Caterina Barbieri is a young electroacoustic musician and performer, born in Italy in 1990, and now living and working out of her homeland. She studied in Italy, to then refine her knowledge during exchange programs with institutes such as EMS, in Stockholm.
There, she encountered the synthesizer Buchla 200, which determined the production of track that brought her to the attention of Important Records/Cassauna. Vertical is the album which sprang from this collaboration, and which allowed Caterina’s career to take off, adding up in her curriculum remarkable participations into festivals and collaborations.
Caterina’s music stems from a pan-harmonic conception of the sound universe, to which the composer needs to attune to, and then work through subtraction to create her own music. In Caterina’s case it is about applying modular synthesis and repetitions, creating sound paintings made of polyrhythmic patterns which merge elements of minimal music, techno, and droning sonorities.
Johann Merrich: Let’s talk about it right away: Buchla 200. How did the encounter with this instrument happen?
Caterina Barbieri: Ah! I thought I wouldn’t talk about it anymore…I’m joking! It’s always a pleasure to explain how the passion for this instrument was born. I started working on Buchla at the Stockholm’s Conservatory at the beginning of 2013. I didn’t know anything about analog synthesizers before. This encounter has irreversibly changed my vision of music, having also happened in a moment of big revolutions in my life; I can say that it is as if it re-orientated my entire existence. That surface of knobs and cables acted as an access portal towards a hidden psychic potential, it functioned as a display of perceptions. A control panel which allowed me to transfer on an exterior hardware principles already present in my software and viceversa, working on the fluidity of interaction between these two poles. A posteriori, it is difficult to go back to the consequentiality of this process, that is: whether this transfer happened first from within or from the outside, or viceversa. At that time I had a clear cognition of how the practice on the Buchla had been able to configure new perceptual modalities in me.
Connecting modules and discovering how the activity of one could invisibly determine the activity of the other is as if it had re-connected in me the links among different spheres of being, which were lying dissociated one from the other (I was going through a difficult period). A re-combinatory practice which was able of repairing perceptions.
Having said this, I’m very far from fetishizing synthesizers: Buchla has been one of the many objectual triggers (a function which could have been performed by many other experiences in life) of an inner process already happening. However, it generated in me an radically new attitude towards the listening practice, orientated more towards meditation. On the Buchla I discovered a “subtractive” musical thought, which had never been revealed throughout the years of training within the framework of Western music.
Analog synthesizers are fields of continuous electricity, where sound flows, so to say, without any interruption: the idea of composing from silence through additions, or the start/stop logics related to the digital practice, are not valid anymore. Composing is not that demiurgic act of creating from scratch, it is rather an act of tuning to an ongoing sound field and making it selective.
A practice of tuning at large, of the individual in relation to an already existing ecosystem offering itself in many possibilities of re-combination. This is something which reminds me of the subtractive design of classical Indian music, which considers the rich spectrum of the tambura’s drone and then, from the series of harmonics, it extracts the modal scales on which it is possible to improvise; a kind of harmonic framework created by subtraction starting from an idealistic pan-harmonic field from which, according to the Indian philosophy, everything is generated and of which everything is imbued.
Johann Merrich: What is your method of work? How do you compose? Which machines/softwares do you use in studio?
Caterina Barbieri: Without specifying detail by detail, I can tell you that the working method depends on the machines. I see the compositional process as a system of feedbacks between technology and composer, as if it implied the creation of a kind of integrated cognitive circuit in which the design of the machine modulates the design of the musical thought of that specific person who “plays” it.
For this to happen it is useful to apply that subtractive method I mentioned above, looking for a zero-degree interaction with a specific technology which can prescind from all those pre-constituted ideas and extra-musical references which are inscribed in the use of a given machine. This allows also to rearrange the iconography of a given sound technology and use it as a carrier of new contents. It can be considered as a kind of reverse engineering or détournement of the use of sound technologies. It is as if, via reduction, we could predispose that condition of reduced listening which is necessary for this practice of re-engineering.
