Review: Stephan Barrett – Sea . Forest . Wind

Stephan Barrett - Sea . Forest . WindIn the opening moments of “Illumination”, the piano curls upward to stare at the sky and the birdsong within it, like a head rising out of sleep. The clarinet crumples gently like the bed sheets discarded by the morning body. Suddenly the piano is no longer a waking form, but a ragged tree line cutting into an overcast horizon; and now a cluster of stars, tardy in vacating the dawn. Carefully, it implants itself into the field recording and accentuates my awareness of certain aspects within it: the gentle shifts in the pacing of unfolding life, the mood (sometimes ominous, sometimes uplifted) that embeds itself in the crunch of footsteps, the groan of the weather and the coded language of birds. The improvisation recoils as a crow squawks loudly into the microphone, and then fidgets nervously as a violent heat gushes from a nearby fire. Little flurries of melody roll into the breeze. On either side, woodwind (and the dull plucks of a cello, perhaps?) cradles the central activity, knocked into subdued audibility by the wind and the tide.

Quickly enough, this begins to feel like an exercise in listening, not performance. I stop hearing Barrett’s input as deliberate and reactive. The body of the musician turns slack. He becomes a puppet for the soundscape, allowing his hands to be carried over the keys by the rise and fall of his environment. To use the word “response” implies too much active direction, as it’s clear that he wants to listen, and then understand, and then become; no longer a sonic observer but an inherent figment of the surroundings, buried amidst the rising dust of cicada calls, trampled by boots into the mud, aligning the breath of the instrument with the respiration of the sea. There’s a beautiful moment where my mind ceases to register the divide between piano and field recording. Stephan Barrett disappears.