Inspired by female philosophers, mystics and poets, ‘Spirit Exit’ – the new album by Italian composer Caterina Barbieri – is a modular synth fantasy, billed as her most profound work to date. Strap yourselves in for a cosmic journey…

It feels apt that Caterina Barbieri is cruising at 30,000 feet “on an aeroplane with a gorgeous sea of blinding clouds right beyond my window”. Just like the sensation of flying high, the Italian composer’s music has a uniquely transcendental quality, seeming to exist in some liminal place between the earthly realm and the heavens.

Her latest album, ‘Spirit Exit’, features a track called ‘Life At Altitude’. A soaring, spiralling piece, it exemplifies the web-like arrangements of the modular synth artist, its unfurling arpeggios rippling with the intense rush of a jet engine. Barbieri is responding via email from a flight to Lithuania, where she’s playing at a festival, but when ‘Spirit Exit’ was written, her world felt decidedly smaller and more limited.

“I composed most of it during the first lockdown of 2020 at my home studio in Milan,” she explains, “when the city was one of the darkest hotspots of the pandemic. Framed, forbidden, filtered spaces – windows, gates, walls and doors – these are the physical and psychological spaces I inhabited during the composition of this album.”

Whereas her previous long-players were conceived more as live-based works, capturing snapshots of continually evolving pieces, ‘Spirit Exit’ is the first to be entirely written and recorded in the studio.

“During this time of extreme self-isolation, music became for me like a way of escaping a state of confinement and sensorial deprivation,” she says. “It was the only way to travel in time and space when movement in the outside world wasn’t possible.”

This period of enforced solitude saw Barbieri turn towards female mystics, philosophers and poets for inspiration.

“I thought about the spatial dimension of confinement as a strong archetype of the female condition in the past, and how it shaped the mystical vein of female thought,” she says. “Women often lived segregated lives, observing the world from a window, a gate, a filter. As they couldn’t freely move outside, they would redirect their own energy towards their inner world.

“The friction between the constriction of their physical lives and the cosmic freedom of the inner world and power of the mind is at the very root of visionary female thinking. It’s pioneering, feminist sci-fi.”

The 16th century Spanish mystic, Carmelite nun and author St Teresa D’Avila’s idea of the “interior castle” – a metaphor for inner, spiritual realms – particularly resonated with Barbieri.

“In a way, it’s not a ‘real’ space – it’s a space of the mind,” she says. “This is quite different to my previous music, which was mostly composed while touring, when I was in connection with the spaces and physicality of live performances.”

The metaphysical work of Emily Dickinson also fed into Barbieri’s vision for ‘Spirit Exit’. The American poet spent most of her life in seclusion and conducted relationships with friends mainly by correspondence. Both her letters and unconventionally structured poems often focus presciently on death, immortality and the immense universe. There’s an obvious link between her cosmic meditations and the existential themes that underpin Barbieri’s otherworldly sonic structures.

“I have so many favourites from her,” enthuses Barbieri. “But I especially love her visionary extracorporeal and extraterrestrial poems that make her a pioneer of science fiction literature. A stunning example of this is ‘I Saw No Way – The Heavens Were Stitched’.”

She goes on to write out the poem’s brief but arresting lines.

“I saw no Way — The Heavens were stitched — / I felt the Columns close — / The Earth reversed her Hemispheres — / I touched the Universe — / And back it slid — and I alone — / A Speck upon a Ball — / Went out upon Circumference — / Beyond the Dip of Bell — ”

There’s something beautifully synchronistic about Barbieri powering through the skies, herself “a speck upon a ball”, invoking the poetry of a like-minded artist some 200 years antecedent. The title, ‘Spirit Exit’, suggests a contemplation on life after death. What are her thoughts on the afterlife?

“It’s the first time I’ve reflected on death in an album,” she admits. “I think it’s something related to the extreme darkness and sensory deprivation of the first lockdown. The title itself refers to the idea of music as a portal to transcend physicality and explore out-of-body experiences.

“On this album, I feel that the gravity of death and the gravity of life coexist like two magnets. One cannot exist without the other. This came as a realisation when I composed the last track, ‘The Landscape Listens’, which is the slower, darker version of the opening track ‘At Your Gamut’ – its brighter, faster twin.

