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Caterina Barbieri's rapturous electronica was forged in deep solitude

The physicality of music — how it impacts the body and the way space can alter its effect — has been central to Caterina Barbieri's work.
Furmaan Ahmed
The physicality of music — how it impacts the body and the way space can alter its effect — has been central to Caterina Barbieri's work.

A few streets outside of Milan's city center is an uncharacteristically utilitarian block of 1930s flats. From her window in one of these buildings, the electronic musician Caterina Barbieri can see the geometric cubes of the opposite apartments — "industrial and depressing," she says over Zoom from her living room. Worse yet, they remind the 31-year-old of the architecture in Berlin, the very place she sought to leave behind in 2018. "I hated that when I moved here," she admits. "I was trying to get away from it."

In March 2020 at the very start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Barbieri found herself confined to this Milanese apartment. She recalls neighbors being afraid to step out onto balconies; traveling even just a few blocks down the road required a slip of paper from the Italian authorities. But for all of the terror and paranoia that defined the early days of the pandemic, the composer confesses the situation aligned well with her own schedule; she needed time, if not necessarily space, to write the follow-up to the algorithmic, arpeggiated songs of 2019's critically acclaimed Ecstatic Computation. As a result of the "exceptional isolated condition," she threw herself into the process in an "ascetic way," spending the entirety of each day writing and recording, all as the heaviness of the situation grew around her — the death toll rising, the lockdown extending.

The artwork of Spirit Exit, Barbieri's new album and the fruits of this intense period, shows the composer cutting a suspended Ophelia-like pose — somewhere between a state of euphoria and death. That state of being will likely resonate with anyone who has seen Barbieri live. Her music made mostly using analog synthesizers is renowned for stimulating acute, often pleasurable physiological responses in the listener, the sounds designed to work in conjunction with the physical space they're heard in. On the opening track "At Your Gamut," she achieves this effect to a greater degree than her previous works as webs of hypnotic synthesizer induce waves of prickling ASMR bliss. Barbieri, who art directed the visual material alongside artist Ruben Spini, also points to the baroque sculpture The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa as a key inspiration. "Erotic and distant," she says, describing the work — with "ambiguous sensorial states" equally applicable to the music itself.

Barbieri was born in 1990 in Bologna, Italy. She began studying classical guitar at the age of 11 before joining the Conservatory of Bologna at 14, practicing 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 the extreme, amplified music of noise, metal and doom — artists and bands such as Keiji Haino and Corrupted. This brutal music was an early lesson on the relationship between music and the body, an opportunity to "surrender to sound, almost dissolve into it."

At home, Barbieri was surrounded by an even greater variety of sound. Her father, who owned a music collection stretching from Terry Riley's minimalism to avant-garde jazz, was a saxophonist in no-wave bands during the 1970s and '80s. Her grandmother trained as an opera singer at the same conservatory as Barbieri decades before. Although she never sang professionally, Barbieri remembers her performances of "very emotional, sentimental opera like Puccini and Rossini" at family gatherings.

The young musician embodied these divergent performance traditions, joining a drone band in her late teens. "It was really weird playing classical guitar with long nails and then going to perform in this band where I was doing more of these drone and metal-type sounds — very massive physical experiences," says Barbieri. "Coming from a classical upbringing which requires so much control and discipline, these physical experiences were very liberating."

Ever since, the physicality of music — how it impacts the body and the way space can alter its effect — has been central to Barbieri's work. Having done a residency at Stockholm's famed center for sound art Elektronmusikstudion, where she encountered the Buchla 200, analog synthesizers have been the primary tool through which she explores these ideas. Her second album, 2017's Patterns Of Consciousness, was developed during 2016 live shows, an experiment in how patterns of sound, 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 deadly 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] get gigantic because it's a huge-scale room. So if you open a filter, close a filter, or work with delays, it gets 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 ring 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 laptop. This time round there is no audience or grand space to bounce a record's worth of ideas and sound off — just herself, four walls and the occasionally striking sunsets visible from the room. Barbieri freely admits it was a "big shift," missing the "feedback of energy" that previously helped her sculpt electronic signals and algorithms into razor sharp compositions. But the musician also says she'd reached the end of the road with that particular mode of working, itself borne from the constraints of touring — namely the limitations of what she could lug around on the road.