The idea that the technology is just a medium at the service of the infinite imagination of our ego is a utopian thought. On the contrary, technology is a tool for the reconfiguration and expansion of our thoughts. Often it is the limits or the weaknesses of a given technology that function as generators of creativity, reorienting the conceptual maps connected to the use of that specific technology.
As Mark Fell writes: “(…) we can redefine technology, not as a tool subservient tocreativity or an obstacle to it, but as part of a wider context within which creativeactivity happens.”
Johann Merrich: When making electronic music, it happens to use instruments that, because of fragility or bulk, are difficult to transport during tours. How do you manage your live sets?
Caterina Barbieri: This is the problem I had with Buchla. For the concerts in that case I built Ableton sessions with pre-recorded material, apt to be re-arranged and re-elaborated live. This procedure though became really boring for me, and I could never really enjoy the moment of the live performance. This first negative experience led me to research more flexible ways of performing live; this was at the origin of a general revision of my compositional approach starting from the very first phase of conceiving the music. I desired to recreate in the live moment a musical world in which a wide margin of recombination of the available possibilities could be deployed. A world which could breathe, and I with it. I was fascinated by the functioning of modular systems because, being based on the matching of single units – each of which performs a specific audio function -, they allow to get a particularly lucid cognition of the synthesis processes, more than what is allowed by commercial synthesizers. I wanted to be able to analyze in depth even just one musical concept in a crystalline and selective way, to then expand it massively thanks to the combinatory logics of the modules.
I then started to make hardware live sets…I wanted to work with patterns and study pattern-based operations more closely. I then bought a sequencer – which could allow me to save very long sequences and apply mathematical operations in order to then vary them (ER-101 by Orthogonal Devices) – and an oscillator with a design which is based on the additive synthesis, which allowed me to get the melodic inspiration from the selection of sound harmonics (Verbos Harmonic Oscillator). Obviously, I could use a computer instead, which stays the undisputed king of pattern-based operations, but I was interested in having a compact and limited system to be used live.
The first live sets with this small system in fact consisted in expanding a limited starting matrix of melodic and rhythmic units, applying repetition, permutation, additive/subtractive procedures and other operations which included also a degree of randomness within a limited interval of values. From this re-combinatory practice of live improvisation are then born the tracks of my last album, which I then formalized more and more until the actual phase of recording in studio, in November-December 2015 (after which also the live sets became less improvised).
Anyway, I had the impression that this practice of live recombination of a limited vocabulary of signs could allow me to recreate each time a world of different possibilities. It is exactly the highly “formular” style of these compositions the thing which allows a re-composition that can be considered more or less free of melodic and rhythmic units, within a harmonic framework of reference. I would compare this to a linguistic system whose sentences are represented by pre-composed mnemonic patterns, which are also apt to be expanded.
For sure, the permutation, the modular/paratactic structure, the cyclic repetition, the music as organic continuum, the use of recursive rhythmic and melodic patterns, performance conceived as open and generative form have been inspirational elements for me. In part I connect this, among the other things, to some interpretations of the formal archetypes of Indian music thoughts. Music as paradigm of “recreation” and organic growth, for example, is one of the most pervasive archetypes of classic Indian music, being a recurring concept in the philosophical speculation, which also gives shape to many of the formal strategies of improvisation.
Johann Merrich: Staying in the world of synthesizers: each musician has her or his own “obscure object of desire” – mine is VCS3 by EMS. What is Caterina Barbieri’s obscure object of desire?
Caterina Barbieri: I am not a collector and I don’t have a nerdy approach to the synth world, at all. I can fall in love with the music thought that sparks from a specific machine, but I’m not interested in going to music shops just to try synthesizers and check the specifics of the last model available on the market. I’m not even interested in following those very boring posts of synth café about the last synth model and who knows what else. Being alone with the machine is enough for me.
