The work of the Italian composer aims to break the bonds that often keep us in stasis
A few blocks from downtown Milan is an unusually utilitarian 1930s apartment building. From her window in one of these buildings, electronic musician Caterina Barbieri can see the geometric cubes of the opposing apartments – “industrial and depressing,” she said on Zoom from her living room. Worse still, they remind the 31-year-old of the architecture of Berlin, the very place she was looking to leave in 2018. “I hated it when I moved here,” she admits. “I was trying to get away from it.”
In March 2020, at the very beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Barbieri found herself confined to this Milanese apartment. She remembers that the neighbors were afraid to go out on the balconies; traveling even a few blocks down the road required a piece of paper from the Italian authorities. But despite all the terror and paranoia that defined the early days of the pandemic, the composer confesses that the situation fit her own schedule well; she needed time, if not necessarily space, to write the sequel to 2019’s critically acclaimed algorithmic and arpeggiated songs Ecstatic calculation. Due to the “exceptional isolation condition”, she embarked on the process in an “ascetic manner”, spending the entirety of each day writing and recording, all while the gravity of the situation grew around her – the death toll rising, the confinement prolonged.
The work of spiritual outingBarbieri’s new album and the fruits of this intense period, shows the composer cutting a suspended Ophelia-As pose – somewhere between a state of euphoria and death. This state of being will likely resonate with anyone who has seen Barbieri live. His music composed primarily of analog synthesizers is renowned for stimulating high-pitched and often pleasurable physiological responses in the listener, with sounds designed to work in conjunction with the physical space in which they are heard. On the opening track “At Your Gamut”, she achieves this effect to a greater degree than her previous work, as hypnotic synthesizer webs induce waves of pungent ASMR bliss. Barbieri, who directed the visual material alongside artist Ruben Spini, also highlights Baroque sculpture Ecstasy of Saint Therese as an essential source of inspiration. “Erotic and distant”, she says, describing the work – with “ambiguous sensory states” also applicable to the music itself.
Barbieri was born in 1990 in Bologna, Italy. She began studying classical guitar at the age of 11 before entering the Bologna Conservatory at 14, practicing for up to six hours a day and enjoying the melancholic Renaissance music of composer John Dowland. But as a teenager, she found herself drawn to extreme, amplified music of noise, metal and doom – artists and bands such as Keiji Haino and Corrupted. This brutal music was a first lesson on the relationship between music and the body, an opportunity to “surrender to sound, almost to dissolve in it”.
At home, Barbieri was surrounded by an even greater variety of sounds. Her father, who had a musical collection ranging from Terry Riley minimalism to avant-garde jazz, was a saxophonist in no-wave bands in the 1970s and 1980s. Her grandmother trained as an opera singer at the same conservatory as Barbieri decades earlier. Although she never sang professionally, Barbieri remembers performing “very moving and sentimental opera like Puccini and Rossini” at family gatherings.
The young musician embodied these divergent performance traditions by joining a drone band in her late teens. “It was really weird playing classical guitar with long fingernails and then going to play in this band where I was doing more of these drone and metal type sounds – very massive physical experiments,” Barbieri explains. “Coming from a classical upbringing that requires so much control and discipline, these physical experiences have been very liberating.”
Since then, the physicality of music – its impact on the body and the way space can alter its effect – has been central to Barbieri’s work. Having completed a residency at the famous sound art center in Stockholm Electronicmusicstudio, where she encountered the Buchla 200, analog synthesizers were the primary tool through which she explored these ideas. His second album, 2017 Consciousness models, was developed during 2016 live shows, an experiment in how sound patterns and their gradual transformation can literally alter consciousness. In an interview with the outlet Resident Advisor, Barbieri jokingly referred to her audience as “victims,” but she was extremely serious about how the space shaped the way she and the audience heard the dense synth matrices. “I was interested in hearing isolated sounds,” she said. “[The sounds] become gigantic because it is a large-scale piece. So if you open a filter, close a filter, or work with delays, it becomes really monumental.”
