AMN Reviews: Natasha Barrett – Leap Seconds (2021; Sargasso)

Right off the bat, and just to get this out of the way now…I’ll tell you that this release is an early leader in the BAR (Best Acousmatic Record) category for 2021.  The Academy (that would be…me) is pretty stoked about this recording!

Leap Seconds has four major works ranging from 12 to almost 21 minutes, and there really isn’t a moment on this long disc that is wasted or left me wanting in any way.  The album is available in CD format on the Sargasso site, but more importantly, if you purchase the CD, you are then provided a free link to download the album in the binaural format.  I’ve only listened to this in binaural (through headphones of course), and because it sounds off the charts amazing that way, I’m really not in a hurry to listen to it on the big stereo.  So this write-up is based on the binaural format.

For me, to fully appreciate these four works, I need to approach them with a full gas tank.  In other words, completely awake, clear-headed, alert, and willing to accept a responsibility to be as active as a listener as possible.  Each title is an elaborate set piece that is packed with elements and details that happen so discreetly, they are easy to miss.  I feel I can listen to this album every day for months and still pick out new bits and fragments that are totally new to me.

There is no point going into Barrett’s use of modern technology, recording techniques, and mixing skills because, in the war of those words, I would find myself hopelessly unarmed.  (Please see her website if interested in those things.)  The bottom line seems to be placing sounds in space relative to the listener is of primary importance to her.  Succeeding at this defines the landscape (or soundscape) that allows the listener, in a perfect world…to explore at will an infinite universe of people/places/things/worlds, limited only by their minds’ inhibitions.

I recently revisited much of her back catalog (with write-ups on AMN of a few here, here, and most recently, here).  Among the many redeeming qualities in her music, the one that is most striking is her ability to move sounds in such a way as to make them appear three-dimensional.  Leap Seconds takes this quality to new heights.  In the binaural format, the spatialization of sounds is key to this listener’s enjoyment and since I don’t have my own personal Acousmonium, binaural listening is the next best thing.

Of course at the end of the day, for the listener of this music, it really shouldn’t matter how the sounds were produced or what their source was.  The organization of such sounds which leads to a personal narrative they tell us is what counts, and it’s this narrative that provides the reason to indulge myself in the Acousmatic space.  Leap Seconds is one of the most narrative-rich recordings I’ve ever experienced.  Since I’ve only scratched the surface of this recording (roughly six or seven listenings) and, because of the massive amount of detail in these pieces…I’m only able to (try to) describe the experience in a random and disjointed way.  Please excuse the somewhat “stream of consciousness” style.

On a high level, one of the first things I noticed was an air of fragile complexity, especially on the first piece, Involuntary Expression.  Imagine taking a slow stroll through spangled corridors of an incredibly ornate, many-sided physical structure.  All details, even rendered down to a microscopic level, are put forward in stark relief. The structure seems to be wholly assembled with hair thin filigrees of purest crystal that interlock and weave together in elaborate Escher-like patterns.  Points of vividly colored glass strands snap out unexpectedly, momentarily interrupting the flow of the sparkling clear and white edifice.  Miniscule dust specks of light linger in the air space during this journey, but those flash out of existence, seemingly at will.  The structure, in its entirety, seems to be eternally at risk of crumbling down into tiny glass flakes.

The longest piece, The Weathered Piano also worked as an exploratory journey, albeit one that ventures into more unlit zones.  Instead of the “light” of Involuntary Expression, this one dwells in that fleeting period, the moments before all traces of light disappear.  The “not quite” pitch of night…rather the muddy gray’s of the ticks preceding.  Also, unlike Involuntary Expression, this is not a stroll, but rather a hurried walk bordering on run.  An urge to constantly look over your shoulder at an unseen, but sensed shade.  These halls are sparse and echoey, bare and smooth…and they invoke a sense of diminished breathable air.  Every passing second takes you closer to an unseen void, a threatening nothingness.  Near the end of this journey a child or childlike voice materializes, there are sounds of nature, a very vocal, insistent dog.  The voice is muffled and jumbled, completely incomprehensible.  Is it your voice?  Is it the last residual stub of memory before the void engulfs?

On the beautifully titled He Slowly Fell and Transformed Into the Terrain, everyday life is heard, maybe in a rural or suburban setting…definitely not urban.  A group of children at play.  There is another child standing alone, unseen, an outcast that may as well be invisible to his peers.  He’s muttering something under his breath with his eyes closed tightly.  What is that swirling sound?  What at first sounds like dead leaves caught in a mini cyclone mutates into something growing, something that is organic, growing, assembling itself.  There is a moist viscosity to it as organs are attaching themselves to each other, as soft, malleable bone marrow is folded into something more permanent.  The child opens his eyes a fraction, so they are just slits…just wide enough to see what he’s created.  He smirks.

Finally, there is Dusk’s Gait.  Large, interlocking moving structures of metal, stone, and thick dark wood powered by some humongous, ancient, hidden engine (steampunk variety?) move to join with each other, jig-saw fashion.  Impenetrable walls around a sparsely populated metropolis in some far-flung future.  This city is somehow wrong, modeled after no known city in existence.  Angles are unnaturally skewed and things that should have order, do not.  A sense of chaotic unease is mixed into its atmosphere.  There is an irritating sense of something that has gone haywire all around, but nothing obvious presents itself, it’s just there.

So, after reading this you are probably thinking I’ve read and watched way too much speculative/weird fiction, which is probably true.  After reading the liner notes, nothing I have written comes remotely close to what the composer was thematically sharing with us…but, that being said, Barrett also writes:  “They can be listened to as musical journeys, but the journeys are neither narrative nor totally abstract. Rather they aim to entice the listener into their flow for a more personal discovery. The sounds and musical structures are fashioned to personify the dynamic behavior of real-world events and to evoke sensations of living entities.”

I think she succeeds.  A wonderful thing about this release is, I can go back to it in a week/month/year and visualize a completely different tableau.  What I wrote above is just some of the infinite journeys I can conjure.  The wandering mind is a magnificent thing and I can’t wait to conjure other vistas…I just have to listen!

Mike Eisenberg