Caterina Barbieri Born Again In The Voltage

[Important; 2018]

Styles: drone, minimalism
Others: raga, Terry Riley, Hildur Guðnadóttir, Eleh, Sarah Davachi

There are perceptions among some Western listeners that drone music is inherently restrictive, who consider art based in stasis as somehow lacking in progression, driven by a desire to have music “go somewhere.” Caterina Barbieri’s newest album, Born Again In The Voltage, works against this assumption on both practical and conceptual levels. The four pieces presented here are dynamic, exciting compositions using sustained tones as a starting point for explorations of rhythm, harmony, and timbre. Without sacrificing any of the notions of eternity conjured by the most enveloping drone music, Barbieri has created an album that is in constant motion and expresses itself in relatively succinct ways.

Following the release of last year’s double album Patterns of Consciousness, which explored counterpoint and pattern repetition to brilliant effect, Barbieri talked in several interviews about her love of Indian classical music and its use of drone as a basis for long-form composition and improvisation. In a live interview and performance for Ableton’s Loop summit in 2017, she describes the synthesizer as “fields of continuous electricity, and therefore continuous sound,” comparing this notion to the use of the tanpura, a stringed instrument responsible for the ongoing drone beneath each performance of Indian classical music and from which the scale of the raga emerges. The idea that an entire soundworld can be baked within the simple note (or 5th) is paramount to the development of Born Again In The Voltage. Although the ideas presented on the album develop quickly, each shift is subtle and grows naturally out of the preceding moment, as if it were there all along and suddenly revealed. The drone is the marble into which the seemingly expansive elements are carved. Barbieri describes this approach as subtractive.

The first moment on the album where this strategy produces surprising results comes just over a minute into “Human Developers,” the album’s opening track. Pulses of synthesizer with long periods of decay create a layer of sound, when slowly and almost imperceptibly a cello enters the mix, emerging directly out of the electronics before each element intensifies. The use of acoustic instrumentation (cello on the first two tracks, voice on the final track, “We Access Only A Fraction”) offers new opportunities for exploration of timbre as an element to emerge from the constant sound-plane of the synthesizer, making this album unique within her catalogue. “Human Developers” is the longest and least concentrated track on the album, giving the dual tones of synthesizer and cello time to marinate. While there are many wonderful elements that are revealed — chirping high pitches, almost aggressive pulses, sequenced melodies that recall the best of Patterns of Consciousness — there is a sense of wandering that slightly undercuts some of the more exciting moments.

The two middle tracks, “Rendering Intuitions” and “How To Decode An Illusion” are performed on cello and synthesizer, respectively, and offer contrasting ways that Barbieri’s subtractive drone compositional strategy is deployed. Both begin with a single note that swiftly and subtly expands to reveal vastly different emotional palettes. “Rendering Intuitions” is melancholy and beautiful, with layers of cello cyclically cresting and receding, the granular sound of horsehair on string being central to the experience. The piece expands and contracts, ending on the same note that began it. By contrast, “How To Decode An Illusion” feels mysterious, its steady rising and falling pulse most closely mimicking the Indian classical music that Barbieri admires. Emergent layers of synth build and morph into a sequenced melodic line that drives the piece forward, as different background elements shift in and out of focus. The pieces might feel sluggish, but they incorporate an incredible amount of ideas that float just below the surface. If the illusion of slowness characterizes the prior two tracks, the illusion of action is at the heart of “We Access Only A Fraction,” the album’s dramatic conclusion. Relentless repetition of fast-paced, arpeggiated synth figures dominate everything here, producing an invigorating, hypnotic effect. Still, all of this action is built on top of a single tone that is left, in the final seconds of the piece, out in the open, nodding to the bedrock principles that underpin the work.

This is remarkable music that proves the expansive possibilities present in one note. It feels symmetrical, but it’s not; it feels additive, but it’s not. Instead, Barbieri coaxes provocative, varied textures and melodies out of the continuous electric field generated by her synthesizer, and in doing so, she has made a drone record that feels very much alive.

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