Endless possibilities – in sound and music
“Ever since I was little I have wanted to make music,” says Natasha Barrett, who grew up in Gloucestershire in western England, studied music in Birmingham, and earned a doctorate in electroacoustic music in London before settling in Norway in 1999. She has received numerous awards for her music. The most well known of these for the Norwegian public are the Nordic Council Music Prize (2006) and the Edvard Prize (2004), but she has also received prizes from Germany, France, Italy, Austria, the Czech Republic, Spain and Brazil. For the past two years she has been engaged by the University of Oslo as a researcher at the Department of Musicology, where she has worked with the movement of sound and how we perceive it in a 3D landscape.
One dream of many
When Barrett began to study music it was not in order to become a composer. “It was more a kind of dream. How could it be possible to make a living as a composer? It was only one of many dreams.”
Her principal instrument was classical guitar, and her second instrument was cello. When she began to compose, it was for ordinary acoustic instruments.
“I had quite a good aural idea, or perceptional idea, of what I was doing on a written score. But I found it difficult to find my own expression. In my purely instrumental work, I was writing clichés and pastiches. I didn’t discover anything original.”
When she was introduced to electronic sounds while studying for her bachelor’s degree, she found that they opened up entirely new opportunities to express herself. She decided to pursue a master’s degree in electroacoustic composition and analysis technique, and went on to earn a doctorate from City University in London. This is a relatively new area of music history, although this was not a factor in Barrett’s interest in the field.
“Electroacoustic music has been composed since the 1950s, and this was the 1990s. So I wouldn’t consider it as having been that new. The traditions and the genre were already well established. It provided a basis that I could use to build on and develop.”
Building up the sound material
However, this was relatively early in the history of electroacoustic music, and everyone who was involved tells the same story of how primitive it was, with its magnetic tape, cutting and pasting, physical loops and time-consuming editing. It was through this laborious process that Barrett discovered the pleasure of exploring and shaping her own sound material. She compares it with an orchestra:
“An orchestra is something given, your instruments are given to you. They exist. In electroacoustic music, you have to invent your instruments and sounds, and then build music out of them. That is why I still work with computers, so I can invent sound. I work with live sound processing from acoustic sources because with a performer on stage, with a microphone and live processing, I can invent something as an extension of that instrument in real time. Any object that creates sound can become an instrument, and the manner in which sound is articulated and rendered becomes important.”
Why is this interesting?
“Because performers using acoustic sound sources bring something to a piece of music that can be quite difficult to supply in any other way: everything associated with the performer’s gestures, timing, articulation, dynamics. Capturing that without a human there is very difficult. It can make my life easier to draw on this skilled human, and what he or she can do with their instrument.”
In order to recapture the human factor amidst all of the technology?
“Yes, perhaps in order to preserve some human elements in a sound recording that will be used in one’s abstract electroacoustic works. It’s much easier to say: let me write a score for performers, and then they will bring it to life. In electroacoustic music we must compose the human expression. In practice, it is an extremely painstaking process, which is unfortunately becoming less prominent in much of today’s electroacoustic music. This is something that I intend to focus on in my teaching in order to ensure that the composition process functions well.”
Electroacoustic music as an academic subject
Natasha Barrett has been engaged as Associate Professor in electroacoustic composition at the Norwegian Academy of Music. She will develop a field that will encompass all types of electroacoustic music, including certain aspects of sound art and installation art in which composition is the primary element of the piece. She will offer a course in the analysis of electroacoustic music in order to train composers in listening and analysing existing works, as well as a module in music history. But programming will not be part of it, according to Barrett.
“I don’t see programming as a significant element in composing electroacoustic music. Knowledge of programming can be useful in solving a problem, but there are many ways of solving a problem.”
“We can’t let them flounder around in the great sea of infinite possibilities without helping them.”
What need is there for electroacoustic composition at the Academy of Music?
“Students are interested in incorporating technology into their work, and they need an educational programme to gain a better understanding of what they are doing. We can’t let them flounder around in the great sea of infinite possibilities without helping them. That would be like saying: you want to become a composer, but we won’t tell you how to become one. Or: here is an orchestra, but we won’t tell you how you can compose for it. Now the students will be given some ideas about what they can do. Then they can break the rules if they want, instead of not knowing the rules they can break.”
The ears are the most important part
What facilities does electroacoustic composition require?
“I think it’s a misconception that a composer can sit alone in a room and create electroacoustic music of high quality. Regardless of what kind of computer and software you have, sitting there with your headphones will not bring you to the highest level. You must be in a room with good acoustics and speakers. This is the most important aspect: the space and the acoustic conditions. Naturally, it’s also important to have a good computer and a wide-ranging selection of software, not least as a means of stimulating the imagination. But if you can’t hear what you’re doing, you can’t compose, because the ears are the most important part of this picture.”
Barrett emphasises that the objective of the work is presenting the composition to listeners.
“In the beginning the studio is the most important element. The composers must start by finding the music, and then discover what happens when they bring the music into a variety of arenas and present it to audiences, whether it is in a concert hall, on the Internet or for someone walking around wearing headphones. I’ll introduce different techniques for transferring the work from the studio to the public arena, and will show students how we have to accept compromises and how the transitions can improve the work.”
“We have to get the music out of the studio and into the concert hall quickly, so the composers can experience the transition to a large space with numerous loudspeakers.”
There is no regular performance venue in Norway for electroacoustic music, according to Barrett. It is possible to use an ordinary concert hall, but it is time consuming and thus expensive to set up a concert in a place that is not equipped for this kind of music.