Having said this, I become affectively attached to the objects I work with, even if then it happens that the natural process of artistic research leads me to distance myself from them. As it happened with the Buchla, for example. To me, instruments are more than mere disposable objects, as I tried to explain: they trigger experiences (as it can happen with a conversation with a friend, a jogging session, or an exciting substance for somebody else) which unblock inner resources of which we perhaps were not even aware of.
Johann Merrich: I know that you’ve been involved with the EMS in Stockholm: can you tell me how is the life in the studios, which are the opportunities that a young composer is given?
Caterina Barbieri: The EMS, national center for electroacoustic music since 1964, is supported by the Swedish State and it hosts every year international artists, through residency programs and other projects. In the Center there are six different studios for the audio-video production, open 24/7. Two of these studios are equipped with vintage analog synthesizers, a Serge modular system and a Buchla 200. It is a unique place, which reflects an enlightened model of artistic fruition and sharing of knowledges. It is so far from what we are accustomed to in our homeland, that it was difficult for me to believe such a democratic and futuristic place could actually exist.
The Center represents for me a small scale ideal cyber society. I’m grateful for the opportunity I’ve been offered, of experiencing first hand the result of years of Swedish cultural policies and socialism. Daniel M Karlsson, my friend and composer, has written a text, “Common Ownership”, as a complement for a composition made with the EMS’ Buchla. It expresses very well this sense of gratitude, and it can be read here). Ii is at EMS that I started believing in the possibility of dedicating myself seriously to composition only in the context of EMS, thanks to the support that these studios have always given me for my work. I don’t think I could have done that if I had stayed in Italy. Unfortunately, in our country there are no adequate structures for this kind of work, either mental and material structures, to really support the creativity of young artists.
Johann Merrich: How did the collaboration with Cassauna started?
Caterina Barbieri: John from Important Records had found my music on Facebook, and wrote to me a private message (long live social networks!!).
At that time I had completed just two tracks, using the Buchla, but I was already working at the idea of an album which I had very clear in mind. One of my most hidden dreams was that of proposing that material to Important Records. To me, it happened to be a dream coming true. I have a high consideration of the integrity of this label, and I couldn’t think of a better one, for my works. From that moment, we developed a relationship of mutual trust, of which I am very happy and grateful (I consider this kind of relationships more precious than fleeting crushes for other music realities).
Johann Merrich: A banal question, but one that I love to ask to the fellow musicians which work outside Italy (just to increase the frustration and the victim complex effects): can a young composer working abroad live just by electronic music?
Caterina Barbieri: Eheh. It is hard. But if you are totally devoted you can do it. It is true that you cannot avoid confronting yourself with ruthless paces of production and recycling processes, which then lead to an inevitable and constant transformation of the role and the activity of the composer. The composer today is also performer, visual artist, intellectual, programmer. You need to be competitive first of all in this landscape inhabited by mutants. Today you need to know how to integrate into your mode of working many other qualities which before wouldn’t have been defined strictly musical, but that become a differential value.
We’re heading more and more towards a synesthetic approach, which transverses all fields of knowledge. And you have to understand how to interpret it, even if it changes so quickly that sometimes it becomes a really difficult task. In the general accelerationism of our conditions of existence, being able of “prophetizing” tendencies is more and more difficult. From a pragmatic point of view, you need to be ready to accept a specific lifestyle that for somebody might be hardcore, putting into the equation moments of emotional shock and melancholy due to the condition of instability of this career, and the forced seasonal nomadisms.
Johann Merrich: Some – envious – people look suspiciously at the success of Caterina Barbieri; your curriculum, instead, despite the age – a detail which might appear as shocking just in Italy -, is more than remarkable. Last summer you played many shows; how does your circulation in the electronic realm functions? Are you supported by a booking agency? Do you rely on external PR?
