“Music is a form of sci-fi, or a way to travel in time and space”: Caterina Barbieri and Félicia Atkinson on the transcendent power of music
Deep Listening, a practice coined by Pauline Oliveros, taps into a unifying greater consciousness within music. Which is something both Félicia Atkinson and Caterina Barbieri explore within their respective compositions, carving out distinctly evocative spaces for the listener.
On Atkinson’s latest release Image Langage, this manifests in electro-acoustic dialogues between landscape and the house, inside and outside realms, her work delving into interactions between humans and geology via textural sound collages that create surreal yet tangible sound worlds.
For Barbieri, there’s a cosmic expansiveness opened up via her modular compositions, a quality also highlighted also by her label light-years which hones in on the “transformative, mind-altering potential of music”. On Spirit Exit she also explores the transcendent capacity of music as a vessel for escapism beyond the boundaries of physicality.
Ahead of their upcoming performances at Semibreve Festival, the pair discusses sci-fi and Emily Dickinson, exploring non-linear notions of time through music and the power of nature.
© Shelter Press
What influence does sci-fi have on your work?
Caterina Barbieri: I think science fiction adds some influence on my last album Spirit Exit, I’m not a big fan of science fiction movies or whatever but it’s more like an inspiration that works in a metaphorical way in my music. I composed this album during a very strict and dark lockdown in the pandemic, in Milan. And this music really came from a state of isolation, negation and sensory deprivation, as a way to move in time and space when movement was not possible in the outside world. Music became this sci-fi like spaceship to travel and move freely when free movement was not possible. I like to think of this album as a sort of portal for me to transcend the constraints of my life at that moment and embrace this cosmic vastness through the power of music. In a way, music is a form of sci-fi or a way to travel in time and space.
I’m also really interested in how I connect this to a tradition of female thinkers and sci-fi pioneers, because I think this state of confinement that I experienced during the pandemic is something that made me resonate a lot with the lives of past female thinkers, artists, poets and mystics that were often living segregated lives. And because of this segregation, they were redirecting their energies towards the inner world and cultivating freedom and, again, a sort of cosmic vastness just inside the domain of their inner world. I think this is the very root of female visionary thinking and in a way it’s an archetype of science fiction. More specifically, I was inspired by Emily Dickinson because of this and she’s actually considered a pioneer of science fiction.
Félicia Atkinson: This interests me because I love Emily Dickinson. Can you tell me a bit more about this idea of how she’s connected to science fiction?
C: Well, she’s actually considered one of the first writers or a pioneer of science fiction, because she has a very specific approach to spatial vocabulary and in her poetry, she’s often envisioning cosmic visions where she’s just able to really cultivate these amazing open spaces. There’s this poem from her that makes sense to quote for this conversation we’re having where she talks about the power of the mind to envision cosmic spaces, and she uses these verses: the brain is wider than the sky, the brain is deeper than the sea. This image is very strong because we can embrace cosmic vastness just in the domain of the mind and she’s able to really conceive these visionary cosmic ideas that are quite incredible
© Furmaan Ahmed
F: I love that. Thank you for the connection between those two ‘cause I would never think to put Emily Dickinson in the science fiction park, but it’s a great idea. To me she’s a field recorder but it actually makes sense. When I hear you, I totally picture what you mean. It’s in the mind.
I agree with what you said about the idea of a spaceship or music as a portal. Actually the ear is this amazing thing between in and out, and it looks like a shell. Going back to Emily Dickinson, I think science fiction is about that, the micro and hyper large dimension that connects something. It can be a grain of sand that suddenly is a planet or the brain that is actually the universe and the universe is the brain or whatever. And I think it’s true that many people are connected with music or connected with this idea of anticipation or thinking about the future because time is very complicated when you deal with music. You can work on 10 minutes of music, but you feel like you worked on a year. It’s very relative, you don’t know if it’s really 10 minutes and if it’s the same for the listener. You see a performance or listen to a record and notions of time travel with the sound and creates an exchange with the person playing. For me science fiction is really connected to time, to this idea.
At the beginning, when I recorded Hand in Hand in 2017 for example, I was already interested in anticipation. When you try to think about what you could add to the world, it’s a lot of responsibility somehow; why would I do another record? Why would I record music when so many people are already listening to so much music? What’s interesting in sci fi and anticipation is that at the same time, it’s very serious and not, because it’s always a bit quirky or a bit not too serious or not exact. Not completely scientific, it’s science fiction.
It’s this ability to imagine things that are not completely secure by knowledge that are a bit fantastical. And music can be an emancipation, I can invent my own music. Maybe it’s a bit bizarre, maybe it’s not completely what I’m asked to do but it’s okay – I’m going to invent this weird spaceship that I’m building. So it’s also capacity and the idea of playing and inventing things for the pleasure or the fun of it is something that I like in the idea of science fiction. And also, of course, it helps to deal with dark times and living in an awful world completely injust and with no pity to people. Either you dive into darkness, and you can sometimes, but also to step out of the water, you need to be inventive and imagine parallel reality.