“We need a regular venue where we can go in, set up a concert, present the concert and leave, and where this can be accomplished without having to spend two days on preparations before we even get a chance to try out the piece and get it to function properly. We must bring the music out of the studio and into the concert hall quickly, so the composers can experience the transition to a large space with numerous loudspeakers.”
Norway is a latecomer
Most developments today are driven by computer technology, but in the field of electroacoustic music we are behind the times, according to Barrett. She says that the United Kingdom offers regular concert series in venues that are specially adapted to electroacoustic music. The same applies to France, Germany and other places in Europe.
Nor has electroacoustic music in Norway developed as much as it should have done in the past few decades, in her view. She sees this to some extent as a consequence of the government’s appropriation policy. In comparison with orchestras, which are generously financed, electroacoustic music has nowhere near the same possibilities for acquiring equipment and securing performance venues, she says, adding that the commission fees paid for electroacoustic music are lower than those for acoustic music.
“The Academy of Music is trying to change this situation by encouraging increased interest in the genre and improving education in the field.”
“The technology does not convey what kind of music it is.”
Electroacoustic music is an umbrella term you use. What does it imply?
“Electroacoustic music has been used as a concept for decades. It’s an umbrella term that encompasses several subcategories. One of these is acousmatic music. This is electroacoustic music without musicians on the stage; there is no visual element. It also defines a way of listening, because we are not bound by the necessity to comprehend the source of the sound. We do not see how the sounds are made, which can help to stimulate the listener’s imagination. Another subcategory is the sound processing of performers in real time or performers interacting with previously recorded material. Much sound art also falls into the category of electroacoustic music. So I believe that we can distinguish between electroacoustic music and electronic pop music, even though the latter often makes use of technology and tools that are similar to those of electroacoustic music. But the technology does not convey what kind of music it is, just as a piece played on the violin does not convey what genre it belongs to. It is simply a piece played on the violin. Electronic pop music uses beat, rhythm and melodies with popular appeal. It opens the door to another way of listening than electroacoustic music does, as the latter moves in the direction of art music.”
In other words, Natasha Barrett uses the concept of electroacoustic music to describe a genre rather than to define the technology that has been used.
“Using a computer and technology doesn’t necessarily make life easier. It can make life more difficult for a composer.”
Form and meaning
Electroacoustic music is based on very different sound materials than acoustic music. Composers here are not limited by the possibilities inherent in the instruments or by the technical skill of the performers. In a way, they can access all of the possibilities within a continuum where traditional music has a predefined tonal register, particular rhythms and specific timbres.
How can a composer relate to the vast possibilities presented by electroacoustic music?
“This will be included as part of the course: finding out where one can start and where one can go, and how one can elicit meaning and structure from possibilities that seem endless.”
Do meaning and structure remain the most significant elements?
“Yes, we have to try to find a framework defining something that appears to be endless –which is, indeed, endless. Many things are more difficult with a computer than with acoustic instruments. Using a computer and technology doesn’t necessarily make life easier. It can make life more difficult for a composer. If you listen to a recording of a performer on an instrument, to the variations in timbre, articulation and details, and try to create the same degree of variation in electroacoustic music, it’s very difficult. It demands a good deal of craftsmanship, time and insight."
Natasha Barrett has been using the computer as a compositional tool for over twenty years. When she began, the work was carried out on large computers. Today much of it can be executed on a mobile phone. But in her view, what can actually be accomplished has not changed substantially. The difference is more that the working processes have become easier, providing greater opportunities to control the techniques and various components of the sound spectrum.
“We have explored technology in so many directions that anything that is innovative now will involve improvements rather than revolution. 3D sound and spatial sound represent one of the last revolutions, I think. We have a long way to go before we make 3D into a perfect reality, but we will get there by enhancing and controlling the processes more and more.”
What Natasha Barrett has been particularly preoccupied with in the past few decades is precisely the work connected to 3D sound and spatial listening experiences, concepts she talks about enthusiastically.
“Just as we can structure music according to pitch, rhythm and duration, we can also structure it according to its spatial aspects. I am referring not only to music that moves around in space, but also to scenes and events in a three-dimensional and enveloping soundscape. For example, we can create the illusion of small spaces, large spaces, having a small object close to us and a larger object farther away. The possibilities are endless. Because of the tools that have been developed, we have reached a level where I feel that I can really explore this in a more satisfying way in my compositions. My fundamental ideas have not changed, but now I can allow myself to investigate them in a way that I could hardly dream of before.”
Is it the case that you no longer have any auditory dreams that can’t be realised?
“Oh, I do! But the reason why I can’t realise them is not that the technology for achieving them doesn’t exist, but because I don’t have the competence. I don’t have the skill. There is always more to learn.”
Injecting life into the sound
Acousmatic music is often perceived differently in a concert hall than in circumstances where we are accustomed to hearing music without seeing the source of the sound, such as on the radio, in films, as muzak in shops, and so on. Some people find that the absence of musicians in a concert situation makes the music seem cold and impersonal.
How do you react to this point of view?
“It’s an old-fashioned cliché. I don’t know where it comes from, because I myself have never experienced that kind of reaction to electroacoustic music. It’s true that when electronic music was just starting out, when the music consisted only of synthetic sounds, it could seem quite inhuman. But it was not necessarily intended to have a human quality. We must remember that for centuries it has been a convention that music is performed by human beings. Now that music can be presented without musicians, this alone might be perceived as alienating. But this is not to say that acousmatic music invalidates the idea of music as a human and cultural expression. I often talk about injecting life into the sound. So even if there are no performers playing acoustic instruments, it doesn’t mean that there is no life or are no human qualities in the music. This is actually one of the fascinating features of acousmatic music: it can generate feelings and experiences despite the fact that we are not influenced by visual input while we’re listening."