Two eyes, superimposed on a cold metallic surface. At first glance the image appears depthless, the lifeless gaze of a clay sculpture, flat and unseeing. Only with closer inspection does the landscape appear: snow-tipped mountains; light breaking through a watery mist; thin trees in the foreground, spreading like cracks on a concrete surface.
This steely depiction of nature serves as the cover art for Ecstatic Computation, the latest album from Caterina Barbieri, and reflects the Italian modular composer’s explorations on the real-world resonance of synthetic music. Barbieri understands the affective potential of sound, its ability to disorientate, evoke feeling, and transform the listener both psychologically and physically. Through sheer hypnotic repetition, the sequences Barbieri triggers develop a life of their own, interweaving and merging in a perpetual act of creation and destruction. While the sound is synthetic, its effects are psychosomatic, the music as visceral as it is cerebral.
Barbieri’s approach is minimalist and deconstructive – she turns music into patterns and lets their interaction speak for itself. As a case in point, the opening track ‘Fantas’ is a ten-minute opus that begins as a shell of washed-out noise before fragmenting into individual meandering sequences. The transition is like removing the hard exterior of a machine to reveal the hidden wires and component parts that, when applied together, create the illusion of cohesion. Meanwhile, the second track, ‘Spine of Desire’, toys with the overused EDM trope of notes rising in semitones, usually in advance of some impending, face-mutilating drop. Instead of granting the satisfaction of release, Barbieri leaves the listener in perpetual limbo; the rising notes reach no climax, falling away only to commence their Sisyphean ascent once more. The track parodies the predictability of over-used formulas in electronic composition and sounds like it is caught in its own feedback loop, ascending and descending infinitely, never achieving any gratifying climax.
The appeal of Barbieri’s music lies in how she manages to breathe life into artificially created sound. These days, computer-programmed music is a saturated market. The mass availability of Digital Audio Workstations like Ableton, plus the democratisation of track uploads on platforms such as Soundcloud, mean that electronic music can be arranged and released by literally anyone with the slightest know-how. While some producers are able to push the limits of DAWs to impressive lengths, painstakingly arranging complex tracks one bar at a time, the result, while aesthetically impressive, often lacks the contingencies that make performed music so emotive.
In contrast, modular synthesisers are able to capture this contingency, albeit in a manner quite different to instrumental performance. Barbieri approaches her work from an object-oriented position, her role shifting from creator to curator, letting the syntheziser adopt the role of the performer. With sequences looping, building and disintegrating apparently of their own volition, Barbieri’s job is merely to guide the interminable march of sound. As a result, the sequences transcend sheer aesthetics and succeed in creating a deeper affect, one in which the listener is moved by sound-as-object, and not merely by the performing talent of the individual behind the music.
Ecstatic Computation therefore feels organic, the seemingly impossible meeting of Taoist flow with machine-intelligence – technology creating music by itself, for itself. A theme of other-worldliness is reflected in the title of the track ‘Closest Approach To Your Orbit’, where recognisably melodic sequences merge together and burst apart like unidentified objects crashing narrowly past earth, a brief encounter with an extra-terrestrial being, unfamiliar yet undeniably alive.
Given their lack of pre-programmed structure, each track captivates the listener with ephemeral textures created by the haphazard meeting of sounds. On ‘Arrows of Time’, the comforting linearity of arpeggiated sequences collapses, and the static harpsichord strikes and ethereal, incorporeal human voices sound like they have slipped from our own dimensions of time and space. The track moves nowhere, floating helplessly in a void – yet, the tension this creates only adds to the subsequent reward. The following track, ‘Pinnacles of You’, feels like a moment of rebirth, the linear sequences returning, rising from the ashes of their own extinction. It is a climactic moment in the album’s progression, and the sonic results are mesmerising – only one example of how, within the right conditions, Caterina Barbieri can curate a listening experience that is totally encapsulating, if not transcendent in its effects.