Mechanics of PerceptionCaterina Barbieri

Mechanics of Perception

It has always frustrated me how often discussions of music become discussions of technology. You see it a lot on forums, with endless debate over the merits of this or that hardware. There is a sense in which, as a listener, you are expected to respectfully doff one’s cap to the great machines of our era: 303, 808 and so on. The gear, I am told, really matters. That poor tunes are the product of poor tools. I’ve even heard that analogue sound has an objective superiority because of its frequency range. This is supposedly the bread and butter of electronic music: a genre built on gear.

I’m sure I am not alone in thinking that this is a dull way to approach music. For one thing, a lot of great music uses primitive technology. DIY punk, noise, hauntological ambient, hypnagogic pop and so on. It’s hard to imagine that Grouper, Daniel Johnson, Guided by Voices, Jandek, Boards of Canada, William Basinski or Harry Pussy would sound ‘better’ if only they had access to a plush studio and expensive equipment. Besides, there was a time when modern electronic music attempted to cleanse sound of its imperfections (tape hiss, vinyl pops). But now, some producers introduce those elements when they don’t occur naturally. You could call it ‘retromania’ or merely nostalgia. Clearly though, the alleged superiority of hardware and analogue is a judgement based in values, and values change.

One producer that has been unfairly caricatured as a tech-fetishist is Caterina Barbieri. Last year, she released two staggering LPs: Patterns of Consciousness as a solo release and Remote Sensing as Punctum (with Carlo Maria). Her music creates pointillist landscapes: virtual environments from digital minutiae. These sounds are generated by some classic synths (the Buchla, 303, 606 and modulars), but these are merely tools for a larger artistic project. With both of these albums, ‘consciousness’ and the ‘senses’ are of extreme importance. Patterns of Consciousness in particular aims to emulate the way in which the mind wanders, veers and contradicts itself in thought. In short, this is music about psychology, not technology.

Patterns… also has an unusual structure. Although spanning seven distinct tracks, there are only five discrete pattern sequences. You’d be forgiven for not noticing this. Although comprised of an identical motif, the same pattern can carry very different emotional content. On the opening ‘This Causes Consciousness to Fracture’, the sequence sounds optimistic and driving; on its sibling track, ‘TCCTF’, the same pattern feels forlorn and dejected. On ‘Scratches on the Readable Surface’, the melody is cold and mechanical; on ‘SOTRS’, it is warm and organic. This A/B format works like two hands on a piano keyboard. Each pattern-type generates two tokens, working in opposition. One builds conflicts, the other resolves them. One reports, the other retorts.

I’m not surprised that Barbieri comes from a classical background. After all, it’s this emphasis on performance that classical music is all about. Despite infinite admiration for the ‘great composers’, the real joy of classical comes from finding the best interpretations. Classical music nerds will argue endlessly over different recordings from different years and different conductors. The jury is still out on which Glenn Gould performance of the Goldberg Variations is best, for example. Artur Schnabel even said that he played the rests, if not the notes, better than any other pianist. The lesson from classical is that music’s formalism (its pitch, rhythm, instrumentation) can last hundreds of years, but can only offer so much. It’s the ineffable qualities of performance (tempo, phrasing, timbre) that fade fastest in memory, but are often the most bliss-rich.

This is the essence of Barbieri’s music. The technology and formalism is secondary to its psychological character and textural nuance. Listen, for example, to how ‘Gravity that Binds’ evolves through its 16-minute course. It’s all in the subtle phrasing and the dynamic arch. I couldn’t care less what synth it was made on. This emphasis on psychology also encourages a cross pollination of influences. Barbieri studied Hindustani and minimalist composition in Bologna, and you can hear the breadth of her taste in her latest mix for NTS, interweaving Vivaldi, Lorenzo Senni, sludge metal and Bulgarian folk.

Ahead of an exciting upcoming performance as part of Max Richter’s ‘Sound & Visions’ residency alongside Colin Stetson, we caught up with Barbieri to talk Bach, La Monte Young and My Bloody Valentine.

It strikes me that a lot of writing on your music is much too focused on its technical aspects — the synths, the patches and so on.

Yeah it’s really annoying [laughs]. I really hate it. I guess I use a certain type of equipment that is very in vogue at the moment, and it attracts a certain demographic (usually men) that are super into tech. So they constantly keep asking the same questions about the gear I use. I also understand that the press have to latch onto something interesting, and since the equipment I use is kind of unusual or striking, then that becomes an easy talking point. They love to talk about a girl who plays modular synthesisers [laughs]. But my perception of music is much broader. I would love to talk about different things.