"Music is a fantastic architecture of a place that I have in my mind" - Félicia Atkinson
How does exploring concepts of time manifest in your music?
C: Music is time and it unfolds in time but music is also space. Personally, I’m intrigued by the idea of enhancing the perception of time and space through music, but at the same time dissolving it into something very fluid and very dynamic. I work a lot with repetition and repetitive elements in my music. I use repetition and patterns as the main tool to work with time, basically. I’m interested in the state of hypnosis or even trance that repetition can create. It’s all about a temporal quality that somehow my patterns try to recreate and it’s a very specific type of time experience that I try to trigger because I’m personally interested in exploring it and it’s probably the main thing that interests me about music. This state of suspension of time somehow where there is still movement.
I use a lot of acceleration and deceleration in my music just because working with modular you have this very fluid approach to time. So you can patch the clock that controls the temporal elements in music in a very fluid way, in a very gestural manual way. I like to work with acceleration and deceleration of time and to create the sort of suspended state where you have this feeling of running while being still and having this sort of tension towards something but also this tension doesn’t lead to anything because I’m interested in creating expectation or building up these climaxes that are not going anywhere. In my music I use a lot of patterns and sequences, so there is a pulse and there is this cinematic quality in terms of movements but I don’t use drums or a linear beat, I use a lot of super impositions of layers. I’m very interested in this idea of freezing time but then always having movements and tension towards something. But this experience of trance or even enchantment that you can experience through music is very tied to time and the temporal quality that music can convey.
F: I love the idea of freezing or being in two different kinds of energy at the same time. This is something I see unfurl. When I play live, for example, there is an electroacoustic tape that I pre-recorded that is composed and then I play the piano, the voice and sometimes the Fender Rhodes all of which are completely improvised. It’s often the same but I never know what I’m gonna play. The tension between those two temporalities. One that is very linear, a foundation that takes time to build and also that appears as a recording, which for me is interesting. Because it’s a memory, it’s the idea of something that is from the past. Even if it’s not a very long ago past, it’s something from the past intertwining with something that is completely in the moment.
It reminds me of what you said about your music, this idea that time is never one thing, it’s always layers of dimension and also perspective. I think a lot about geology. It’s so long and the stones are there for such a long time. Dinosaurs lived so long ago and we humans are just a drop in it, we don’t know if we will really matter. So even a concert in this timeframe, it’s like just a sneeze, maybe less than a sneeze. But also, maybe it amplifies things that are from a long time ago. And maybe we don’t really know, half of us is what we decide, half of us is just being little ants doing a kind of design we don’t know about that we do collectively. Sometimes when I play I think of all the people playing at the same time in the world. It’s an amazing feeling, because then you’re not just you. We are all like moving little pieces. It’s a bit relaxing because you feel that your mission is not the whole, it’s just a part. And that’s enough. So time also makes you connect to different times, different people and shows you that you’re not alone, which is important.
© Shelter Press
C: I really resonate with that, with this collective dimension of time. I think it’s the true gift of music. Especially in the context of a concert, when we perform music, we share that moment with other people, of course, both when we are the performers or the listeners but also music is really able to make us more receptive towards what is happening around us. Especially deep listening. It’s able to make us feel present in the moment and this presence in the moment is a gift. It’s something close to what maybe one can experience in meditation, being really focused, open and receptive towards what happens around and feeling the interconnectedness between things, but also feeling the energy of other people in the context of a concert and in a way music becomes this exercise in empathy.
F: It’s great, an exercise in empathy. I love that. It’s beautiful.
C: It’s really true that the experience of music is to amplify, as you were saying, this collective consciousness of time where we feel all connected. This is also connected to the first conversation we were having, for me at least, because I think music really helps you somehow transcending the limitations of your ego, of your physicality and individuality and connect to a larger perspective where you are more in communion to what happens around you. More empathic and also it’s something that we really need in dark times. I think music can really bring people together. And we all know this. But somehow, after the pandemic it’s so hard to go back to that in a way. For me, I started touring again. It’s amazing because this used to be my daily life and I missed that a lot like being able to share this with other people.
F: It’s really important because also, it’s a moment in a world where now everything is mediated by phones. I also think of the record, when the records go to each house, suddenly there is an intimacy that is nothing about image. It’s not easy to document because the document is already the record or the moment of the performance. And during the pandemic, it was lacking.
