Name: Natasha Barrett
Occupation: Composer, Sound Artist
Current Release: Peat+Polymer
Labels: +3db, Aurora, c74, Empreintes DIGITALes, Nota Bene
Artist Recommendations: Gilles Gobeil and Fred Szymanski. Gobeil is well-known in acousmatic music whose work I have admired for a long time. Szymanski is a composer that I’ve only recently come across but who has also been active for some time.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences?
I’m not from a musical background, but when I was quite young I began playing classical guitar. I also had access to various synthesisers, but was more interested in exploring the sounds they made rather than making music in the conventional sense. Later at school, these somewhat detached classical and electronic interests continued: on one hand I played instrumental music, while on the other hand I experimented with synthesisers and simple sequencer programmes. These years were in the early-mid 80’s – a world of difference to now in terms of technology – and I didn’t have access to the latest gear (that was also very expensive). It wasn’t until I began my first degree at university that more serious considerations about composing and creating music took off. The course was splendid: a BSc in music combining conventional subjects with music technology, sound recording, analogue and digital studio techniques. My first productions are from this time, around 1993, when I made a portfolio combing analogue multi-track pieces and digital works made with Atari software sequencers and Akai samplers.
In terms of early influences, I wasn’t particularly inspired by music of the 80’s and my pre-university tastes merged classical orchestral sounds with the electronic music of Jean Michel Jarre. My ideas hovered in an intersection between the use of technologies that made sounds and the rich orchestral chord shifts and colouristic details of impressionism, such as the music of Debussy, Sibelius and minimalists such as John Adams. Later on, Stockhausen’s electronic and orchestral music were important influences. In terms of my own work, with the few skills I had at the time, creating music to achieve these blends was a somewhat unattainable goal.
For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
I didn’t have a special role model, but acousmatic music and ‘Musique concrète’ of the 70’s and 80’s were inspiring. Experiencing this genre first at university in the 90’s illuminated a new world of sound and music. Learning was not about emulating any specific composer, but rather working out how others, particularly those of the French and French-Canadian community of electroacoustic composers created their music: how to weave sounds into musical compositions at the crossing point between ‘cinema for the ear’ and pure or abstract music. As I explored forms and structures I began to understand that sound could carry a dual meaning: abstract musical meaning like traditional music and referential meaning like cinema for the ear, which threw new variables into compositional structure. It was like painting with sound.
Also in the 90’s there was a rapid shift in technology. As students we would listen to works from the previous decade made with analogue techniques (splicing magnetic tape, changing playback speeds, time reversals, basic analogue reverbs and modulation techniques), but would create our work with predominantly digital methods. Unlike now, computers I had access to were limiting in terms of speed, memory and hard-disk space, which in turn limited what could be achieved, yet gave something ‘extra’ in terms of precision. There were also works from the late 80’s and early 90’s produced in research facilities such as IRCAM and MIT using computing power and knowledge beyond our access, which were nevertheless interesting for study. The performance of acousmatic music through live diffusion (of stereo sources) over large loudspeaker arrays such as BEAST and the Acousmonium were also influential experiences, particularly in my later development of spatial ideas.
What were your main compositional- and production-challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
A feature of ‘slow computing’ was that, as every process took some time to compute, the creative process involved careful listening and planning. In this way I developed a focus on detail. Also, this repeated listening in composition is very similar to ‘reduced listening’ (from Schaeffer), which can lead to the discovery of hidden qualities in the sound: qualities that you can then draw out in the course of the music. Yet this approach could also distract from global aims, where compositionally, the main challenge would be to step back from these details and understand what was happening musically.
Another feature of ‘slow computing’ is that, in the waiting time, (which could be minutes to hours), you are in a position to think, plan and structure your next move. Fast computing and real-time feedback can render the sound creation process so immediately gratifying that you neglect the ‘thinking time’ and composition is taken over by improvisation. For me, music exists in the way sounds are put together and how their relationships, motives, forms and morphologies change through time. Although I will often improvise in the studio to explore the potential of a sound, I nevertheless need time to plan, test and change. This thinking time I believe is something to treasure.