I guess it’s very easy to cover music that has a kind of ‘gimmick’ but it’s much more difficult to talk about things like the emotional content of music.

I think it’s getting worse and worse in the press these days. With the web, you always have to find a snappy sentence or captivating title to catch an audience. But then the focus tends to be very limited thereafter. Don’t get me wrong — I like talking about technology. But I like to do it holistically as a bigger part of my artistic project. I sometimes get the feeling that people think I am some kind of tech-fetishist, but I’m not at all! I’ve never read a manual in my life. It’s weird. It also makes it hard to break the loop. Journalists always ask me the same questions about my gear so I talk about it a lot, and then it becomes very associated with my name. You develop a history of yourself on the web, and it’s hard to change.

I suppose with electronic music, the role of the ‘artist’ has been kind of diminished. It’s more about ‘production’ now.

Yes at times sometimes it can be almost humiliating. Because I want to talk about aesthetics, and emotion, and my thoughts on music! But the focus always comes back to the gear. I was even once asked to detail exactly what I do with my hands on stage [laughs].

Well the album is called Patterns of Consciousness, right? It shouldn’t be too hard for people to recognise that it’s got an important psychological element to it.

Yeah! Patterns of Consciousness is all about the power of sound on consciousness and the psycho-acoustic affects of pattern-based operations in music. How sound can shape, expand and reconfigure spatio-temporal perceptions. I’ve emphasised this aspect a lot, for example in the liner notes for the album. But very few people dare to ask me about it! Maybe because it’s quite a complex topic and some people perceive it as vague. But for me it’s not. Patterns of Consciousness was very much about exploring sound as a medium to explore our own mechanisms of perception: how pattern and repetition in music can alter our perceptions. The technological aspect of the album is secondary, even if very present. It’s a tool to express those ideas.

Some of it is really emotional. I love ‘Gravity That Binds’ for that.

That’s a really emotional one. I initially didn’t want to include it on the album because it felt a little too emotional, too warm, too vulnerable. But it works as this long reflective ending, with this kind of cyclical temporality. It also breaks the duality of the other pieces on the album: every other track as a slow or fast ‘version’ of the pattern but ‘Gravity That Binds’ is a standalone without a counterpart. It’s my least favourite piece in the album but it’s the track that people like the most in live performances [laughs]. Patterns… is a very emotional album in that sense too. There’s a lot of calculations, working with generative principles and so on, but it’s a record where I kind of opened myself a lot compared to previous work I have done. I wanna keep exploring this difficult balance of psychic, human, emotional thought and structured, organised, glacial form.


There is an idea in music that songwriters ‘have an emotion’ and they then express that emotion through the music. But often it’s the other way around: you’ll start writing music and you will form an emotion out of that process.

That’s a very nice interpretation. And it’s true! When I work, it’s the process of creation that teases out a new flavour of feeling.

It’s amazing how music can introduce what feels like a new emotion. I felt like that the first time I heard My Bloody Valentine.

I actually discovered MBV during my first trip to London when I was like 15. I was at some summer school to learn English. At that time, it was still the golden age of CDs and they were much cheaper than in Italy. So I bought Loveless and it was such an enlightening experience. It was like some alien record. It has such a different perception of time and space. You can almost disappear into the sound. There’s a feeling of self-surrender to the wall of noise. That feeling of immersion in music was a big influence on me. When I was studying in Stockholm, I was in the same class as Ellen Arkbro. We were sitting next to each other one day and we were chatting about the new MBV album and that’s how we became friends [laughs].

Am I right in thinking Ellen sang on one of your records?

Yeah she sings on the last track on my Vertical album. She’s pronouncing letters from the alphabet. It was a very weird collaboration [laughs]. Ellen has been doing beautiful music for many years and I was really happy when For Organ & Brass came out. It’s an amazing record.

Have you thought about teaching your music to a larger ensemble?

Yeah. I just wrote a piece for voices and electronics, which will probably be part of my next album. I wrote down scores for the singers and it was actually the first time I have really done that. It was a slow process. I was applying the same principles for the voices that I use for my synthesisers. So sometimes I was writing parts that are actually super difficult to perform. It’s a mix of written material and more oral, free-form instructions.

What made you want to start working with voice?

