The last time we reviewed Norwegian soundscape artist Natasha Barrett, she was playing with ping-pong balls – a lot of ping-pong balls – on Heterotopia, which encouraged listeners to ponder the “otherness” of ordinary life: the sounds beneath the surface and the meaning beneath the sounds. On Reconfiguring the Landscape, the artist places sound installations in outdoor areas, investigating the ways in which sound art “can evoke and provoke a new awareness of our outdoor sound environment.” These recordings are adapted from those installations, and as such they invite listeners to experience the original projects in vicarious fashion and to listen to their own nearby environments with new ears.
The album begins with “Impossible Moments from Venice 2” and ends with “Impossible Moments from Venice 1,” a decision we’ll reverse and then discuss.
On “Venice 1,” a door opens, a church bell tolls, tourists mill around, dogs bark, and someone is splashing in the plaza. The children seem happy, even as a passing train drowns out their words and the splashes increase to a cacophony. People go about their business as if the sounds around them were not miraculous. A police officer blows her whistle. A trestle creaks. Electronic bells sound, a counterpart to those in the church. Rowing and construction vie for sonic dominance. The water and the bells grow calm. The artist packs up her gear.
On “Venice 2,” again a door opens and children play, at least one of them exasperated. The dogs bark, now joined by crows and other birds; the church bell tolls the time, and soon another bell joins in. One wonders how passers-by might have reacted to these overlapping sounds arriving from unexpected places; on this recording, they fall nearly silent as if awed. The splashes don’t arrive until well past the midway point, and the bells are still ringing. A choir sings alleluias between passages of instruction. A drone develops at the very end; then one more bell.
This two-part piece is the album’s heart, its shared sounds suggesting a remix, yet at the same time prompting discussion on what one person may hear that another does not. Once one imagines the pieces as the aural processing of two people in the same environment, it all makes sense. To this listener, “Venice 2” is the richer selection, well-deserving of its opening spot; on the other hand, it wouldn’t have been so bad to end in an alleluia.
“Speaking Spaces 2: Surfaces from Graz” does have a preceding “1,” the 23-minute highlight of Heterotopia. The piece expands on the themes of “1” while also relating to the sonic sources of “Venice” ~ children and electronic bells again make appearances, while the idea of “hearing the forest for the trees” is extended from forest to city. Selfishly, we enjoyed the encore, however briefly, of ping-pong balls. A musician practices an instrument as a bird practices singing. A melange of voices travels between the speakers, sinks into syllables, dissolves into electrons. Again, church bells. Austria’s capital has seldom sounded so familiar and yet so strange.
Nærvær, or presence, is the act of being present, reflected in the track of the same name. Barrett’s wish is for sonic presence, and her collation of mesmerizing sounds is an advertisement for active, undistracted listening. The piece begins with a cough, footsteps and conversation, the launch of a journey. Seagulls cry over electronic tones. Other birds sing over hammering. To which sounds will the ears gravitate? Some people simply walk on by. Again there are bells, sounding first like mallet instruments rather than steeples. Yet when the organ tones arrive, one remembers the importance of such bells in less technological times, in less crowded sonic environments.
“Remote Sensing on the Beach” completes the circuit, as one follows the seagulls to the shore. The title refers to the act of obtaining information from a distance, as from an airplane or satellite, yet in this case the definition might be expanded to the distance of the listener from the recording site, or contracted to the ability to think about larger things while considering smaller things: a world in a grain of sand. By using macro and micro lenses, Barrett’s sonic worlds encourage such musings, which extend beyond this plane to the spiritual realm: the bell tolls for thee. (Richard Allen)