What is your background?

My background is in music. It has been since I left school. I studied for a bachelor degree in music, then moved straight to a master’s degree in compositional analysis and after that a PhD in electroacoustic composition. After my PhD, I received a one year research grant from Norway, which is how I ended up here.

Since then I have freelanced for many years as a composer and researcher, but more recently have been connected to academic environments in Oslo and currently have a professorship at the Norwegian Academy for Music in Oslo.

What motivated you to work with electro-acoustic, acousmatic composition?

My bachelor degree finished in 1994. It was a general degree in music. Before I started my degree, in fact since I was much younger, I wanted to be a composer. I had no idea what that would involve! I was also performing, playing instruments, as most people do when they are interested in music. And then at university I believe I was fortunate because the bachelor degree combined traditional aspects of music, history, aesthetics and composition, with music technology, perception, acoustics and cognition. We were taught a broad picture of the world at that point - both technology and tradition. During this time, I was introduced to some of the possibilities of the mid 1990s. Although I understood only a little of what sound offered, I realized that working directly with sound had compositional potential. Working with sound then lead me in many directions.

Natasha Barrett during the interview. Photo by Anna Xambó.
Natasha Barrett during the interview. Photo by Anna Xambó.

What are your experiences being a woman in music technology?

It has changed over the years! I’ve changed over the years… I reflect on this when asked the question. Many years ago, I never felt intentionally discriminated against… but I was a single female in an all male environment. In most situations, friends ask friends to be involved in activities. It didn’t seem to matter how good you were: if you weren’t one of the group then you would be less likely to be included. You could say I felt excluded due to my gender, but I don’t believe there was any bad intention. I also remember occasions when I wasn’t invited to travel with the group, likely because the guys would share rooms, and as a single female my presence would have been more expensive. I don’t think that situation could occur now. I felt a little discriminated against at the time, but also thought it was because my work wasn’t good enough. That made me stronger. I felt I had to be even better in what I did to be taken notice of [laughing]. It was a tough time.

Did you have a role model?

I never had a single role model, neither in music technology nor composition. There are however many composers that I admire. I love listening to all kinds of music. When I was studying, I especially liked orchestral music, and I think that many of my electroacoustic and acousmatic works lean towards magnitudes of orchestral comparison… to do with timbres, to do with counterpoint, the complexity of images.

How do you get inspired?

My inspiration comes from music and I love working with technology. I find computers are great fun… the things we can do with them. I began shortly after digital technology had essentially replaced analogue. Splicing tape was still common, but digital technology offered new possibilities. Technology is fascinating because of the potential, and that every year something new emerges. It grows, it evolves, you see a vision. A concept becomes a reality! But beneath this, my inspiration comes from a musical motivation, to make music, the feeling of making music, and of course listening to a great piece of music. How I feel touched by music and how I want to try to touch other people with music. That is the bottom line [laughter] despite everything else.

Like spaces and places? They seem to be very prominent in your work.

Absolutely, I’ve always been inspired by the sounds around me. So I like to travel and hear new environments. I also like quiet so that I can hear sound in the quiet. We are surrounded by a rich sound world that we often ignore. One of the projects which I’m now starting, a research project, is specifically about that. It is about taking normal, everyday sonic environments that we maybe walk through without paying attention to, and finding a way to draw our attention back to it, to find what is interesting about it…. and extending that into an artistic domain.

Can you elaborate a bit further on your methods in this project you started?

The project is designed in four modules. They are each designed to address the sonic environment in a slightly different way. One thing we can do is to make a high resolution recording of an environment, then remove this sound from its context, and examine more closely its features. These features can then be carefully enhanced, and placed back in the recording site, creating a layer of local sound transformation. Features that were originally almost imperceptible are now elevated so we can apprehend them.

What kind of technology do you use?

One technology to mention that is connected to higher-order ambisonics is sound field decomposition. I capture the sound environment in a high spatial resolution and then apply various decomposition methods to spatially separate elements in the recording. The approach uses what’s called beamforming. This allows me to find the directions of the sounds, isolate and analyse. I’m then applying different kinds of music information retrieval techniques to investigate salient features and ways in which to classify sounds – then feed this information back into a compositional process. I can see that I’ll soon have to expand my knowledge in areas of machine learning so as to address larger banks of sounds and dynamically changing classification techniques. Sound environments are complex and at the moment my composing approach is manual and laborious, and I need to find better ways to handle large amounts of data, while still making music the end result.

What advice would you give to women who are interested in pursuing a career in music technology?

Don’t think about the fact you’re a woman. Just do what you find is interesting. Put in the time that’s needed. I know people who disagree and put more weight on the gender issue. I’m sure it’s important in some contexts, but for me gender hasn’t come into my work. I would not say I write ‘female’ music or anything that has any connection to my gender. Do what is true to yourself, then if it has a gender connection it will come out because you’ve been sincere.

Do you have anything to add?

As always, much to add! But no more now.

Thank you!