Natasha Barrett

Natasha Barret
Rehearsing for an Electric Audio Unit concert on the GRM Acousmonium, MPAA/Saint-Germain, Paris. October 2016
(Photo: Anders Vinjar)

Dr Natasha Barrett (UK / Norway) is a composer, performer and researcher. The focus of her work is acousmatic and electroacoustic concert composition, sound installations and interactive art. She has also created theatre music, large-scale outdoor media productions, sound environments for exhibitions, and works for dance and video. She regularly collaborates with musicians and visual artists, as well as architects and scientists. Her work is inspired by sound and the aural images it can evoke, particularly in terms of the evocative implications of space and the projection of 3-D sound-fields in higher-order ambisonics. Besides her compositional activities, she is currently engaged as professor in composition at the Norwegian State Academy for Music, is co-director of the spatial-music performance ensemble Electric Audio Unit (EAU), and founder and board leader of 3DA (the Norwegian society for 3-D sound-art). Her works are performed and commissioned throughout the world and have received a long list of prizes, including the Nordic Countries’ most prestigious Nordic Council Music Prize.

Why do you make music?

There are two sides to this answer: for myself, irrespective of anything else, I find it exciting to create music. Gradually it also became important for me to create something that other people could find an experience in, of some kind. Having said that, I still compose first and foremost for myself, and hope that audiences will share at least some of what I feel and think.

What music do you make?

Most of my work falls under the electroacoustic music umbrella and can be divided further into (a) music for concert, ‘serious listening’, sound-art installations, (b) music as an addition to some other element. In category (a), concert music and sound-art installations will include:
- Acousmatic works.
- Live electroacoustic music (acoustic instruments combined with electronic sounds, computer processing and live sound transformation, or pre-prepared electroacoustic sounds).
- Sound installations: interactive and non-interactive, sometimes in collaboration with architects, visual artists and scientists.
- Multi-media performances where the music is the driving force.
In category (b), music as an addition to some other element will include:
- Theatre sound (background soundscapes and incidental music, some sound effects).
- Background soundscapes for museum exhibits.
- ‘Arty’ jingles for video-casts.
- Music / sound for dance and film.
Having worked freelance as a composer since 2000, this diversity has been both enjoyable and a necessity. Only since this year (2017) am I formally employed in a 50% professorship.

How do you make music?

This depends on the project. For an acousmatic work, I begin with both concept and sound, often some visual sketches, then focus creating sound and sound-control algorithms. If I’m collaborating on a project, the collaboration process starts early on, and may involve graphical or conventional score notation, visual sketches, sound recording / sound exploration, or the investigation of key concepts, without thinking first-off about sound or music. In all cases, the music then unfolds through a process of creation and analysis, normally with an ‘intention’ of some kind, whereby the analysis folds back iteratively into the creation process until the work takes shape. Other external factors may take hold during this process, such as requirements concerning duration, performance demands (technical and human / instrument), or some other framework such as costs and deadlines.

Is any of your sound-based work not ‘music’ as such and, if not, what is it?

To answer this question, we need to agree on what music is. In a broader sense, I think that all my sound-based works can be regarded as music. I could narrow down the answer if I instead talk about works that hope to touch both ‘heart’ and ‘head’. The ‘heart’, which is particularly unexplainable for me carries emotion, while the ‘head’ incites curiosity and experience through discovery and maybe through understanding. Mostly I hope to compose works for both sentiments, and hope that they interact. Although I could not claim listeners always experience it as so! Yet some of my installations are biased towards the ‘head’- inciting curiosity and experience through discovery, especially when investigating a specific theme (such as my installation ‘Aftershock’ which is a collaboration between art and science). For me, there may be an emotional direction in these works too, but realise this is often disguised by an intellectualisation of the subject, or a projection of concepts through hi-tech approaches. Having discussed this with visitors / listeners, many seem to experience the installations as interesting in some way, or encouraging them to rethink or re-address an established idea, or as revealing something I’ve myself found fascinating. Often the installations are intended as experiences ‘meeting’ the visitor with a combination of sound, time and space, rather than to evoke a musical experience. In terms of hi-tech approaches, especially in my concert works I have always attempted to hide the technology so as to not distract from the music. Background soundscapes for museum exhibits are really about soundscapes evoking the theme of the exhibition.

How do you describe yourself (e.g. are you a performer, a composer, a technologist, an engi­neer, some combination of these or, indeed, something else) and why?

Composer primarily, but we cannot avoid also being technologists, engineers and performers; these are the supportive infrastructures. Sometimes though my researcher-technologist approach takes precedence over the composer, for example if I’m researching in a specific area. In such cases, what is important is the research and the results, which can then be iterated back into composition. I find that in research situations, insisting on the primacy of the compositional object can be to the detriment of what research, per se, can uncover.

What is the cultural context for your work - how are you influenced by music from other cultures or the other arts?

I think that’s a tricky answer to pin down. Globalisation and particularly the Internet means it is difficult to mask away such external influences. Sometimes my work will intentionally draw from other arts, but normally technology-based arts, as well as science and other disciplines. In terms of music from other cultures or genres, I’m more influenced by sounds and performance techniques, as well as geographical factors and sound ecologies, than by the actual music.

What skills and attributes do you consider to be essential for you as a musician? Listening skills. Embracing new technology.

What is your approach to acoustics, psychoacoustics, and the physical properties of sound in your work?

Acoustics, psychoacoustics and physical properties of sound are essential. In my acousmatic composition, these concepts are primary throughout (here discussing ‘acousmatic’ in the broader sense of the term, as a way of listening and composing without being guided by visual sensations, rather than the strictly Schaefferian conception that is often a point of philosophical debate). Yet even when I’m composing a work for live acoustic instruments or including visual media, I acknowledge that most of the time I begin from an acousmatic perspective as a way to explore the musical concept or expression. Once I have a grasp of this, then of course I need to address the reality of performance, human intervention and any multi-sensory interaction on the part of the listener. Still, acoustics and psychoacoustics remain important.

How do you think about pitch, timbre, rhythm and other traditionally musical ideas when creating digital music?

Yes, but these are only a few of the many facets that build up the work, where other elements are of equal importance. To give an example, if I were focusing on spatial-musical ideas, spatial structures may be articulated by rhythmic structures, or a spatial resonance may trace a harmonic modulation. Sometimes these conventional musical elements are hidden deep beneath other more prominent aspects of the work. For me they are there, they were an element in the compositional process, and I can hear them; but another listener may not necessarily be aware of their presence.

Do you have any other useful or relevant things to say about being a musician in the digital age?

How will our digital works be preserved? How long will the media last? What happens if the digital archives are hacked or corrupted? Is ‘The Cloud’ safe? Books and scores have lasted 1000’s of years. Will our digital works survive? We rely on electricity and technologies. Without these, our works don’t exist.