Caterina Barbieri: Until some days ago I had never relied on a booking agency, and I never actively looked for gigs. I play at those concerts that interest me, which are organized in contexts I deem as suitable for highlighting the value fo my music, and in which I think it is possible to connect and link with others not only artistically but also humanly. For what concerns the haters: nothing new for me.
I have already lived many negative experiences, and in particular I am talking about the hate coming from the macho synth community. Men of a certain age, even in a certain academic position, have no shame in showing publicly their positions of hazing and sexism, which I find very depressing. Luckily, there are many people who want to rejuvenate our country for what concerns these issues, and my impression is that there are good premises of a coming awakening also in Italy.
Johann Merrich: For what concerns public and listening attention, how do you feel during your live sets? Do you think that research music is destined, still today, to be confined within a specific kind of environments, populated mostly by musicians or insiders?
Caterina Barbieri: I really hope not. Some things seem to have changed since I was an adolescent. Festivals are more and more transversal, and they facilitate the encounter among radically different music productions. Also the typologies of public are less segregated. This is a beautiful thing, and I think that sharing web contents without filters has contributed to the shaping of this fluid and hybrid attitude in receiving musical contents, not necessarily mediated and slowed down by prejudices of friends or teachers. These contents just travel freely in the cyberspace. Obviously, this has some dangerous downsides, such as the mediatic power of mystification etc. However, I have an optimistic view on this, the anarchy of the web can weaken the critical sense, but also empower it; it all depends on our awareness towards it.
Johann Merrich: We now gotta talk about the yearly issue of “women and electronic music”, which exists only for those who ignore the history of music. I remember an interesting conversation we had last summer, with regards to gender, in which, if I remember correctly, you were mentioning something about lexicon…
Caterina Barbieri: It is a theme towards which I am really sensitive. Even if the way in which I feel tackling it the best I can is making music. As you know – since you have been part of that yourself – in January I took part into a really interesting initiative, commissioned by the Swiss Institute and conceived by the artists Sally Schonfeldt and Anna Frei, dedicated to the pioneers of Italian electronic music (http://www.istitutosvizzero.it/it/eventi/calendario/eventi-roma/echo-la-rocca—the-sound-as-the-trace-of-her-voice).
I really appreciated this initiative because besides a journey of research and historical reconstruction, it promoted an interpretation of that theme in the present, commissioning original concerts and performances. My composition “Technologies of the Self”, was dedicated to the absence and the alienation of a feminine perspective in the history of the first Italian electronic music. I was interested in stimulating the listener as an active part in the process of re-thinking the gender constructions through a sound experiment able of freeing the emancipatory potential of technology. I believe in the power of sound as an agent of change, also social and cultural. A change which I hope can channel also the re-definition of binary notions of gender, deeply rooted in our culture, and redesign the world of male-oriented music, in which we were born.
Johann Merrich: What does Caterina Barbieri listen to?
Caterina Barbieri: In this very moment I am listening to Max Eilbacher. A few moments ago I was listening to El Mundo Frio by Corrupted. Before that: COH, 6K and K. Leimer. Before that: Dracula Lewis, a selection by Jesse-Osborne Lintier on Community Berlin Radio, Mats Erlandsson, Charles Cohen, and Claudio Rocchetti.
Some stuff from 2015 I am re-listening to very often is the production by Kelela. In Berlin I am renting the house of a famous records’ and books’ collector. It feels like being in paradise! After having recently listened to some dungeon synth by Kali Malone (with whom I also collaborate) I decided to listen thoroughly to the metal section of this collection. I dedicated many hours to a wonderful boxset titled “American Cassette Culture”, from the years 1971-1983. After that, I imagined a music genealogy for the works of William Basinski. Then, there’s THE disc, the forbidden one, a vinyl by Steve Reich with Four Organs, Pendulum Music, and Phase Patterns, which I would so much love to open but it’s still sealed. For that, I have to make do with Youtube….