Published in: zweikommasieben Magazin #19
Caterina Barbieri - Becoming Time
Caterina Barbieri creates music made for eternity. Using crystalline, emo, and at times opulent sounds, she allows her audience to lose any sense of time—be it in a live context or on a record. The Italian artist’s work has been released on labels such as Important Records, Cassauna, and most recently on Peter Rehberg’s Editions Mego [see zweikommasieben #17] and has been presented at prestigious festivals such as Berlin Atonal, Bad Bonn Kilbi, and Mutek Barcelona. After an extended stay in Stockholm, where she studied at the Royal College of Music alongside fellow students (and collaborators) Kali Malone [see page 00 in this magazine] and Ellen Arkbro, Barbieri moved back to Northern Italy via Berlin.
This February, Mathis Neuhaus met Barbieri in Milan and spoke with her for zweikommasieben. Originally, they were supposed to meet at the exhibition Sanguine. Luc Tuymans on Baroque at Fondazione Prada to get into the mood for the conversation. Bad timing made them change their plans spontaneously. Timing—or rather time as such—turned out to be a recurring theme in the conversation, and proved to be a leitmotif in Barbieri’s practice.
Mathis Neuhaus: You have spent time in Stockholm to complete your studies. In what way has living in Sweden influenced you?
Caterina Barbieri: I moved to Stockholm in 2013 to study at the Royal College of Music [Kungliga Musikhögskolan aka KMH] as an Erasmus student. Stockholm has an interesting music scene with a lot of producers working with slowly-evolving spectral music that can be placed in the tradition of drone-based music. I worked a lot with Kali Malone, who I studied with and who is a good friend. We have an ongoing collaboration called Upper Glossa that we have performed in different contexts. Our collaboration is based on electric guitars and different synthetic sources. Although we have different backgrounds, we share various influences: the more abstract realms of metal and noise—artists like Corrupted or Keiji Haino come to mind—as well as shoe-gaze, but also the design of minimal and just-intonation music—I am thinking of Duane Pitre and Eleh’s work. Another common influence is early music, especially compositional techniques like canons and additive patterns, which strongly inspired our instrumental practice both on guitars and synthesizers.
MN: You mentioned drone-based music, which probably is something that is less exotic in Sweden than in other places. What’s the story there?
CB: I was already interested in drone and minimal music before moving to Sweden and I think that it was an entry point for me to venture into electronic music in the first place. I got to see a lot of minimalist composers back in Bologna, who came to perform at this festival for contemporary music called Angelica. When I moved to Stockholm, I finally started to incorporate those elements into my own music. The contemporary music scene in Stockholm is closely connected to KMH, which is quite an extraordinary institution. It’s rare to find an academic institution that is so open-minded and connected to the “real” music scene.
However, I think that the fascination for drone music is also intimately connected to the Swedish philosophy and style of life. People there tend to avoid dialectic interactions and contrasts, always looking for peaceful ways of communication—exactly how drone music avoids or at least tends to dissolve the dialectic, binary structures of music design. Music usually is based on oppositions, like dissonance and consonance, tension and release, upbeat and downbeat, etc. The anti-dialectic essence of drone music is a mirror of the Swedish social reality but also of the country’s very peculiar natural landscape. The stillness of a Swedish lake is the stillness of drone music. In this sense, I feel like the interest in this type of music strongly reflects a typically Swedish connection to nature, as well as the sense of isolation and loneliness that come with it.
MN: In the context of studying music, do you think it is easier or harder to find a singular and personal artistic voice?
CB: I remember being strongly traumatized when my teacher at the Conservatorio Giovanni Battista Martini in Bologna, where I studied in the first place, said to me that drone was not music. As a 19-years-old student you’re still very vulnerable and when a teacher says something like this, it feels definitive. All over Europe, drone music is not recognized in academic contexts, but is, in fact, quite heavily criticized. Back in the days, the same thing happened with minimal music, which was considered to be too “simple.”
Studying at KMH was different. I was able to follow my own interests and implement my musical background in my own practice, which actually felt very liberating and formative in terms of my musical development. However, this effect wore off after a while. Stockholm and KMH started feeling like a bubble. There is a strong social pressure about what is politically and aesthetically correct, what you can do, what you can say. This creates a very rigid and standardized environment, where the aesthetics also become “frozen.” Drone music tends to have this fundamentalist, integralist, almost puritan approach. After a while I was struggling with that issue a lot—it felt suffocating. That was one of the reasons why I decided to move to Berlin. But there’s also a positive aspect to this “fundamentalism” or “sectarian element” of said community: it makes it possible to maintain a very specific, strong music scene. I am glad to see that the scene is finally getting attention outside of Stockholm and Sweden, too.
