Over the course of her career, Natasha Barrett has ascended from the label “Norway’s most promising composer of electro-acoustic music” to what The New York Times calls “one of the leading composers in 3D audio.” This trajectory is the reflection of hard work and a constant stream of releases. In Heterotopia, Barrett translates 3D Ambisonics into stereo, with successful results.
We’re embarrassed to admit that we had to Google the title, and were relieved to learn that it did not refer to what we first imagined. Heterotopia is a term coined by Michel Foucault to describe places that are “other,” in-between or incongruous. As it turns out, this is a perfect descriptor of Barrett’s sounds. Her intriguing compositions come across as mysterious sonic spaces that exist nowhere on earth, despite the fact that their atoms were mined on this planet.
The entry point is the middle track in the digital release, which becomes the closer on the vinyl version due to space constraints. Everybody loves a good ping-pong game, and the sound of such games has graced many a novelty composition. But Barrett’s works, as playful as they are, are no novelties. She proceeds from a pleasing back and forth, speaker to speaker volley, accompanied by friendly banter; but then somebody plummets some extra ping-pong balls into the mix, which must have seemed disconcerting to the two opponents. Then dozens, if not hundreds of the plastic pieces, an increase in volume, a huge pair of thumps and a sense of sonic trepidation. It’s obvious that this isn’t happening in real life, although it could be construed as the anxiety produced by pressure on athletes. Soon afterward, “Urban Melt in Park Palais Meran” comes to a complete stop, restarts, grows thicker and more abstract. Someone is screaming in a loop. Another stop; another thump; another game. In the finale, the “real” game returns, making one wonder if the midsection was a dream, or the score in a player’s head. Was ping-pong ever more intimidating or unpredictable? This fabulist recreation of a real-life event is the very definition of heterotopia.
The album’s showcase piece is the 23-minute title track, also known as “Speaking Spaces No. 1.” Barrett expands on Foucault’s concept, inviting listeners to hear as she hears, quite literally, the forest instead of the trees. It’s easy to zero in on the sounds of the waterfall, the woodpecker and the bees, harder to lose one’s self in the larger framework; but the three-dimensional audio leads one to take an aural peek past the foreground. First one starts to notice the edges; after repeated listens, one begins to lose one’s self in the biophany. Barrett’s composition also invites listeners to travel beyond the biophany to find deeper layers of meaning, whether hidden in the forest or in one’s self. The closing sounds of shore ice are piece’s most compelling, a possible metaphor for barriers crumbling in the mind.
A further note for those purchasing the vinyl: “Part 1” ends in silence at 13:32, no matter what the format; so one need not worry that the full piece is compromised. Instead, in the alternate version of the album, the last track becomes the first, a mini heterotopia, the ground continuing to move beneath the feet. (Richard Allen)