Russolo (Italy), two prizes in the International Rostrum for electroacoustic music, and prizes in two Ars Electronica competitions (1998 and 2017).
Active in performance, education and research, she is co-director of the Norwegian spatial-music performance ensemble Electric Audio Unit (EAU), founder and chairman of 3DA (the Norwegian society for 3-D sound-art) and a member of Ocean Design Research Association. She currently holds a professorship at the Norwegian Academy for Music, Oslo.
Do you have any thoughts on music’s role in our identity? Do you think of your self as a Nordic composer?
The answer depends on whom ‘our’ refers to: ‘our’ as creator or receiver? Composer or listener?
As ‘my’ identity, I have to resonate with the music. Its an extroversion of inner thoughts, feelings, ideas and responses. It may be intuitive, or be a conscious reflection on my beliefs that are challenged in a changing world. Identity may even involve ‘trickery’: playing with expectations and response, second guessing the listener, a game, or not being in fear of extremes that are ugly or indulgently beautiful.
In the ‘our’ as ‘listeners’, music undoubtedly penetrates our identity. To give two examples: listeners often choose music that they already know they will enjoy, or where they have expectations as to the experiences the music will offer. In a more complex way, listeners may intentionally challenge their choices, and in this way, discover new sides to their identity. I think its interesting to push and pull in these zones, and transport listeners to new sound-worlds where they can explore.
I absolutely think of myself as a Nordic composer. Although I am British, I’ve lived in Norway for 20 years. Only a couple of years after moving, reviews of my music pointed to the Norwegian touch that appeared to have crept into my work. They were referring to an influence from the landscape, but for me its more than this. Its also about context and self-reflection, rather than strictly about the sound of my music which is somewhere off-centre in terms of the ‘Norwegian’ contemporary music sound.
Where do you find the ideas that get you started? What inspires you?
In my acousmatic music (electroacoustic music without live performers), I often begin with a single sound, such as a recording of my digging the garden. Bound up in this one moment are many things: the ‘pure music’ of the spectrum and how it changes over time, the ‘identity’ of what the sound suggests, the ‘causation’ that lead to its sounding, its movement and behaviour in space, and any processes or patterns. I play and experiment with it in many ways, and see if it surprises me, or ‘speaks’. I then feed discovery back into compositional intent, and gravitate towards a specific theme underpinning the composition. If I’m composing a work incorporating acoustic instruments, then the discovery process is similar, but envelops the personality and skills of the performer(s) at an early phase. This is because watching the performers strongly influences our ways of listening. It articulates a major difference between my acousmatic and live electroacoustic music.
What thoughts do you have about the composer’s role in the further development of the music and art field?
There are many answers to this question. Here I’ll focus on one topic: Big Data, Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence. The subject is both exciting and terrifying. Big Data is used by commercial enterprises to feed listeners what they think they want. We already experience this in the analysis of listening preferences, and the automatic creation of music, or music recommendations, to satisfy that preference. So far this is more common in popular music, but future listeners of contemporary music are also in danger of being fed a familiar diet. Could the music world tend towards uniformity, encasing the listener, preventing discovery and the excitement of the unknown? The living composer be there to fight against this, and ensure a rich and dynamic musical landscape prevails. We will also have to embrace AI as addition to our compositional toolbox.
Involuntary Expression is my latest acousmatic composition realised in 6th-order 3D ambisonics, premiered on the 11th September 2017 at the Ultima Festival, Marmorsalen, Sentralen, Oslo.
To enable different types of performances I later made a stereo and an eight channel version. Interestingly I found that when the 3D higher order ambisonics was reduced in this way, some structural-durational aspects that supported the work disappeared. I therefore recomposed the work to accommodate this loss, which resulted in the shorter duration of 15’00.
In Involuntary Expression I was interested in exploring how the spatial and dynamic behaviour of sound can evoke the sensation of a living entity, and further, that of human agency.
To do this, I first captured the physical micro-movements from three living motion sources – crowds attempting to collectively stand still, a cellist and a drummer – using a high-speed and high spatial-resolution 3D motion-capture camera system.
Rather than recording the sounds that these people made, I was instead interested in their physical movement that makes no sound in itself. The motion recordings resulted in extensive data documenting precise 3D space and time. I then used this data to control sound synthesis, spatialisation, and to build temporal structures, magnifying micro-movements to fill the expanse of space and spectrum.
Some of the instruments that the performers articulated while being recorded are also revealed in the music. The overarching emphasis is however on physical gestures turned into sound. I would like the listener to feel the music through the sound’s behaviour in space, feel the involuntary movement from the inside, and the expression that then unfolds.
The work was commissioned by Notam, with support from the Norwegian Cultural Council. Special thanks to The Department of Musicology, University of Oslo, for data from the Norwegian Championship of Standstill, and for access to the high-speed motion capture camera system used in this project.