MN: Do you tend to get bored with the way you are working, that is, with the sonic realms you are exploring at a certain time?
CB: No, in fact I feel like I am a very repetitive and obsessive person—in fact you could describe my music in these terms. Sometimes I feel like all my pieces are just different incarnations of the same original matrix. It’s a sort of harmonic, almost neural map I always come back to. Sometimes I feel like I’ve been playing the same piece my entire life. I can spend weeks working on a single pattern and never get bored. I often leave the modular on with the same patterns cycling for hours… I like it when patterns become like cells of an organism or units of a language. They become like DNA. This actually is the concept behind my last LP Patterns Of Consciousness [Important Records, 2017]—the question was: “Can sound synthesize new patterns of consciousness?”
Throughout the years, I’ve learnt that the slow way is the fast way. Slowly, patiently mastering and expanding your craft is much more rewarding and interesting in the long run than just following the latest trends. Trends change all the time and the rhythm of obsolescence and re-emergence today is just crazy. If you really focus on your instrumental practice and try to master your craftsmanship, it’s harder to get lost; because you will always have a compass. That does not mean that you won’t take detours, but you always have something that provides orientation.
It took me some time to realize this and it was not always easy. Between composing Patterns Of Consciousness and its release in 2017, I fell into a crisis. The set-up I used for the album was a reduced Eurorack system. It was almost too “simple” if compared to the complex Buchla 200 system I used to produce my first two albums with—Vertical [Cassauna, 2014] and Born Again In The Voltage [Important Records, 2018]. Although all the albums were exploring very similar concepts—repetition, extended temporalities, perception and memory, as well as the psycho-physical effects of sound—the set-up led to quite different musical outputs: Patterns Of Consciousness turned out to be more melodic, fast, and pointillistic, while the previous albums were based on a subtler, spectral exploration of timbres. I asked myself if such a “limited” instrument could possibly produce interesting results. That was a mistake. For one year, I obsessively explored new compositional techniques, instruments, and approaches. I was forcing myself to follow abstract ideas of “change,” “complexity,” and “experimentation” that were pure speculation and only led to results that were either boring, untrue, or over-conceptual. Then I finally stopped thinking about changing everything and just accepted that I had to work very hard within the limits of my system and push those limits into new directions. That was the turning point. Only after that was I able to truly move forward as an artist and become more aware of my sound and my practice. I got back to my old set-up, but gradually expanded it, enriching it with a lot of input I picked up along the way. I also played live a lot trying to go really deep into my instrumental practice. This led to my new album Ecstatic Computation [Editions Mego, 2019]. Now I feel like I have a sort of grammar, a language that I could eventually apply to everything. I think that there’s always a truth to what an artist is and does—it’s beyond aesthetics and time, and it’s the only thing that really matters. It’s as simple as that. Yet, it’s something that’s hard to figure out.
MN: You have played some extraordinary venues—what role do spaces and places play for you?
CB: The characteristics of certain spaces that I got to work with shaped my musical brain and thus my music a lot. Kraftwerk in Berlin is an example. It was one of the first spaces where I presented my pattern-based music. Lots of artists who are invited to play at Kraftwerk end up working with textures and dark sounds, maybe because of a visual association with the industrial, almost spooky appearance of the monstrous concrete building, or just because they’re worried about the counter-effects of the huge reverb. But I was interested in exploring the opposite—I wanted to hear how isolated, bright, and sharp sounds resonate in that space. Hearing the decay of sound in a space that gigantic had a profound impact on me. It leads to these almost hybrid sonic entities, where you are able to hear a continuity between isolated sounds that become something like a texture. You start hearing all these reflections from the space—echoes, ping-pong effects, and delays—that create an extra layer added to your music. It’s like the acoustics in the churches where you sing with your own voice and the space adds all these extra vocal lines. The space becomes music itself. It becomes time. Every musical gesture becomes gigantic, immense. Playing at such a place is an incredibly powerful feeling—basically you feel like god. As a kid I had a similar feeling when I was singing loudly in the staircase of the building I used to live in. I was obsessed with hearing the echo of my voice all over the marble stairs—which was unfortunate for my neighbors. [Laughs]
I think that this intimate relation between sound and space is a very ancestral feeling, deeply rooted in the human act of doing music. I am thinking about how the echo between mountains could have possibly triggered the musical imagination of primitive man, or how the architecture of a church influenced the development of polyphonic music.
MN: I feel like your music is made for deep listening—it’s headphone music, almost. How do you think this translates to performing on a stage for a group of people?