Tell us about your studio, please. What were criteria when setting it up and how does this environment influence the creative process? How important, relatively speaking, are factors like mood, ergonomics, haptics and technology for you?
Amongst the most important features of my studio are monitoring quality, room acoustics and noise floor. Ergonomics are also important. Software and computer hardware are of course important, but may change from year to year, and I try to make music that sustains its qualities over decades without feeling that older works are product of their technological era.
In terms of ‘mood’, I spent some years working in a basement without windows. For the past 15 years my studios have been above ground with good natural light and a view of nature; something that has been important for thinking, drifting and sustainability.
What are currently some of the most important tools and instruments you're using?
The answer to this questions changes from project to project. At the moment my Soundfield microphone is particularly useful (a four-capsule microphone for capturing the 3D sound-field) along with an ambisonics decoder called Harpex, that I helped to develop. MaxMSP normally lies somewhere in my processing chain.
Many contemporary production tools already take over significant parts of what would formerly have constituted compositional work. In which way do certain production tools suggest certain approaches, in which way do they limit and/or expand your own creativity? Are there any promising solutions or set-ups capable of triggering new ideas inside of you as a composer?
I wouldn’t say that production tools have taken over from any significant compositional work. Some software has removed the manual work involved in creating some types of materials, such as lengthy textures, beat driven sequences or broken beats and articulations. Many tools achieve essentially the same now as they did over a 15 years ago, the difference being that better graphical user interfaces, control surfaces and combining many tools into a single action have sped up the production process and made complex tasks easier and user friendly. Spatialisation technologies are one area that I could consider as having changed my work. It has allowed me to realise spatial gestures and ideas in a more successful way than before, which in turn have lead to new musical ideas. These tools are by no means a production short cut and the actual stages are more complex and ‘custom built’ than what I was dealing with before.
Could you describe your creative process on the basis of a piece or album that's particularly dear to you, please? Where do ideas come from, what do you start with and how do you go about shaping these ideas?
Most of my work begins by considering three nuclei: sounding character, sounding semantics or extra-musical matters and spatial presence. Each work will quickly diversify. As an example I can draw from a recent composition ‘Topology Chamber 2’. This work is about spatial sound gestures connected to physical performance gestures, and their transformation in and out of an embodied reference. In this work the spatial aspect was primary and, wanting to find a way to accurately design sound gestures reminiscent of physical gestures, I captured 3D motion data from real-life performances. Next I considered the ‘sounding character’: physical gestures are silent until they articulate an object or interact with the environment. How could I inject a sounding character to these non-sounding motion gestures? During this process I needed to consider extra-musical references implied by the sounding results, as well as matters of spectrum and morphology. For example, how do the extra-musical references enhance or distract from abstract or pure musical aspects? What effect would these musical and extra-musical features have on the material across different time scales? How would the sounding phenomena relate to the listening context and final media?
With more and more musicians creating than ever and more and more of these creations being released, what does this mean for you as an artist in terms of originality? What are some of the areas where you currently see the greatest potential for originality and who are some of the artists and communities that you find inspiring in this regard?
I don’t think about the quantity of artists and works. With a thorough knowledge of the history in my own and related genres I intuitively avoid reinventing the wheel, while being true to my own ideas - particularly in terms of musical details, temporal and spatial structures and avoiding ‘fads’. I wouldn’t like to pin point any one area with the greatest potential for originality, but rather in general think that some music is in danger of losing a grip on listening as a temporal experience. Sometimes I hear strings of interesting sounds, articulations or motifs that hold my attention for only a limited duration, or drones that may appear generic. This isn’t however to do with originality, rather about listening experiences and the type of music I don’t want to create.