The Italian composer on her light-years project and using music to expand perceptual horizons.
This feature was originally published in Fact’s S/S 2022 issue, which is available to buy here.
Caterina Barbieri’s music has always explored transcendental states. From the release of her first album, Vertical, in 2014, to 2017’s Patterns of Consciousness and 2019’s Ecstatic Computation, Barbieri has composed electronic music that sits outside the stream of linear time, using pattern and repetition in conjunction with subtle permutations in timbre and tempo to invoke a fugue state in the listener. Her music sits in the tradition of minimalists such as Steve Reich and La Monte Young, yet also has a baroque signature, an echo of her time at Conservatorio di Musica Giovan Battista Martini in Bologna, where she studied classical guitar and listened to the lute music of Johann Sebastian Bach. However, Barbieri’s primary instrument is the modular synth, which she first encountered while studying at Stockholm’s famed Elektronmusikstudion.
With each successive album, Caterina Barbieri has refined her practice with the modular synth, whose format allows the artist to build a unique system of modules tailored to their needs. On Ecstatic Computation, which built on the generative sequences of Patterns of Consciousnesswith an added sense of scale, it was already possible to hear Barbieri wanting to break out and explore new possibilities. ‘After Ecstatic Computation, I realised that I had come to a dead point with my setup because I had explored all the potential and all the possibilities offered by my musical instrument’, Barbieri says. ‘I felt the need and the urgency to expand my musical palette, both in terms of timbre and colour, and in terms of the complexity of different layers and instruments.’
Having lived in Berlin for several years, Barbieri decided to return to her home city of Milan in 2019. ‘At some point I realised that I didn’t want to live there permanently’, she says. ‘It felt a bit transient as a city, because people are constantly coming in and out, so it was a bit hard to develop long-term human relationships.’ Just after Barbieri returned to Milan however, Covid-19 swept its way to Italy, and she found herself in one of Europe’s first pandemic hotspots. ‘It was a very intense time’, she remembers. ‘I was locked in my flat for two months. People were even scared of going outside on their balconies. It was a very surreal time, but I took it as a radical opportunity for me to focus on music.’
However, writing music in a bubble was an alien experience for Barbieri, whose work has typically been refined through a connection with her audience. ‘In the past I’ve always composed music and performed it right after’, she says. ‘Patterns of Consciousness and Ecstatic Computation were records that I composed from performance to performance while touring – I was programming patterns and then performing them live, seeing what material was working better and testing it in real life, getting feedback from the audience.’
The album that came out of this time, Spirit Exit, is the first that Barbieri has composed in the studio, without being able to perform the music live. The result is Barbieri’s most personal album, one that draws on the transcendental structures of her earlier work while acting as an imprint of her own emotional state at the time. ‘Because I composed this music during an extreme time of self-confinement this music really comes from a state of deprivation and sensorial negation. Music was the only way to escape this reality of confinement. Music acted as a kind of perceptual enhancer, a portal. Music has always been a medium for me to expand perceptual horizons.’
Although the process of writing Spirit Exit was a difficult and unfamiliar one, Barbieri was able to use it to break out of her artistic straitjacket, adding new elements around the modular synth, which remains at the core of Spirit Exit. Different layers and arrangements sit alongside vocals, strings and electric guitar. It’s ‘less minimalist, more maximalist’, as she describes it, even though her process still involves working with patterns and recursive elements. In one of the album’s standout tracks, ‘Broken Melody’, Barbieri’s voice and lyrics sit centre stage, cutting through an overdriven synth line that sounds more like trance than the meditative tones of her previous work.
‘Most of the work went into developing a craft that could merge the new elements that I was bringing into my sonic universe with my practice on the modular, and trying to find an interesting balance that could create a dialogue between this more human and emotional quality and this cold, machinic sort of approach’, she says.
If Spirit Exit is a portrait of an artist cut adrift from human contact and seeking escape through music, then Barbieri’s new project is the opposite, a return to tangible connection. ‘I started feeling the need to explore a more collective format, because the past two years of the pandemic have been intense for the music community’, she explains. ‘We were used to sharing so much and then all of a sudden we were so far away from each other, and I think it was very tough for a lot of people to adapt to this new scenario. It was quite traumatic for me too. I think it will take time to heal this wound, this trauma. light-years is a way of healing this wound and trying to bring different people together.’
