The psychedelic works of Caterina Barbieri and ELEH


Few dares to be monotone. Few dares to avoid the rhythms, like Caterina Barbieri in association with ELEH. The elaborate audio waves that drives into infinity is there to make you listen and explore. The subtle notes on the piano re-enforces the electronic harmonics that seem endless. Caterina boldly explores wave forms and adds a second layer to the definition of minimalism. After last year’s acclaimed album where arpeggios played a central role this time we leave the rolling ocean and explore a minimal wasteland.

It is pure synth tones form a dark, surging sea illuminated by a tolling piano. Gradually, the mix loses and regains consonance as suspended electronic waves, subtly filtered, flow under microtonal variances of a sparkling staccato to add to the sense of motion. But it is movement without travel, a rare respite from forward motion, a ticket to behold a single, meticulously constructed chord from within. This is no drone, however – a spiritual theme emerges from the eddying currents, somehow meditative yet keenly aware of the here and now.

Her focus on minimalism in composition arises from a meditation on primary waveforms and exploration of the polyphonic and polyrhythmic potential of sequencers. By means of synthesis, pattern based operations and subtractive counterpoint, her music draws severe geometries in time and space. Her work explores themes of machine intelligence and object oriented perception in sound through approaching music practice as an integrative cognitive feedback between humans and technology. Repetition and pattern permutation as media to perceptual insight lie at the core of her current sonic research.

In a recent interview she explores her concept of music creation even further. Caterina has been active in Berlin during the spring of 2018 focusing on a performance dubbed MONOM:

Your work explores spatial concepts at an integral level. Did you have a particular concept in mind for your performance working with MONOM?  

Yes I’ve always been interested in the exploration of space through the use of sound and fascinated by how music can expand and enhance the perception of space. When I was studying electronic music at University, for example, I was very into spatialisation techniques and I did a research project called “Spherical Sound” where I was studying how sound spatialisation techniques, and especially three-dimensional, immersive and extended listening conditions, can develop our listening capabilities and music appreciation. So when I had the opportunity to work with 4DSOUND, my idea was to further investigate these concepts and especially explore how sound spatialisation together with the heavy use of repetition and synthesis can advance our auditory and cognitive comprehension of music.

I wanted to develop a composition focused on the use of recursive musical structures and synthetic audio sources, where space could be explored as the primary compositional parameter, a tool for aural and mental training. I asked myself: can space become the primary origin of music? Can space itself produce time and therefore music? And I was quite surprised to realise how space can be, on its own, the primary originator of musical structures, both in terms of rhythm and pitch.

For example, a completely static sound, like a justly tuned sawtooth chord, if rhythmically sent into random positions in space will generate a musical structure on its own, not only for the rhythmical patterns generated by the random allocations, but also for the variation in the harmonic content produced by the filtering and phase effects induced by the cinematic trajectories. An entire part of my piece with 4DSOUND was all about this. Basically the spatialisation was producing the musical structures on its own – all these melodic and rhythmical patterns hidden in the harmonic content of a ‘static’ sound. And I was quite surprised to realise how the space itself was producing these cubist, layered, complex sonic entities out of a single sound.

Eleh is an electronic/drone musician who began working in 1999 and whose first release was in 2006. Like much of ELEH’s work ‘Wear Patterns’ could be referred to as a drone, and yet, not for the first time, the monotone implied by the term would be counter to the detail found within. ELEH’s experiments with long-form electronic emanations has led to an occultish form of composition – hidden knowledge of the sounds-within-sounds conjures mesmeric sonic artefacts from choice frequencies, invoking dances in the space between. For this release, ELEH sculpts the harmonics of a deceptively simple, reedy chord to produce a variety of radiating pulsations. They render the listener static, becoming desensitised to the passing of time like the audio equivalent of a floatation tank. But, the sound pool also has a melodic quality at times that, although not as traceable as on Barbieri’s piece, mysteriously hints at a devotional dimension.

Coming back to Caterina, if there’s one contemporary album that proves the musical potential of the modular synthesizer, it’s her previous work with Patterns of Consciousness.

Caterina stated at the time: “In Patterns of Consciousness I was interested in exploring the power of sound on our consciousness,” she tells me. “I wanted to explore how a pattern creates a certain state of consciousness and how the gradual transformation of that pattern can affect that state of consciousness. I believe that sound is a tool for the exploration, reconfiguration and expansion of human perceptions.”

Although now based in Berlin, Barbieri studied classical guitar at the Conservatory in Bologna, where she listened to renaissance and baroque lute music, especially that of John Dowland and J.S. Bach. At the same time, she was going to noise and metal shows to see artists like Keiji Haino, Prurient, Corrupted and Master Musicians of Bukkake. She also holds a bachelor’s degree in electro- acoustic music, an interest she has developed at Stockholm’s famed Elektronmusikstudion.

In a recent interview she stated on the concept of minimalism:

Minimalism means exploration of repetition and the psycho-physical effects of repetition. In minimalist music the focus is on the process rather than on the form. Sometimes the music material doesn’t even change, or changes very gradually, but what does change is the way you listen to it. Music as a process, this is one of the most important teachings of minimalism for me.

In this music, the process of change of the material is important as it produces a process of change in the mind that is listening. Sound causing processes rather than objects, verbs rather than nouns.  So this music is more about the change we, as listeners undergo, rather than the change of the material itself. I change in the sound that changes. I am very interested in exploring how sound affects our perceptions.

In Patterns of Consciousness for example, I wanted to explore how patterns and permutation of patterns affect our perception of time and space, our memory, our consciousness, our feelings. The opening track of the album, ‘This Causes Consciousness to Fracture’, is a bit of a manifesto in that sense. The idea behind the piece is ideally infinite generation of new patterns through the permutation of a limited constellation of pitches. And when I perform it live, I am just showing the actual process of making that piece, the genesis of the music material from scratch, the generative principle through which all the patterns are derived. 

I see this as very much connected to minimalism but also generative music and any form of computation, actually. Every form of computation requires the formal definition of a set of data to produce a larger body of output. You work within a closed system but then you define a process, a generative grammar able to generate an open system of possibilities. What really interests me is turning that practice of computation from being just a formal technique – an automatic procedure – into a creative process, into ecstasy, contemplation, trance.