Fast forward to March 2020 and Barbieri is alone at home in her apartment. Outside, the streets are eerily quiet; inside, her days are interrupted only by the ringing of the doorbell as groceries and other essentials arrive. In her home studio, Barbieri is surrounded by her beloved modular synthesizer, an electric guitar and a laptop. This time around, there’s no audience or large space to bounce off a disc’s worth of ideas and sound — just herself, four walls, and the sometimes striking sunsets visible from the room. Barbieri freely admits it was a “big shift”, missing the “energy return” that previously helped him sculpt electronic signals and algorithms into razor-sharp compositions. But the musician also says that she had reached the end of the road with this particular way of working, itself born of the constraints of the tour, namely the limits of what she could transport on the road.
Despite the isolated work process, spiritual outing is Barbieri’s lushest album. The synths still fizz, surging and plunging in unison like a glistening virtual constellation, but they’ve got less of the acidic crackle. On “Transfixed”, Barbieri sings (not the first time in her discography, but mostly), her voice layered and tuned automatically, processed by her modular synthesizer as if she had finally become the cyborg alluded to throughout her discography. During “Canticle of Cryo”, post-rock guitars join synthesizers, Barbieri’s voice is no longer wordless. “You melt time / You melt the skies / You defy the centuries,” she sings, the album’s ecstatic, almost devotional themes pushed to their metaphysical limit.
As she worked on the album in complete solitude, Barbieri began to see a parallel between her own situation and the women who created works in an equally hermetic state. It references the notorious 19th-century recluse and poet Emily Dickinson, as well as the 16th-century Spanish nun Saint Teresa of Ávila, characters who looked deep within themselves to create art aimed at inspire higher states of consciousness. “The state of isolation resonated with me because it seems to be driving this visionary female thinking,” Barbieri says. “These women could not move freely in the outer world, so they longed for freedom in their own inner world. They redirected their energy to the cultivation of cosmic work, close to science fiction.”
On “Broken Melody”, Barbieri occupies this kindred space more explicitly than ever. Backed by a pensive, gently plucked guitar, she angelically sings “Accessing edge / Of ecstasy / That no other alien could imagine”. The synths gradually rise in intensity before bursting like a deluge of arpeggios, Barbieri’s voice transforming into an emo moan. “Like a snowflake melting in your mouth / Our future is so volatile,” she cries, focusing simultaneously on the transience of the present and a sense of time stretching uncertainly.
These great ideas of time, perception and euphoria may seem religious, but that is not how they appear in Barbieri’s thought. The ecstasy her albums seek stems from Barbieri’s idea of being present in the moment, a “radical imminence” as she puts it. It describes sounds striking the ear, turning into electrical impulses in the brain and body vibrating at that particular frequency. “It’s a physical phenomenon, a simple experience,” she says, “and somehow it makes you more receptive to what’s going on around you.” Barbieri expresses it differently: the act of listening is a “door”, the one that puts you in communion with your environment.
At the close of spiritual outing on “The Landscape Listens,” the electronic artist paints a gently undulating image of nature itself. The title evokes a line from Dickinson’s poem, “There is a certain slope of light“: “When she comes — the Landscape listens / The Shadows — hold their breath”, words that present nature as a fundamentally dynamic phenomenon, filled with movement, motion and wonder, the same qualities as synthesizer music spiral by Barbieri. For the artist who finds inspiration in nature, “music is able to convey the ineffable beautiful feelings it triggers.” She says these kinds of experiences, “almost spiritual moments of connection” , are becoming increasingly rare in our “ultra-capitalist societies”, in which almost every aspect of our lives is commodified.
If there is a larger goal in Barbieri’s work, it is to break the bonds of force that too often keep us in stasis, that keep us cut off from the world. His music is deeply psychedelic and, by extension, subversive; like nature, its effects cannot be entirely circumscribed or predicted. As such, “The Landscape Listens” is a fitting and expansive ending to an album rooted in solitude but which “longs for the outside world, longs for real life” – in all its incongruences, imperfections and wonders. For Barbieri, as for Dickinson, such a place was fundamentally inaccessible; instead, closed in isolation, she was forced to create “an immensity of space within.”