Despite the isolated working process, Spirit Exit is Barbieri's lushest album. The synths still fizz, darting and swooping in concert like a twinkling, virtual constellation, but they have less of an acid crunch. On "Transfixed," Barbieri sings (not the first time in her discography, but most prominently), her vocals layered and autotuned, processed through her modular synthesizer as if she has finally become the cyborg hinted at through her discography. During "Canticle of Cryo," post-rock guitars join the synthesizers, Barbieri's vocals no longer wordless. "You melt time / You melt skies / You challenge centuries," she sings, the album's ecstatic, nearly devotional themes pushed to their metaphysical limit.

As she worked on the album in total solitude, Barbieri began to see a parallel between her own circumstances and women who have created work in a similarly hermetic state. She references the notorious recluse and 19th century poet Emily Dickinson, as well as the 16th century Spanish nun Saint Teresa of Ávila, figures who looked deep inside of themselves to create art that aimed to inspire higher states of consciousness. "The state of isolation resonated with me because it seems to be at the root of this visionary female thinking," says Barbieri. "These women couldn't freely move in the outside world so they were longing for freedom in their own interior worlds. They redirected their energy towards the cultivation of cosmic, nearly science fiction work."

On "Broken Melody," Barbieri occupies that kindred space more explicitly than ever. Backed by a pensive, gently plucked guitar, she sings angelically of "Accessing edges / Of ecstasy / That no other alien could imagine." Synths gradually rise in intensity before erupting as a deluge of arpeggios, Barbieri's vocals transforming into an emo wail. "Like a melting snowflake in your mouth / Our future is so volatile," she cries, simultaneously focusing on the ephemerality of the present and a sense of time stretching onwards uncertainly.

These big ideas of time, perception and euphoria might sound religious but that's not how they figure in Barbieri's thinking. The ecstasy that her albums quest towards stems from Barbieri's idea of being present in the moment, a "radical immanence" as she puts it. She describes sounds hitting the ear, getting transduced into electrical impulses in the brain, and the body vibrating at that particular frequency. "It's a physical phenomena, a simple experience," she says, "and somehow it makes you more receptive towards what's happening around you." Barbieri puts it another way: the act of listening is a "gate," one that puts you in communion with your surroundings.

At the close of Spirit Exit on "The Landscape Listens," the electronic artist paints a gently undulating picture of nature itself. The title invokes a line from Dickinson's poem, "There's a certain Slant of light": "When it comes — the Landscape listens / Shadows — hold their breath," words that present nature as a fundamentally dynamic phenomenon, filled with movement, motion and wonder, the same qualities as Barbieri's spiraling synthesizer music. For the artist who finds inspiration in nature, "music is able to convey the beautiful, ineffable feelings it triggers." She says these kinds of experiences, "almost spiritual moments of connection," are becoming increasingly rare in our "ultra-capitalist societies," within which nearly every aspect of our lives is commodified.

If there is a broader aim of Barbieri's work then it's to break the bonds of forces that all too often hold us in stasis, that keep us closed off from the world. Her music is deeply psychedelic and, by extension, subversive; like nature its effects can't quite be narrowed down or predicted. As such, "The Landscape Listens" is a fitting, expansive end to an album rooted in solitude but which "longs for the outside world, longs for real life" — in all of its incongruences, imperfections and wonder. For Barbieri, like Dickinson, such a place was fundamentally inaccessible; instead, shuttered in isolation, she was forced to create "a vastness of space on the inside."

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Lewis Gordon
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