Well, I’m using the voice in kind of an abstract way. There’s no words, but it’s very structured. I wrote these very intricate patterns. It does kind of sound like a synthesiser — there’s lots of high-pitched stuff, super-fast lines with a lot of polyrhythmic ping-pong effects too. For example, I wrote a kind of monophonic melody but split it between two voices so it has this weird, jumping effect. So I suppose it sounds kind of mechanical, but it has a lot of emotional potency to it too.

I’m also really influenced by baroque. I was doing a residency at the Bienalle in Venice and I had access to this harpsichord, and I wrote part of that piece on the harpsichord. A lot of it does sound totally like pure Baroque style, to be honest. I want to do a lot more of that kind of stuff in my future work. I just want to free myself from spatial, temporal restrictions. There are threads of influence that run all the way from Bach to modern electronic music, and I’m keen to uncover them. There’s going to be voices, harpsichords, synthesisers, electric guitars… you name it. I’m also very influenced by metal. I don’t give a fuck about stylistic boundaries [laughs].

Bach is my idol.

Mine too.

How much of your classical training informs what you do now?

A lot, I think. I’m realising that more and more. For a few years, I took a break from classical music and started experimenting with electronics. There was a time when I thought I would never play classical guitar ever again. But you can’t escape your training. First of all, there are certain human qualities that classical training teaches you. For example, a certain sense of discipline and consistency and rigour. Classical training is tough and is constantly challenging. It forces you to have this deep connection with yourself, a sort of ‘transparency’.You can’t bluff your way through a classical performance, you really have to become aware of your limits and learn how to overcome them.

I recently had this horrifying realisation that when you watch a classical virtuoso, you’re witnessing the fruits of a lifetime of hardship and discipline. A lot of those performers at the top of their game went through a lot of pain.

Yeah that world is crazy. To become a good performer, you really have to nullify yourself in a way. You break yourself down and build yourself back up again.

Speaking of virtuosos, I see you’re playing with Colin Stetson soon in London.

Yeah it’s at the Barbican, organised by Max Richter. He’s doing a series of nights called Sounds and Vision. I’m super excited because Colin Stetson made a big impact on me growing up. He inspired me to strive for writing original music on “conventional” instruments. He really developed a super personal, unique, unrepeatable way of playing an instrument, very handcrafted and soulful. When he plays he’s sharing his music but also his life. His music is him, his life. An approach that I find super inspiring.

Finally, I’m interested to hear your thoughts on meditation. Do you consider your sound ‘meditative’?

My Vertical album definitely is. It came out of my first experience with the Buchla, which really changed how I listen to sound, taking a ‘deep listening’ approach. So my first experience of meditation was through sound, focusing on microscopic elements of music. With deep listening, you start to lose the boundaries between inner and outer reality. It feels like you’re floating beyond the physical. At the time, I really needed drones to enter that kind of ‘deep listening’ mode. Drone music is great for that — it forces the listener to pay attention to sound in its microscopic qualities. The “poverty” of formal changes in drone music encourages a very active participation from the listener. But I wanted to branch away from drone and see if I could create meditative states with more pointillistic sounds, using repetition.

Drone music, and the music I make, rarely has a definite beginning or end. This is actually influenced by an idea in Indian philosophy of sound. In this tradition, there are two kinds of sounds: Anahata Nada and Ahata Nada. Anahata Nada is literally ‘unstruck sound’, sound which doesn’t come from a gesture, it’s the sound of the universe, the eternal cosmic vibration. La Monte Young was in love with this concept, he even thought of it as a mathematical concept in the mind of God. Ahata Nada is a ‘struck sound’, a sound that is manifested physically, and which comes from a gesture. It’s close to the idea of a plucked string, for example.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Anahata Nada in relation to a subtractive compositional design in my music. Another influential concept of Indian sound speculation for me is the approach to music as an organic, generative process, sound as an agent of creation and recreation (Nadabrahma). Music-making as a “coming into being”. This aspect is very important to me so I always try to define a personal generative grammar that is able to develop music in real time for the live performance. I start from a limited of values and then use some generative principles to expand the potential configurations of this values. It’s like a computational process, you define a bit of code, a closed system able to produce variation, a larger body of output. I like to turn these automatic processes into practice of creation.

Caterina Barbieri will perform at the Barbican with Colin Stetson on 13th May at the Barbican. Tickets can be purchased here.

  • Published
  • Apr 24, 2018
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