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Scratches on the Readable Surface

Caterina Barbieri

Not many musicians have been able to speak through the medium of modular synthesis with a distinctive voice like Italian composer Caterina Barbieri. (Alas, whatever one's enthusiasm for the format, it cannot be denied that modular music, for all its vaunted open-endedness, too often settles into one of a handful of comfortable stylistic zones.)


On Barbieri's 2017 album Patterns of Consciousness, from which this track is taken, each of the tracks is generated by overlaying shifting arrays of gates (note onsets or "attacks") onto a pre-set sequence of pitches, creating a kind of musical moiré technique that allows different melodic patterns to emerge from the interaction of these two planes. Barbieri calls this technique "negative counterpoint," and relates it to the illusion of polyphony created through the registral separation of monophonic lines found in the lute music of composers such as Dowland and Bach.


Barbieri's liner notes mix insight into her creative methods with a poetic invocation of the phenomenological space the music occupies:

"I wanted every piece in Patterns of Consciousness to be a generative entity; a dynamic and living being able to develop its own organic laws, whose inner potential of growth and change is embedded in the initial instructions of the sequencer. These instructions translate into slow yet persistent, relentless variations in pitch and velocity: sharp interval resizing, pristine melodic progressions and transpositions, and severe shifts in the metric structure of pulses and stresses... What all these compositions share is a common fatalistic tension, an impossible running, a restless rush—somewhat nervous, somewhat ecstatic—to grasp a meaning out of fragments."

Each track on the album (with the exception of the finale, "The Gravity That Binds") is heard in its "normal" form and a second form, functioning almost as a commentary on the first, based on the same underlying pitch structure, but in a much slower tempo. This is a simple device—almost a gimmick—but one that highlights the perceptual threshold beyond which quantitative changes can radically transfigure our experience of the music.

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