AMN Reviews

AMN Reviews: Natasha Barrett – Heterotopia (2022; Persistence of Sound)

The Acousmatic world enters 2022 with another marvelous release by Natasha Barrett, this time with a full-length album on the Persistence of Sound label.  Heterotopia presents us with three pieces of wonderful sound art, all having the typical “repeat listen” qualities I’ve come to expect from her music.  (I’ve written extensively about some of her earlier albums which you can find here.)

Heterotopia, from the Greek héteros (other) and tópos (place) is a philosophical concept developed by Michel Foucault in the 1960s.  Like any philosophical field of study, it can quickly turn into a very deep rabbit hole but, I believe the direction the composer is heading is brought out into the open by this quote describing the first piece on the album, “Speaking Spaces No. 1:  Heterotopia”.

From her blog: “I can no longer remember when I realized: rather than hearing the dog bark, the hawk screech, the traffic or the child, I instead heard the forest, the mountain, the rock-face, the city. It was something more than the spaces speaking in their acoustic reflections. These encounters contradicted normal perception and became transformative experiences during my walks through the landscape. The spaces now contained more layers of meaning than immediately evident to the eye and ear. ‘Speaking Spaces’ is a series of works that explore these alternative conceptions of common space.”

“Speaking Spaces No. 1:  Heterotopia”, a 24-minute sound walk is Barrett’s further explorations into Smalley’s spectromorphology (analyzing sounds in relation to time) that transports the listener to, well…another place.  Starting in a relatively straight, unprocessed “field recording” way, the piece slowly, and organically modifies itself till the listener inevitably gets that feeling that they’re not in Kansas anymore.  Where that might be?  What alien reach is attained?  That’s up to the listener to experience.  Going back to the “repeat listens” quality of her music, the places / dimensions / expanse visited will surely be in flux with every visit to this soundscape.

Further clues to this Heterotopic concept are revealed in her notes about the second piece on the album, “Urban Melt in Park Palais Meran”.

Again, from her blog: “The summer of 2018 was rather hot. The cities I visited that were normally a pleasant summer temperature were melting. Is this the sign of summers to come? Experiencing how excessive heat can lead to both mirages and a state of delirium, Urban Melt transports an ordinary, outdoor table tennis game in Park Palais Meran, Graz, to a crazier world on the other side of the mirage. This work is one in a series of pieces that visits everyday ‘normal’ sound scenes and explores ways in which we can evoke and provoke a new awareness of environments we easily ignore.”

I’ve used the made-up term “Dunsany-esque” in other write-ups about her music, but this example of a heavily used Acousmatic music trope of bouncing Ping Pong balls delivers these sounds to off-the-chart extremes.  In fact, I can safely say that the Heterotopic “places” visited here are surely within proximity to “the fields beyond the fields we know” from Lord Dunsany’s The King of Elfland’s Daughter”.

The final, short 6-minute piece Growth is a recent composition that, dynamically is quite aggressive…dare I say borderline “industrial” in places.  There isn’t much low-key, quiet detail here, (which is not to say there is no detail) instead Barrett chooses to throw the listener into a maelstrom of violent sonics that are organized into a brilliant mental narrative of an apocalyptic bent.  But, even among the natural, and electronically fabricated chaos, Barrett still brings out subtle details within it all.  Instead of feeling bludgeoned into submission, I came out of this wanting more.  I wonder if this larger scale aggression will be explored on further works.  If so, bring it on please!

Regardless, it was a great way to exit this album.  Like last year’s Leap Seconds, Barrett once again delivers what could be my favorite release of the year.  Hopefully, some will give this a shot.  Exceedingly strong recommendation!

Mike Eisenberg
Twitter: @bigaudio999