AMN Reviews

AMN Reviews: Natasha Barrett/Nils Henrik Ashiem – Where Shockwaves Become Sound (2022; Bandcamp)

When does a shock wave become sound? When does pressure create impact? When do lies spread faster than truths and channels of social communication become vessels of disinformation? What happens in the medium on the other side of the supersonic boundary? Beginning with the air pressure inside the massive organ, Where Shockwaves Become Sound is about these things – the reality of physics felt on our body and the waves of disinformation that infiltrate society.

From the Bandcamp page.

Where Shockwaves Become Sound is the end-of-year offering by Natasha Barrett.  It’s a piece for pipe organ (performed by Nils Henrik Ashiem) and electroacoustic sound by NB. 

The heady and enigmatic questions posed above can incite a plethora of possible thought currents as the listener goes deep into the 26-minute piece.  Academics, scholars, and philosophers (either armchair or credentialed) will certainly find a way to derive answers that will fit into their favorite thought leaders’ principles but, good luck gaining consensus when you try and ping it back to the music on this recording.

So, you might as well just go in cold and… listen.  Listen with the ears of a swaddling infant when they can equate sounds with environment, a teenager inspired to pick up a guitar after his first encounter with Jeff Beck, or someone experiencing the moment where jazz finally “clicked”.  Draw your own conclusions, tell your own stories… Where Shockwaves Become Sound is the enabler extraordinaire.

Then… build your narrative.  Very cool to know Barrett’s intents and, maybe I’ll give it a go weaving those mysterious questions into the sound space but… maybe I won’t.  (Spoiler, I do… read on.) 

Once you decide to hear and examine this piece on a smaller, detailed level (as I am wont to do) you will find (as I did) a whole lot of raw material to fill your mental movie screen.   Who knows… maybe it will be revealed what exactly DOES happen on the other side of that supersonic boundary.  So that’s a lot of words to say that Where Shockwaves Become Sound is yet another stellar release from Natasha Barrett where you can just let the music happen. 

As an aside, I only recently became aware of the versatility of these pipe organs.  (See my write-up on Kali Malone’s live performance.) They are majestic things that in the right hands have the capability to deliver a tsunami of gut-rattling sound.  They don’t necessarily need to be accompanied/augmented by “electroacoustic sound” but… if you insist, I’ll just have to listen!

The piece itself is more organ and less electroacoustic (EA).  Ashiem’s dexterous playing is all over the musical map… from shy, almost playful short bursts of notes dancing around the sound field to terrifyingly large, sustained power chords.  From quiet upper register arpeggios to skull-shaking bass slabs.  This is a dynamically rich piece of music where no motif wears out its welcome.  The musical streams are constantly shifting which, by default presents the listener with a large swath of the material new worlds are made of.

Barrett’s input seems to be overlayed rather than embedded into the acoustic fabric.  To my ears, Where Shockwaves Become Sound is an organ piece that Barrett, in a light touch, subtle way gently nudges the listener to focus their thoughts on the album notes that opened this write-up.  There is a dystopian vibe to those notes, and Barrett, in a very low-key way seems to run with it.  There are times where I “think” the organ is being manipulated but I’m just not 100% sure about it.  Little sounds occasionally rise from the sonic ether in vivid detail and then go away.  Words are diced into sibilant syllables where you can feel the hiss of breath inside your head.  Veiled, unintelligible voices sounding like they are synched with Ashiem’s playing are trying to tell us something… something very important, but the complete message just doesn’t come through.  But fragments do, the word “virus” for instance. And that certainly leads us down the crooked path of… “disinformation spreads like a…”

And maybe that’s the point.  It only took that one word, “virus” to turn the interpretive tide as to how I was hearing this work.  Everything that I conjured previously to that word was thrown into the dustbin of wrongness. 

Music, at least EA music always seemed like a personal affair to me.  Turn on, tune in, drop out… right?  Is Barrett transmitting a warning, by using us as an example?  With her subliminal electronic machinations is she demonstrating how easy the cognitive human brain can be molded through disinformation and subsequently spread… kind of like a virus?  All it took was one word.  Screw your alien worlds, subterranean vistas, or Shire-like panoramas… we are talking about mind control here suckaz!  Are we the experiment?  Is the joke on us?  Ooops, I see what you did there NB.

Trust nothing (except me when I say don’t sleep on this excellent release)! 

Mike Eisenberg
Twitter: @bigaudio999