Caterina Barbieri on synthesis, minimalism and creating living organisms out of sound
Signal Path is a new series that delves into the creative process of our favorite producers and musicians. In this interview, Scott Wilson talks to Italian musician Caterina Barbieri about her journey from studying classical guitar to composing minimalist music on modular synthesizers.
If there’s one contemporary album that proves the musical potential of the modular synthesizer, it’s Italian-born composer Caterina Barbieri’s Patterns of Consciousness. It’s easy to write the format off as an expensive and self-indulgent way to make music, but Patterns of Consciousness – one of FACT’s favorite albums of 2017 – is an exercise in composition and restraint, a minimalist synth masterpiece that sounds as if every detail has been considered for the effect it will have on the listener.
However, the fact that Patterns of Consciousness is made with a modular synth feels incidental to the mechanics of the album; it’s not the equipment driving the music but Barbieri’s underlying musical philosophy, derived from an interest in minimalism and how sound affects human perception. ‘Scratches on the Readable Surface’, for example, and the track that follows it, ‘SOTRS’, approach the same musical motif from different angles. One track is urgent and anxious, the other dream-like and reflective. There’s not much that differentiate them, but the emotional shift is palpable.
“In Patterns of Consciousness I was interested in exploring the power of sound on our consciousness,” she tells me. “I wanted to explore how a pattern creates a certain state of consciousness and how the gradual transformation of that pattern can affect that state of consciousness. I believe that sound is a tool for the exploration, reconfiguration and expansion of human perceptions.”
This aspect of Barbieri’s music really clicked for me when I saw her at last year’s Ableton Loop event in Berlin, where she discussed her music and gave a short performance. Although it lasted only 30 minutes, the way in which she moulded the LP’s familiar patterns played with my perception of time in a way that made it feel like I’d been in a meditative trance for even longer.
Despite being one of electronic music’s most interesting new voices, Barbieri’s journey hasn’t been an obvious one. Although now based in Berlin, Barbieri studied classical guitar at the Conservatory in Bologna, where she listened to renaissance and baroque lute music, especially that of John Dowland and J.S. Bach. At the same time, she was going to noise and metal shows to see artists like Keiji Haino, Prurient, Corrupted and Master Musicians of Bukkake. She also holds a bachelor’s degree in electro- acoustic music, an interest she has developed at Stockholm’s famed Elektronmusikstudion.
“A sort of angelic-evil tension – a strange coexistence of ecstasy and melancholia – has definitely shaped my musical thought,” she says. “For years I’ve felt that these two contrasting elements could hardly coexist in my music but after Patterns of Consciousness I’ve realized that this is something I am very interested in and want to explore more and more.”
What made you want to study classical guitar?
Caterina Barbieri: I don’t think I ever ‘decided’ to study music, I was just naturally attracted. Classical music made me discover the importance of discipline, rigor and consistency; but also that music always forces you to be honest with yourself and to have this deep connection with your inner self, your limits and your possibilities. No excuses, no gaps. I think that this is the hardest part, but also one of the most beautiful and rewarding aspects of making music.
Why did you take the leap to making electronic music?
Barbieri: Well, I’ve always been intrigued by weird sounds. Even when I was studying classical guitar my favorite repertoire was the contemporary one, so electronic music felt like a quite natural continuation. It was only when I encountered the Buchla 200 synthesizer in 2013 that I started doing my own electronic music. It really changed my life; it taught me a way of listening to sound that years of classical training never revealed – a deep listening, a sort of microscopic perception of sound in its physicality, beyond its extrinsic cultural references. The first piece that came out from my experience with the Buchla, ‘Undular’ [the opening track of her 2014 album Vertical], was a meditation on raw waveforms and the polyrhythms of their harmonics. It felt like an insight into the molecular dance of particles inside the synthetic waveforms.
For me the sounds coming out from that machine were pure spirituality! Touching the knobs was like touching my own feelings. Being able to contemplate them at distance – as if they were objects – yet being completely immersed in them, exactly like when you are immersed in the sound and the sound is at the same time inside and outside of you. And you cannot tell the difference, because you become that sound and that sound becomes you.
With synthesis it’s often the case that the identification of the sound source is blurred because the timbres are complex or even not present in nature. And when it’s hard to guess the source behind a sound you are forced to engage with a more active listening, reliant on the intrinsic properties of sound as a physical object rather than the extrinsic properties of sound as a cultural object. And that’s something I am very interested in – ‘undressing’ the sound of its cultural references and emphasising its spectral, physical qualities. I really appreciate the music that involves me not only as a cultural subject. The music that forces me to leave behind my subjectivity and become an object myself, fused together with the sound – the music that makes me surrender to the power of sound and make my ego die a little.
