AMN Reviews: Natasha Barrett – Subliminal Throwback (2021; Bandcamp)

Natasha Barrett has recently started a Bandcamp page and, so far has released three works that have not had an album release.  All three are in binaural sound and all come highly recommended.

Her latest is an installation piece called Subliminal Throwback.  The site-specific piece was composed for a small outdoor amphitheater in Oslo which appears to be enclosed with shrubbery and bushes with a modern brick building that stands behind.  The format is an 8-channel, partially hidden ambisonics loudspeaker array, and a custom designed ‘beam-forming’ loudspeaker that directs sound to reflect off the surrounding surfaces.

The download includes the 20 minute original studio mix before it was deployed on-site and two extracts (totaling about 53 minutes) after deployment at various locations throughout the site.  The two on-site extracts include the extrinsic sounds of birds, human voices, footsteps, etc. as the listener takes their virtual walk through the installation site.  

Here is an 8-minute video that will add context to the site location.  (I was hesitant to include this video as it may prejudice the listener’s own “cinema for the ear” but decided to include it to show the layout of the space.  By all means skip it in favor of your own personal worldbuilding.)  Barrett is more than happy to talk tech and if you ever visited her website, she shares a lot of insights into her workflows and processes. 

All three “versions” of Subliminal Throwback guide the listener on an evolutionary path, allowing one to experience the piece starting with its creation in the studio, followed by the inevitable changes in how its perceived once the work makes it out into the wild.

While I appreciate Barrett presenting this sonic make-over, you may be wondering if the sounds stand up to the Acousmatic listener (without the how’s and why’s of it all).  Well, I’m happy to say yes, yes indeed!  The 20-minute studio mix presents a Lord Dunsany inspired surreal world of shapes and colors.  A landscape strewn with lost trinkets and toys from the past.  Mementos taking shape out of the nothingness only to de-materialize as you fervently reach out to grasp them in the hope that they will spark long forgotten memories.  The binaural coding works wonders on this piece so turn off the loudspeakers and make sure you experience it with headphones or earbuds.

The second version was recorded on-site and also coded for binaural sound.  The piece takes on a completely different persona since the original sounds are interacting with the environment.  Subsequently, there is a very “live” ambience weaved into the sound field.  Because it’s binaural, the 3D listening sensation presents itself in a very different way than the sterile environment of the studio.  The air is palpable, and the world is alive with the sound of the living.  Again, the binaural mix elevates this version from an interesting field recording with electronics to a world that the listener can inhabit, with sights and sounds limited only by their imagination.

Finally, the third version (again in binaural) presents yet another aural experience of the site.  To the best of my understanding, this segment was diffused through a beam-forming array of speakers.  This is above my pay grade but what I believe is happening is the output of sounds is being diffused through an array of speakers with the signals from each being controlled separately.  This facilitates the ability to “dial into” certain sounds which will make them more prevalent to the perceptions of the listener.  If I’m being honest, I’m not sure what Barrett’s intent was after hearing this version several times.  To me, it sounds like the previous on-site piece but with a change to the overall ambience.  Things seem closer somehow, the general vibe is a more secluded section of the site.  Maybe that was her point, but enjoyment-wise… it continues to be a wonderful 3D listening experience.

Overall, Subliminal Throwback is yet another fantastic addition to Natasha Barrett’s catalog.  Judging from her last several releases, I knew going in that this was not going to be an easy listen.  She is constantly pushing the envelope in the Acousmatic music field and, in doing so, it seems that she is putting the listener (either someone casually experiencing one of her installation pieces or someone, like me who enjoys a very deep and active concert-like listen) front and center by providing the tools to enable us to hear our world…or other worlds.  My highest recommendation!

Michael Eisenberg
meisenberg1@hotmail.com
https://twitter.com/Bigaudio999

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