C: Yeah. This experience of intimacy, as you said, is very special and not replaceable. But during the pandemic, our outlet to the world was just iPhones and socials. Personally, it was very frustrating even to put out music in that moment because it felt like throwing stuff into a void. For me, music has to be shared in the live context too. I realised that for me, it’s very important to have that moment of feedback with the audience at a live show. During the pandemic, working remotely and through this filter of social media really removed all the magic and the intimacy of music. At some point, it was a bit alienating because I lost a grasp on this tangible reality.
Caterina Barbieri at Semibreve 2018 © Adriano Ferreira Borges
F: In the second part of the pandemic, I was in Normandy in another house where there is no phone reception, no internet and no one, basically. I didn’t have my stuff because it was in storage. So we had a few books. No internet, not too many records, not really anything to play records. And suddenly, I was experimenting because I would keep playing and composing music, but the whole world of music was completely peripheral. I was just a person walking in an empty seaside town looking at the sea during the tempest. It was bare, really bare. Nothing, but also everything because then suddenly this kind of very dry, not generous environment changed my perspective of things. I was in a kind of a vault, only working on my bed because I didn’t even have a studio or anything. I don’t have the answers about the experience yet. It’s too early. But it definitely helped me decide what I wanted in my life or not.
C: Yeah, probably taking that distance and also being connected to nature as well, it’s something that really rebalanced things, I feel. When you live in a city, you have so many distractions, it’s so much harder to access these moments of contemplation of nature and being connected to the physical reality and then you just end up checking your phone. It’s a really tricky balance because at the same time, it’s part of our work to be connected. But it’s hard for everyone in these capitalist times. Living in connection to nature is something that’s always threatened by capitalism.
What impact does the physical environment have on your work?
F: Well, I grew up in the city, in Paris. I was a city girl and I think the first part of my music was really inspired by cities. But that changed seven years ago when I moved to the mountains for two years. There was a relief in being sure that there were bigger things than humans. Even though I still love cities, finding spaces where humans are smaller than the rest gives me a kind of consolation that helps me to deal with life. My music changed with that for sure, because I brought in more field recordings. Even though I use them in a very lo-fi way. It’s never planned, I use my phone.
The idea of the notebook, somehow, has always been present in my work. It’s funny because I’m working right now on this project with a very important field recordist Chris Watson, and we are working on Basho. As you may know, Basho was one of the first people to create haikus and haikus are recordings, they are recordings of a feeling in space. And I think music sometimes is also a kind of overlap of a space and time where we talk about a desire or intention. I like to listen to music where I can feel maybe not the same space of the musician but that it brings me to a special space. As a teenager, that was my first feeling with music, I wanted to escape something. When you listen to music, you’re there and you’re not where you are and it helps you to cope with where you are somehow. That’s really important.
The other thing that brought me to music is the idea that it can travel through walls, which you can’t do with a drawing. If you play music, your neighbour will also receive the music if you play louder. There is this idea of being further than your space. Not only being human, you’re like the wind or a bird. This idea of space but also circulation or travelling from one space to another is something that interests me, and therefore also architecture. I feel that most of the time, at least for me, music is a fantastic architecture of a place that I have in my mind. But it’s impossible to build. The design is like a map of the brain – a plan, a notebook.
Semibreve © Adriano Ferreira Borges
C: I resonate with that a lot. First of all, with this idea of music that can carry you to special places, I think it’s another big gift of music. It’s also connected to what I was saying earlier how during the pandemic music really helped me travel to spaces that I couldn’t reach and the title of the album Spirit Exit is a reference in that sense. Music was this portal to go beyond my body and travel in other realms. It’s like space but in this very abstract way. For example, you mentioned a bird and I often have this feeling of flying when I listen to music. When I compose music I have this perception of altitude, movement and freedom, so it’s also very metaphorical sense of space that music can create. There is one track in the album that is called Life At Altitude because composing that music really connected me to the sense of flying and I’ve had this recurring dream of flying since I was a small kid.
It’s very interesting what you were saying about space and nature being bigger than humans or this reassuring sensation of being connected with something that goes beyond you and also that doesn’t really care about. I had a super strong experience of this in the early summer; I was going through a very hard time in my life and I was in shock. But I had to do this performance on Mount Etna, this volcano in Sicily, and it’s like 3000 square metres. I was emotionally drained and at a turning point in my life. I thought I wasn’t going to be able to do this performance. But actually, as soon as I arrived there, the volcano was erupting. The sound of the volcano was incredible like this, strangely human slow breath. I was just lying on the ground, feeling this energy coming from the volcano. It really was a life changing experience, because I was there and I was like, the earth could just open under my feet. Witnessing something that is so much bigger but also that doesn’t care about your problems is really reassuring.