Thinking back to those days I can say that my experience with the Buchla was better than any psychotherapy. The surface of cables and knobs was like a display for my own perceptions. Connecting modules was like connecting parts of my being that were dormant and dissociated. Discovering how the activity of one module could invisibly determine the activity of the other was like discovering how different layers of our being are invisibly connected and integrated in complex way.
The word “minimalism” is used a lot to describes music, often meaning very different things. What does the term mean to your music?
Barbieri: Minimalism means exploration of repetition and the psycho-physical effects of repetition. In minimalist music the focus is on the process rather than on the form. Sometimes the music material doesn’t even change, or changes very gradually, but what does change is the way you listen to it. Music as a process, this is one of the most important teachings of minimalism for me.
In this music, the process of change of the material is important as it produces a process of change in the mind that is listening. Sound causing processes rather than objects, verbs rather than nouns. So this music is more about the change we, as listeners undergo, rather than the change of the material itself. I change in the sound that changes. I am very interested in exploring how sound affects our perceptions.
In Patterns of Consciousness for example, I wanted to explore how patterns and permutation of patterns affect our perception of time and space, our memory, our consciousness, our feelings. The opening track of the album, ‘This Causes Consciousness to Fracture’, is a bit of a manifesto in that sense. The idea behind the piece is ideally infinite generation of new patterns through the permutation of a limited constellation of pitches. And when I perform it live, I am just showing the actual process of making that piece, the genesis of the music material from scratch, the generative principle through which all the patterns are derived.
I see this as very much connected to minimalism but also generative music and any form of computation, actually. Every form of computation requires the formal definition of a set of data to produce a larger body of output. You work within a closed system but then you define a process, a generative grammar able to generate an open system of possibilities. What really interests me is turning that practice of computation from being just a formal technique – an automatic procedure – into a creative process, into ecstasy, contemplation, trance.
Are there any specific minimalist composers your music is inspired by?
Barbieri: I’m especially influenced by Steve Reich and his personal approach to counterpoint, additive and subtractive patterns, permutation and phasing effects. Electric Counterpoint is one of my favorite pieces ever! But I’m also very inspired by La Monte Young and his philosophy of sound. I love his aesthetics of the long sustained tones, his approach to tuning as a psycho-physiological exploration of feelings, his organic style of improvisation. I’m also interested in studying how these aspects of his work are influenced by North Indian classical music practice and speculation on sound. For La Monte, sound is a medium to become closer to God and the understanding of universal structure, something reminiscent of the Hindustani concept of music as a form of contemplation and recreation of the laws of the universe.
In this vision, music performs the link between the physical and the metaphysical, the manifest and the un-manifest, the micro and macro-cosmos. This is rooted in a comprehensive, holistic theory of sound, informed by Vedic ritualistic knowledge and Tantric mysticism. This idea of music as an agent of change and a recreation is very inspiring for me as well and was very influential on the generative nature of my latest album. Every piece in that album is a generative entity with an open-ended form and the recorded version is only one of the possible incarnation of this re-combinatory practice. For me it was very important to be able to play this music live and generate combinations of patterns in real time. In this way I feel that the music becomes a real-life organism in itself, something I can breathe and grow with every time I perform.
What was it that attracted you to the modular synthesizer?
Barbieri: Initially, it was the physicality of these instruments. With these machines you can actively experience – with your hands, in your body – musical ideas and audio concepts that otherwise would remain pretty obscure and abstract. You can study FM modulation in a book but experiencing it in first person, it’s way different. Or exploring the intimate relationship between rhythm and pitch when you turn a modulating oscillator from the inaudible to the audible range. So beautiful!
I think that experiencing musical ideas through a physical activity adds a lot to the creative process. Sometimes I feel that my musical ideas can survive and come to real life only if they’re processed through my body, my gestures, my memory. And these kind of machines invite us to explore sound not only visually but also physically, gesturally. This also means a less visually-oriented music design – no timeline view, no horizontal-linear-teleological-narrative-representational view of music, which can be quite liberating!
For example, the design of the Buchla is pretty esoteric but I never felt the need to read a manual. I just found a way to make it create sound. And there’s no right or wrong way to do it – there’s no ‘obliged’ creative path, so to say. But today it seems that the focus of music industry is very much on the simplification of music interfaces, to make the creative process faster and accessible, at least in the digital world. But I think that this approach to technology is problematic and misleading, because the creative process needs limits to overcome and esoteric interfaces to explore. In my experience, music always comes out of a process of negotiation between the design of the technology and the human imagination, rather than a simple imposition of an idea upon passive matter.