CB: I think my music actually works much better in a performative context than on a record. My pieces are very live in a sense that they are connected to the instrumental practice on the synthesizer. The pieces on my albums are often only just one of their many possible incarnations. My practice is based in the real-time generation of sound and it is always very hard to express that liveness on a record, which is dead, basically. Generating music in real time is sacred for me, because it provides so much depth for experiencing my own music as an organic process and living organism in itself. To me, performing means being able to develop the music’s own laws and traditions. I feel like the more I play, the more I grow with my music.
This said, I am very influenced by the Hindustani practice of improvisation, where every raga performance is different but relies on a strong discipline and knowledge of a certain musical vocabulary. The fact that a raga must be re-created anew each time is part of a vision which sees music directly connected to life, flowing, and resounding with it, echoing the laws of the universe. In this sense, music-making is a process of re-creation, a “coming into being,” a creative process having an impact on the existence of the whole universe.
MN: Is failure or frustration an opportunity when performing live?
CB: It definitely is an opportunity! The possibility of failure makes every performance unique, which is important for both the artist and the audience. As an artist, if you’re taking some risk in a live-setting, you’re leaving some room for the audience to be more involved in the creative process. I realized throughout the years that an audience enjoys this, because you are leaving some space for them to imagine what is going on and what is going to happen next—you feed their imagination. It’s a subtle thing, it’s a mix of vulnerability and adrenaline that makes the music breathe… It’s beautiful and special and creates attention. People like that, I guess. But it took me a long time to accept and enjoy this. When I first started playing live, I was in fact really afraid of failing on stage.
MN: Your music often is referred to as “minimal,” which is valid in my eyes. At the same time your pieces have a “baroque” quality. Does that make sense to you?
CB: I studied classical guitar, and my favorite repertoire was either contemporary music from the 20th and 21st century or pieces by John Downland and Johann Sebastian Bach that were part of the Renaissance and baroque epochs. During my studies, I had a very weird, apparently incompatible mix of musical influences—from baroque to minimal music, from doom to shoe-gaze. I was playing classical guitar at the conservatory for six hours a day and then went to a run-down rehearsal room in the evening to play in noise bands. As a part of those bands I was playing distorted electric guitars—with long finger nails, because I didn’t even know how to play with the pick. During those years, I was inhabiting a bipolar listening landscape. It never felt like it would be possible to bring these worlds together, but now it is very interesting to try and merge these interests.
On my new album, there is one track which is based on recordings of a French 18th-century harpsichord, that I was able to use at Studio Venezia, which is an installation by Xavier Veilhan realized for the French Pavillon at the last Biennale in Venice. The timbre of a harpsichord is very close to my taste in synthetic sounds: It has a strong, percussive attack and a fast decay, which makes for a a sharp, bright, and crystalline sound similar to the guitar. This track on my new record is based on a slow progression of chords, combined with vocals that are inspired by Italian Renaissance music but also heavily re-processed and altered into something else. The track is called “Arrows Of Time,” since it feels like it is coming from a different time. I like the power of music to overcome boundaries and cross centuries. Music can travel in time and through music we are able to travel in time, too. Yet, music is always “now.”
MN: When talking about Baroque, opulence and kitsch have to be addressed. Do you think these are terms that can be used to describe your work?
CB: I like the extreme aspects of Baroque. It is in that sense, that the term resonates with me. I often work with certain elements—for example repetitive structures and fixed pitches—that might sound “predictable.” But then I like to push those elements to the extreme. In that sense, my music is “baroque.” I like to work with familiar, almost predictable elements and totally change the perception around them to create hallucinations, a bit like the trompe-l’œil paintings in baroque ceilings… But instead of angels and saints, I work with patterns and different sequencing techniques to explore the artefacts of human perception, especially in regard to the domain of time. I am interested in temporal hallucinations, a positive type of consciousness alteration that we place on the ecstasy spectrum.
MN: Even though your music is referred to as minimal music, it is at the same time very maximal…
CB: La Monte Young was referring to his masterpiece The Well-Tuned Piano as maximal, not minimal. I think baroque aesthetics tend to have a lot of pathos and emphasize the emotional aspect of things, which resonates with me as well. I appreciate a sort of emo vibe, which definitely comes from listening to baroque music. The work of John Downland would be a good example. He was an Elizabethan composer, writing music for lute, viola de gamba, and voice. His lyrics were very close to the metaphysical, spiritual poetry of that time—for example John Donne’s work. Crystal tears and melancholia—very emo! I always liked this sad, tragic aspect of music but also its romantic, somewhat epic side.