AMN Reviews: Natasha Barrett – Bouteilles de Klein (2010; empreintes DIGITALes)

This double disc set which is in DVD audio and various surround formats will give you a huge helping (over 3 hours) of Natasha Barrett’s sound world.  Here we have large scale fixed medium pieces, shorter works of her “micro climates” installations, and, as far as I’m concerned, the reason to own this set, two larger scale installation pieces.  This write-up is based on stereo listening through earbuds but I have experienced these works in surround and it’s truly mind-blowing.

Natasha Barrett is very adept at presenting “the whole” sound.  You may know and recognize the various sources, whether natural, or man-made, but she takes them to the limits of imagination.  For example, a simple, very benign sound of water dripping, raindrops falling, a gently moving stream, or a breeze are transformed into larger than life, macro events.  Sometimes she’ll leave these sounds relatively unprocessed but recorded in such an isolated way that what you are hearing is not just a rain drop or a stream…but the very essence of that rain drop or stream.  Other times she may start off by telling us what we are hearing by leaving the sound naked but then proceed to deconstruct and, basically tweak the hell out of it, resulting in something altogether different and very alien.  Either technique succeeds greatly in transforming these pieces into a rich, drama-filled soundscape.

Once again, the concept of sound spatialization (sounds occupying a physical space in time) is on full display here.  At the risk of sounding like a broken record (if you’ve read any of my other write-ups), active, attentive listening through headphones is the best way to listen to her and other composers working in this niche.  When the sound is identified in the physical space, it may stay there for a while or possibly dissipate into nothingness, or Barrett might move it around the (3D) soundstage.  Whatever her artistic choices are, once your mind comes to grips with the sound location in space, the appreciation level of her music escalates skywards.

Her non-installation, fixed medium pieces on Bouteilles de Klein are excellent.  Avoid Being Eaten by Mimicking Other Less Palatable Species is a fascinating riot of animal sounds (and possibly some unfortunate human cretins engaging in mimicry that the title warns against) that torpedos your head into breathless submission.  It’s all fun and games till someone ends up in a cone…right?  Mobilis in Mobili originally appeared on her album Trade Winds as part of a much larger scale Acousmatic concept work, but here it’s truncated down to about 6 minutes and seems to be remastered with less subsonics and clearer, crisper sound.  This is one of my favorite pieces in her entire catalog and since the sea shanty seems to be a thing on social media lately, then this is timely.  Violent seas, crashing waves, splintered wood, wrecked ships, massive church organ chords, the futile chants of sailors battling the elements as Father Neptune impales their helpless souls on his barnacled encrusted trident as they give up their ghosts…yeah, here are your sea shanties you poor unsuspecting Tik Tokker’s (smirk). Here is the longer Trade Winds version:

Ok, moving on to a (relatively) kinder and gentler Barrett, we get to her four shorter installation pieces which she calls Micro Climates. These are short studies of various natural habitats in Norway with the composer distilling down to the very base elemental qualities of the region. Even though I found the liner notes for these very interesting, unfortunately they acted like a “spoiler” that led my mind’s eye to visualize the area as described.  That’s fine, but if you are inclined to make your own movies, leave the notes behind, it might make the excursion that much more trippy.

Next, there is the Sub Terra Cycle.  This consists of three short installation pieces plus one longer (16 minutes) concert piece.  The Sub Terra Cycle, as the name suggests depicts the sound of the Earth.  As the composer states, “Under earth, the roar, the grate and the prickling delicacy of sound resounding beneath us”.  As in her Micro Climates, the three short works transports and transforms the listener to something much more personal than a spectator.  What you hear is presented in such a visceral manner that, for example, you are part of the elevator shaft that takes you down to the Kongsberg silver mines.  You become a cog in the heavy machinery that is drilling down 32 meters in the Oslo fjord, and finally, you become a grain of sand sized conscience observer on a Norwegian holiday beach.  The 16-minute concert piece simply titled Sub Terra explodes with mechanical energy and geological chaos, all beautifully manipulated to achieve maximum dramatic effect.  It’s a stunning piece that needs to be heard loud!  Here is a short 4-minute live extract that is provided to give you the feel of the piece, but out of context is not an optimal representation.

Finally, there is the Barely project.  Per the composer, these are meant to be listened to at “barely” perceptual volume levels in which they can trigger different physical and/or emotional reactions in different listeners.  Depending on the individual, each listener at this level will pick up and/or react differently to the very highly detailed nature of these recordings.  I have personally listened to these recordings numerous times at a “normal” volume and only recently listened at the “barely perceptual” volume the composer recommends.  Each experience was very different and moving forward, I’ll most likely compromise somewhere between the two.  

Gentle Sediment (Barely: Part-3) is indeed a highly detailed Acousmatic piece.  Over the course of its nine minutes, it slowly morphs in mood and texture but retains a basic drone-like character.  Sounds get introduced, manipulated, and disappear, only to be reanimated later in the piece.  It’s a wonderful slow-moving meander through parts unknown. Rhizaria (Barely: Part-4) explores the sound world of a very close mic’ed cello which is processed in real time by Barrett. Typically, sounds like this are not noticed in a live setting, but because of the recording technique they are brought out into stark light.  Last, (but definitely not least) there is the 40 minute Barely: (Part-1). This is an installation work set up in Oslo Norway, housed in a WWII German artillery factory. Without getting too far into the technical weeds of the how and why this piece was realized, (if interested, there are detailed notes on Barrett’s blog) I can say that for me, this is the high point of the entire package. The piece starts out with extrinsic noises (visitors chatting in the installation, outside noises, etc.) which eventually fade out and are eclipsed by a “barely” ambient drone-like sound that also fades out only to make itself known again at various points throughout.  Overlaid on top of this is a constant march of “barely” audible sonic minutiae, origin unknown.  In the last month, I’ve listened to this piece about 4 or 5 times and each time is like hearing it anew.  Imagine taking a slow boat ride down a still black river on a moonless, windless, arid night…around every curve lurks menace and invisible perils.  Unable to avoid what’s coming, you capitulate to whatever force is guiding your small craft and brave the unknowable.  Barely: (Part-1) is certainly one of the most interesting Acousmatic works in my collection, at times uneasy, if not downright disturbing but ultimately fascinating.

Bouteilles de Klein is a dense and demanding listen.  This may not be for the casual/curious fan of Acousmatic music but if you are up for the challenge, it will reward you many times over.  This release comes highly recommended!

Mike Eisenberg

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