Another aspect of analog synthesizers I like is the stream of sound. Synths are fields of continuous electricity where sound flows constantly. You don’t press a button to play or stop a musical process. Playing with these machines means actively interacting with this stream of sound, tuning yourself to an ongoing sound field and making it selective. Eventually the music is already there even before you start. Composing music becomes an act of subtraction rather than a demiurgic act of creation from silence.
How exactly are you modifying your compositions when you perform live? Is the process quite mathematical or generative, or is it more instinctual?
Barbieri: When I perform, I mostly play live sequences generated in my modular synthesizer. I have sort of a huge library of patterns stored in my sequencer and on the moment of the performance I decide how to introduce, evolve and expand this material. It’s a sort of a generative grammar with a mix of predictability and un-predictability – steps are like letters of an alphabet that produce words and sentences (patterns). The pitches are usually fixed but I decide on the fly where to create loop points, the number of repetitions, transitions and so on. Sometimes I apply random processes to control certain parameters of the music composition, as for example timbre, rhythm variations or gate position. Or to trigger differently the individual eight harmonics of my harmonic oscillator to create illusions of polyphony.
I use random operations, but more in the process of writing a piece rather than in the live performance. For me generative random operations can be interesting to derive music material in unexpected ways because sometimes they produce ‘happy accidents’. But then I always select what of this material makes sense in the composition and gradually develop a form that in the end is very controlled and structured.
For example, in Patterns of Consciousness, I applied a lot of random voltages to mute certain steps of a pattern so that the played portions of the pattern were constantly shifted and shuffled – a sort of subtractive counterpoint. This turned out to be an organic way to evolve the melodic material. But I am not personally interested in pure generative music or pure improvised music. I am actually very bad at improvising with my set-up and when people ask me to ‘jam’ I always have to say no!
What really interests me is finding an organic balance in my working flow between predictability and un-predictability, structure and fluidity, logos and chaos.
What kind of modules do you use?
Barbieri: For a long time my setup was very limited and essential. I wanted it to be so because I was intrigued by the idea of working within a closed system and still finding a way to develop a potential of growth. So in Patterns of Consciousness for example I only used the Indexed Quad Sequencer, a Harmonic Oscillator, an LFO and a mixer.
The Harmonic Oscillator was like my tamboura, a continuous stream of sound from which I extracted all the patterns – a complex signal filtered into points of meaning. The Quad Sequencer was definitely the piece of gear that influenced the creative process the most, especially in regards to the generative organic approach to patterns. It’s the first module I ever bought. It was love at first sight! You can write super long sequences with no limits in the number of steps, which means that the time articulation of your music is not restricted to a fixed length as in the traditional step-sequencers. It’s the brain of the setup – it introduces repeatability and trackability into the music process but also allowing for complex sequencing techniques.
After a while though I felt the need to expand my sound palette and last summer I got some Make Noise modules. Their approach to design is very personal, original and visionary. You could spend a lifetime exploring their Shared System, which is a very dynamic environment where you can integrate different compositional approaches and explore all the degrees in between. There’s a full spectrum of music possibilities going from total improvisation to complex sequencing techniques, from noise to harmony; and the line between these ‘opposites’ is very blurred and fluid, which is super cool.
I especially love the hybrid organic soundscapes produced by the Eco-phon and the Erbe-verb. Frap Tools is another manufacturer that I really love. I recently started exploring their Tamed Random Source, Sapèl, and it’s a super fun tool to create complex timing and sequencing.
You use Ableton Live while you perform as well, correct?
Barbieri: I use Ableton to further process the signal coming out from my modular. When I started playing around I didn’t have the money to buy modules for audio processing so I was using Ableton for delay, reverb, filter and EQ. Then I got so fond of certain specific Ableton’s effects that I cannot help but keep using them. I am especially a long-time fan of Ableton’s ping pong delay, reverb and saturator!
How will your next album compare to Patterns of Consciousness?
Barbieri: I’m expanding the sound palette into both the acoustic and digital domain. For example, I’m collaborating with a group of singers and trying to compose music for them as if I was composing music for synthesizers. Sometimes it’s a total fail but sometimes it produces interesting results! But in general at the moment I am interested in applying the compositional design developed on synthesizers to other instruments and configurations, bringing together different listening influences – from medieval to renaissance music, to electronics and metal, without caring at all about crossing genres. And it feels quite liberating!
Caterina Barbieri is performing at this year’s Semibreve festival in Braga, Portugal. For more information and tickets head to the Semibreve site. She also appears on Stroboscopic Artefacts’ Flowers From The Ashes: Contemporary Italian Electronic Music compilation, which is available now.