As Barbieri explains, light-years is a ‘multimedia project’ that will function as many things: a label, through which she will primarily release her own material alongside music from and collaborators in the same musical orbit; a live show where she will perform alongside a changing lineup of like-minded musicians, with visual elements tailored for each location; and a platform to develop installations and other projects.
light-years was first premiered as a live show at the 2021 edition of Italy’s Nextones festival, where Barbieri performed with saxophonist Bendik Giske and electronic artist Nkisi, with visuals developed by MFO. ‘I wanted to invite different constellations of artists and collaborators to join me on stage and present this new live concept: not a fully collaborative show but a hybrid ecosystem or sonic continuum between different moments – some of them are solo moments, some of them are duos and collaborations. The audience is invited to explore this ecosystem with no specific expectation or preparation, a bit as if it was a secret, enchanted garden.’
The idea for light-years came out of Barbieri’s desire not just for human connection during the pandemic, but from years of solo touring. ‘Electronic music can be very solitary’, she says. ‘You always travel alone and perform, and it’s great, but I also wanted to find an excuse to meet with people and perform in collaborations, which is new territory for me because I have a very specific solo practice on my instrument. I’ve developed a way of performing it that is quite maximalist in the sense that it almost becomes a symphonic approach to an essentially monophonic instrument.’
Barbieri is drawn to artists who share this common approach of taking a monophonic instrument and stretching it to the limit through electronics. Bendik Giske, for example, has developed a technique to create harmony from his saxophone, much like Lyra Pramuk (who collaborated on the ‘Knot of Spirit’ single with Barbieri in 2021), who digitally manipulates her voice to otherworldly effect. ‘It was quite problematic to play together because the three of us have the same kind of musical approach, where we fill all the available space with sound’, Barbieri says. ‘So it was quite a formative and challenging experience to merge our voices together and learn how to carve space for each other.’
Spirit Exit also arrives alongside a new multimedia piece from Barbieri, an installation developed alongside visual collaborator Ruben Spini that is now on display in 180 Studios’ virtual Future Shock exhibition. ‘The idea is to create an immersive, total environment that brings together musical, visual and sculptural elements. Musically, the architecture of the piece will play with different scales of time to explore concepts of memory, perception and relativity’, Barbieri says. The piece connects to Barbieri’s idea of music being a gateway to transcend time and space, and will feature a portal at its centre. ‘We will play with the co-existence of two different conceptual poles’, she says. ‘One pole is about humanity, fragility and intimacy. And the other is about this otherworldly, uncanny, inaccessible and mystical world.’
‘Music is a way for me to channel energy and cultivate the cosmic vastness of the inner world’, Barbieri explains. ‘This contrast between the negation of the outside world and the openness of the inner world is very fascinating for me, and is a bit of an archetype of the female existence and the tradition of female poets, mystics and artists. In the past, a lot of female thinkers lived very segregated and repressed lives: they were always looking at the world from a window, or through a filter. And because they couldn’t move freely in the outside world, they used to redirect their energy into the inner world and cultivate the power of the mind instead. This is at the very root of a strongly visionary and mystical tradition of thought, and it resonated a lot with me while I was composing the album during the pandemic.’
The installation, titled Vigil, like much of Barbieri’s work, revolves around the contrast between what she describes as elements of the natural, ecstatic and sublime, and at the opposite end of the scale, the technological and the dystopian. To Barbieri, the dystopian elements reflect not just the horrors of the pandemic, but the catastrophic moment we live in. ‘Ecological collapse, disaster and this feeling of emergency and fragility that we are all trying to face somehow – I think this is an element that is quite present in the album in general’, she says. ‘In the lyrics there are recurring themes of love, loss, melancholy and empathy on a ghost planet. So there is a dystopian vibe indeed, but there is also a weird sense of romance connected to it, like a love song to the end of the world.’
But Barbieri’s work also tries to present a positive side to this dystopian vision. ‘I’ve been reading a lot of post-humanist theories and I’ve been quite inspired by some of these, especially the post-humanist philosopher Rosi Braidotti’, she explains. ‘You would expect her to be very negative and dystopian – and partly she is – but it’s interesting how she turns all these theories into an almost sensual invitation to life and its continuous transformation. It’s an invitation to embrace a larger, cosmic perspective – beyond the human and the terrestrial, beyond the limitations of an anthropocentric type of positioning. It’s an invitation for us humans to become more receptive, and to perceive all the different connections that permeate the universe, even those that are non-human. It’s a joyful act of telepathy.’
‘This really resonates with me, because music is such an exercise in telepathy – a simple and powerful way to connect with others and what surrounds us, beyond the limits of one’s own ego.’
WORDS: Scott Wilson
PICTURES: Jim C. Nedd
This feature was originally published in Fact’s S/S 2022 issue, which is available to buy here.
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