“The two tracks coexist like shadow and light, both equally imbued with a sense of birth and death. Perhaps, from a wider perspective, birth and death are just illusions, concepts in our minds. Everything dies and renews itself all the time. Perhaps birth and death are just sacred doors through which we pass on our journey.”

Since ‘Patterns Of Consciousness’, her 2017 breakthrough album, Barbieri’s name has become synonymous with modular synthesisers. Her 2014 debut long-player, ‘Vertical’, was composed for vocals and the Buchla 200, the instrument that kick-started her fascination with hardware. Yet before she became immersed in the world of minimal yet complex electronic arrangements, she studied electroacoustic composition and classical guitar at the Bologna Conservatory. What drew her to classical guitar initially?

“I think the sound of it,” she responds. “It was very sensual, fragile and ephemeral, ineffable. There was warmth and sadness – a timeless beauty. When I started playing guitar, I liked how expressive and sensitive it was as an instrument. Creativity is often inspired by limitations, and I’ve always been fascinated by the techniques used in classical guitar to overcome the instrument’s limitations, especially with its fast-decaying timbres and lack of harmonic sustain.

“This type of compositional design definitely had a huge impact on my way of working with modulars too – using fast, interlocked patterns as well as upper harmonics and delays to expand the potential of a monophonic oscillator voice. I think my practice on guitar gave me an affection towards minimalism and the desire to transcend it at the same time.”

Photo: Jim C Nedd

Going back to her first memories of music, Barbieri remembers the Monteverdi opera ‘L’Orfeo’ playing at home when she was four or five years old, as well as “early memories of my grandma singing Italian opera, mostly the epic and dramatic stuff by Puccini”.

This exposure to Baroque music has filtered into what could be described as a recurring texture on her albums, from ‘Patterns Of Consciousness’ and the medieval-style compositions on 2019’s ‘Ecstatic Computation’, to the angelic vocal choirs on ‘Fantas Variations’ – her “remix”album, released last year – and through to the harpsichord-sounding tones that resurface throughout ‘Spirit Exit’.

Discovering a Terry Riley CD among her father’s collection also marked a kind of lightbulb moment, with Barbieri making her first connection between minimalist and electronic music.

“My dad used to put on a lot of records at home, and I remember these joyful moments of listening to music with my family,” she says. “I think this made me identify music as salvation at a very early age. As a kid, I always found music a shelter – a place to heal and process sad, difficult feelings into something else.

“I was transfixed by Riley’s ‘A Rainbow In Curved Air’. Later, I started getting more and more into avant-garde music with a preference for noise, computer music and the more abstract fringes of metal, like doom and drone. A lot of Keiji Haino, Sunn O))), Pan Sonic, Autechre and My Bloody Valentine.”

And is there an all-time favourite, a particular song or piece of music that always evokes a strong emotional response in her?

“‘Earth People’ by Ramases,” she replies, namechecking the British psychedelic musician and his cult 1971 album, ‘Space Hymns’.

These are Barbieri’s musical touchstones, but the truth is that her own compositions sound like they radiate from some far-off galaxy, standing apart from anything that has come before.

As a modular synth virtuoso with a classical background and a keen understanding of psychoacoustics – how we perceive various sounds – Barbieri is an advocate of what she has previously described as “molecular listening – an eternal dance of atoms”.

“Although my music has become a bit more arranged over time, I still try to keep the identification of the sound source a bit blurred, avoiding those iconic timbres that are instantly recognisable and deeply embedded in our listening culture,” she explains. “When listeners fail to grasp the source behind a sound, they start engaging with a more active, deep kind of listening, where the music creates a pause in time and space.”

She continues to evolve this singular sound world on ‘Spirit Exit’, adding strings, guitar and voice to her stunning synth arrangements. What made this the right moment to expand her sonic palette?

“Peter Rehberg used to say computer music stopped being interesting when laptops stopped crashing,” she writes, indicating laughter. “I agree. The best music happens when you don’t know exactly what you’re doing. When you know your system too well and start mastering your practice, things get too polished and boring.

“After ‘Ecstatic Computation’, I felt I’d reached this limit with my modular set-up and I had the urge to expand into new directions. I started adding more instruments, including guitar, piano, strings and my voice, while keeping the generative writing technique on modular hardware at the heart of my creative process. The resulting sonic universe of this album is much wider, a bit more generous and maximalist in arrangements.”