The last track on my album, the title is actually a quote from an Emily Dickinson poem that says: “the landscape listens”. I really liked this verse, it really resonated with this piece of music because – it sounds a bit dark – but when I was composing this music, I was imagining my own funeral, a moment of death. I was imagining that moment of transition and being surrounded by the landscape and being buried in the earth. I felt this music enveloping me. Music is a strong way for me to connect with nature because it’s the closest language to nature. It can really express these ineffable feelings that we experience in front of a beautiful landscape like a beautiful sunset or sunrise or in front of the ocean, these very complex feelings that are really hard to put into words but music can express. In a way, it’s the language that is closer to nature and spirituality in that sense.
"I'm trying to honour this tradition, give space to this idea of intuition in music over the technical or more rational approach that some guys have in the modular world." - Caterina Barbieri
Linked to this, what is the relationship between natural and mechanical elements in your music?
F: I think my answer will be less complex because I’m less technical than Caterina on the subject. My relationship to technique is that I don’t have any! I still record with Logic and my phone most of the time. One day I will go deeper. I did a bit of modular and it was very interesting. I used this the same way I use my computer, without knowing how to use it. I remember at EMS Stockholm, I would stay in the studio writing with a pen, that was my way to do modular and finally I recorded some but half of what I was doing was next to it. Sometimes you need to find kind of strange scenarios to allow yourself to open up and work in a different way.
I compose with my MIDI keyboard and just a simple keyboard. When I use MIDI sounds, I know they are, in a way, fake sounds because they are not real instruments. The fact that they are almost avatars of instruments interests me a lot. This possibility of imagining an orchestra with MIDI instruments really gives me freedom and allows me things that I would not otherwise. It’s a bit like what you said at the beginning, Caterina, about freeing yourself. This idea of women who have been restrained.
I think there was a deep part of me at the beginning that felt that I was not allowed to play music or to compose. It took me a long time to do and at the beginning, when I was in my 20s it was the early 2000s there were only men and each man had an idea about what I should do. So I started out with garage band because it was so easy and simple. I didn’t have to learn anything. I admire technology and people who have the brain to do it, I find it completely mesmerising. But my way of doing, I have like a little thing that doesn’t work in my mind to understand it and so I had to invent other ways. This is how I discovered electronics. Then I discovered that electro acoustic music is so fun. It’s not that serious all the time even if my music is not funny, there is sometimes maybe a bit of humour, but it’s hidden most of the time. The irony is something that interests me in music and not the cynicism at all but the irony of the situation like what it is to use knowledge and how and how it can be a bit odd and at the same time super serious because it’s the most important thing.
C: You said that maybe I’m more technical but I’m actually not. I had the same feelings you had that you are describing when talking about your encounter with electronic music and these technologies because for me it was freedom. I come from a classical background. I studied classical guitar and I’ve studied music but I always felt very constrained and limited in that world. It was very structured and also structured in terms of gender roles. But when I discovered analogue synthesisers, when I went to Sweden I studied there and I didn’t know anything about the Buchla. When I discovered it, for me, it was like this virgin territory where I could be what I wanted to.
There was no good or bad, no way to actually perform that instrument because it’s such an open format. I had conversations with other female composers, like Suzanne Cianni, she was saying the same about being attracted to playing with the synthesisers because it was this free territory with no gender specific gender roles, no structures, no specific routes. You’re free to explore your creativity and there is nothing wrong in your brain. It’s also giving more value to female intuition which is something that I value a lot and I see as a common thread in female music. I see all of these pioneers from Suzanne to Eliane Radigue or Laurie Spiegel. Eliane Radigue was playing synthesisers in a totally new way, not technical at all. Of course she was very aware of what she wanted to achieve, but mostly working with drones in a very innovative way.
I’m trying to honour this tradition, give space to this idea of intuition in music over the technical or more rational approach that some guys have in the modular world, this fetishism of techniques. I’m so tired of that. Whenever I perform, after the show I get these guys asking me: “what specifically did you do in that passage? How did you transition from here?”. I don’t know, it’s not an algorithm. It’s not a set of instructions that you just give to another person so the other person can do the same music. It’s like a very personal thing.
For me the relationship with technology is this very creative active engagement and feedback with the machine. I really resonate with this idea of embracing chaos. We can build our ideas about music, our rules and some techniques, but the music always happens when we stop thinking. Sometimes it’s unpredictable. You can spend many days in the studio trying to achieve something and getting quite frustrated and then all of a sudden the magic happens and it’s often when you’re not forcing yourself into these preconceived ideas that you have about your music or what you want to achieve. I think those moments are facilitated by technologies when you engage with them in a more active way and embrace the unpredictability and chaos and improvisation with the machine. For me, modulars are very interesting because they’re a bit wild. Some stuff happens beyond your control and you’re just facing this stream of life and it’s a bit like life where you have the illusion of being able to control it but it’s too beautiful to be controlled and tamed and music is the same, modulars are like that for me.
Caterina Barbieri and Félicia Atkinson play Semibreve Festival, which takes place from 27-30 October in Braga, Portugal