Music

The genre-bending compositions of ARIA-nominated musician Nat Bartsch have an astonishing ability to construct feeling. By Fiona Murphy.

Nat Bartsch’s Hope Renewed

Black & white image of a woman with curly hair sitting at a piano, her eyes watching her hands on the keys. To her side and in the background is a brick wall.
Hope is an enduring theme in Nat Bartsch’s music.
Credit: Brett Scapin

“As the philosopher Edmund Husserl said in his study of the phenomenology of time, we hear a song one note at a time,” writes Claudia Hammond in Time Warped: Unlocking the Mysteries of Time Perception. “But it is our sense of the future and the past – our memory and our anticipation – that makes it a song.”

Memory and anticipation are recurring themes in pianist and composer Nat Bartsch’s discography. Each album title evokes a powerful feeling of time slippage: Springs, for all the Winters; To Sail, To Sing; Hometime; Forever, and No Time at All; Forever More; and Hope. Joining this body of work is Bartsch’s seventh studio album, Hope Renewed.

But words are only one potential portal. The songs themselves are live, slippery things. Time travel becomes a very real experience in Bartsch’s soundscape, both for herself and the listener.

Hope Renewed – the first from Bartsch’s newly launched record label, Amica Records – is a jazz, post-rock reinterpretation of her 2021 ARIA-nominated neoclassical album, Hope. It might seem risky to revisit and reimagine an album that has achieved such critical acclaim, but this is what Bartsch does best. Her albums don’t exist in isolation: she often revisits them at a slant.

This project started at least four albums ago. In the early months of motherhood, Bartsch interviewed music therapists to learn how music can comfort and settle babies. The result was a collection of lullabies – Forever, and No Time at All – which was released in 2018. These songs are embodied with reassuringly steady heartbeat-like tempos and soothing ostinatos. Sounds that swaddle the listener, without cloying constraint.

The positive reaction to the album went beyond newborns and their parents. “It wasn’t just about sending babies to sleep. But people were using this music to support all sorts of grief and trauma and mental illness,” she said in an interview for the arts podcast Control. “And I realised that that objective was something I wanted to carry through to my next record.”

Bartsch went on to create jazz sextet reinterpretations of the lullabies, Forever More, which was nominated for an ARIA for best jazz album in 2020. While they reflect one another, the result isn’t a trick mirror: this act of reinterpretation is something else entirely. The albums are twin-like, familiar on first impression but utterly singular. Both retaining the feeling of comfort and care.

The imprint of Bartsch’s research into music therapy followed her into her next project. “I planned to write an album that was hopeful sounding, kind of lullaby-like, but a little bit more elaborate,” says Bartsch on the podcast. “And responding to things like Donald Trump being president of the United States and climate change and those things that were really on our mind back a few years ago.”

The result was the neoclassical album Hope, an album that contains the same gentle feeling of Bartsch’s lullabies but with space for ambiguity. The consistent harmonies and repetition don’t reach quick resolution. They linger unresolved, open and optimistic. A holding pattern that, in real life, can take confidence to maintain. “I see now [that] the title of the album is an abbreviation of hopeful and hopeless,” says Bartsch.

This doubling of the word “hope” stretches into her latest album. According to the liner notes, the “compositions contained on both albums create a space for the listener to sit with all the grief and disappointment of 2020, and to look to the future with a quiet optimism”.

Listening to Hope Renewed is energising. It feels like a perfectly executed trust exercise – exhilarating but reassuring that you’ll be caught following the freefall. Featuring a jazz quartet, chamber musicians and ambient/post-rock electronic effects, the album’s eight tracks are expansive yet elliptical. The songs retain the lithe bone structure of lullabies but are sturdy and enduring. Each digression feels purposeful, eventually looping and folding back into itself.

The track “Brightness in the hills” is hypnotic. The recurring refrain builds and builds. The composition almost takes the listener by the hand, guiding them softly, gently from one progression to the next. The latest version of “Over the River” is revelatory. Placed as the seventh track, it acts almost as a release valve. Reinvented from a string quartet piece, the song has become a mosaic of sound, full of complex patterning of double drums, thick piano chords, slide guitar, distorted bass.

The album’s final song, “Hope”, blends ambient electronics with steady uplifting piano chords, reminiscent of the Icelandic band Sigur Rós. The effect is lightly fluttering, a sensation that you are about to take flight. The song fades into silence – an open-ended space, full of possibility.

Regardless of genre, Bartsch has an astonishing ability to construct feeling and movement within her compositions. Citing her musical influences on her website, Bartsch lists Sufjan Stevens, Elbow and Radiohead, all musicians who strive to create experiences beyond music for the listener. Their soundscapes are populated with story and textured with emotional valences. Similarly, these musical acts consider pleasing themselves a necessary part of composition. “When I’m sitting at the piano, I’m not really thinking about whether I’m playing jazz or classical,” says Bartsch. “I’m just playing music that hopefully sounds like me.”

Bartsch describes herself as “proudly neurodivergent”. In 2022, Bartsch and her partner, Jeremy Hopkins, wrote about their experiences as “a family on the autism spectrum” in the anthology We’ve Got This: Essays by Disabled Parents. “Things are harder for us than they are for neurotypical parents,” they write. “Imaginative play can be intolerable. Keeping the house tidy is impossible. We can experience total exhaustion from even the simplest outing together. Groggy, frustrating early mornings. Sensory overwhelm from play centres, shopping centres, cleaning, TV, tantrums.”

When I read this, my experience with Hope Renewed begins to make sense. As someone who experiences sensory overwhelm – a raw, frenetic feeling that can take hours, sometimes days, to settle – I had been instinctively listening to the album each evening. The music is like a cool compress: soothing yet invigorating.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 4, 2023 as "In search of lost hope".

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