And how do you feel about singing and bringing your own vocals more prominently into your work?

“It took me a long time to fully accept and embrace the vulnerability that comes with using your own voice,” she replies. “I like how synthesisers can distillate emotions into something ‘other’ or ‘alien’ – bypassing the intrinsically personal, vulnerable element of the human voice. At the same time, vocals are a way to inject more human energy into the pretty algid, mechanic aspect of my work with technology.

“A new addition to my set-up for ‘Spirit Exit’ is a sampler that I used for resampling modular sounds and voice to rearrange them into new forms. It’s the very first time I’ve worked with samplers, as their aesthetic is quite distant from the generative, real-time synthesis at the core of my work. But it’s been a lot of fun. It’s a new territory I’d like to explore more in the future.”

Outside music, Barbieri enjoys cycling, gardening and reading – activities that inspire her creativity and feed back into her artistic process. In fact, if she wasn’t making music, she’d like to be doing architecture or garden design – architecture and space are inherently tied to the development of her compositions and her live performances.

“I like reverberant spaces because they become active parts of the music, often adding unexpected magic to the performance,” she says. “Kraftwerk Berlin is my favourite venue in the world, and playing there at an early stage in my career deeply influenced my music and how I play live with patterns and delays.

“Reflections on walls can add new layers of time to the music, like a hidden, secret score you can interact with. I love to hear the decay of sound in spaces, the natural delays added by the architecture of a venue.

You really notice it when you work with isolated, sharp melodic gestures. I love it when music brings spaces to life and vice versa.

“This simple interaction between music and space is as old as time and at the root of every musical tradition. One of the most obvious examples is how the architecture of churches has inspired the development of polyphonic music in Western culture.”

‘Spirit Exit’ certainly has a divine quality, from the heavenly synth progression of the epic, 10-minute-long ‘Knot Of Spirit (Synth Version)’ to the processed, exultant vocals of ‘Broken Melody’. Immensely transformative, this powerful album is an intimate look into Barbieri’s relationship with spirituality and humanity, the sound of an artist ascending towards some higher plane.

“I do feel I have a spiritual connection to music and the machines I use to compose it,” she agrees. “I often think of them as oracles. I believe music is a deeply transformative experience and a way to cultivate spirituality. In sound, we are carried outside of our individual physicality, becoming more present and receptive to what is happening around us. We can embrace a larger, even cosmic perspective that goes beyond the human and the terrestrial.

“I don’t perceive this spiritual quality of music in religious terms, though. For me, music is radical imminence – it teaches us how to be in the here and now. It’s a way to feel a communion with the continuous transformation of life, matter and its cosmic resonance in a vitalistic, post-human perspective.”

We can’t know where the spirit goes, but as Caterina Barbieri’s music continues to stretch towards new dimensions, the journey feels every bit as thrilling and blissful as the possible destination.

’Spirit Exit’ is out on Light-Years

You May Also Like
Read More

Thurston Moore: Sonic Adult

Since moving to London at the beginning of the decade, Thurston Moore has found himself at the forefront of east London’s experimental music scene. From Luc Ferrari to Public Enemy, we enjoy a free-ranging chat. 
Read More

Secession: The one that got away

Cool band, good-looking singer, major label deal, infectious tunes. the Top 40 beckoned for 1980s Glasgow outfit Secession… some 18 years after the death of frontman Peter Thomson, we tell the story of a group who shouldn’t have fallen by the wayside
Read More

Working Men’s Club: Club Mix

The 2020 self-titled debut album from Working Men’s Club won universal acclaim, but their follow-up, ‘Fear Fear’, is arguably even better – a glorious collision of “scuffed” electropop, clubby energy and outright bangers. Frontman Syd Minsky-Sargeant reveals its story
Read More

Emma Anderson: Out Of Her Shell

It’s 35 years since Emma Anderson formed shoegaze behemoths Lush, but her new album ‘Pearlies’ is her first solo record proper.  As both a paean to independence and a work of darkly beautiful psychedelic pop, it’s a triumph. What’s on her mind these days? 
Read More

Aphex Twin: I Am The Music Maker

The impact of ‘Selected Ambient Works 85-92’ can’t be overstated. In the three decades since its initial release, it has minted the myth of Aphex Twin and redefined ambient, electronic and dance music. Richard D James, take a bow