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Three Songs No Flash

Caterina Barbieri Live: Weird Noises To Make Sense Of The World
Paul Tucker , October 23rd, 2019 08:35

While watching Caterina Barbieri perform live at Brighton Digital Festival held at the Attenborough Centre For The Creative Arts (ACCA), Paul Tucker wonders what experimental music does to our consciousness that makes it seem so powerful

Photograph by Jim C. Nedd

What’s that sound? A few years ago, I came across an MIT study in which a group of neurologists measured listeners’ brain responses to sound using an MRI scanner. The MIT study played 165 sound samples (ranging from “man speaking”, to “microwave”, to “dog barking” to “pop song”) to ten listeners and measured where in the brain the responses to each sound were localised and how strong each response was.

The study’s most notable finding was that two specific areas of the brain “responded selectively to sounds categorised as speech and music” - that is, in terms of exposure to sound, those two areas respectively responded solely to music or speech. What made me pause was the matter-of-fact confidence that the MIT scientists had displayed in deciding what counts as “music”. Implicit in the complex neurological findings of the study was the acceptance that for most people - at least among the subjects of the study - the sound “pop song” is music, as is “rock song”, but “siren” isn’t, and neither is “computer speech”.

The question that occurred to me was at what point, neurologically speaking, does our brain start treating sounds as music, and at what point does our brain decide “this is not music”? For many of us, the categorisation of weird-sounds-that-qualify-as-music is far larger than the study suggests.

Does experimental music, stripped of the signposts of more neurologically recognisable compositions, affect our brains in a different way? Why do some of us have such a fascination for weird sounds? I suggest that the MIT scientists ask the editors of this website to help them convene a follow-up study. (“Norman-Haignere et al, meet Kevin Richard Martin. Holly Herndon will be along shortly, and Matmos are just unloading their washing machine.”)

Weird sounds. Both Holly Herndon and Italian analogue-synth minimalist Caterina Barbieri have in the past used the phrase when talking about making music. Stripped of the neurological or music tech knowhow that might influence someone’s reaction to a certain type of music, is there a more powerful gateway than this into experimental music? Is it all just self-inflicted neurological confusion?

Daniel Levitin, in his book This is Your Brain on Music, highlights the prefrontal cortex, located at the very front of the brain, as being responsible for the “violation and satisfaction of expectations”. This, especially the “violation” element, makes me think of a story involving one of Steve Reich’s audience members, from a 1973 Carnegie Hall performance of his piece Four Organs. “One woman walked down the aisle,” said performer and Reich collaborator Michael Tilson Thomas, “and repeatedly banged her head on the front of the stage wailing, ‘Stop, stop, I confess’.” The woman at Reich’s show may have had a more instinctive grasp of neuroanatomy than she realised.

For Herndon and Barbieri, the prefrontal cortex seems to be a good place to start, but the aim is to stimulate a far deeper, broader response from listeners. “Will we just hear weird sounds and get drunk and dance,” Herndon has said, “or are we now able to discuss the values that experimental music can conjure up in those scenarios as well?” Barbieri told FACT last year that she is “interested in exploring the power of sound on our consciousness… I believe that sound is a tool for the exploration, reconfiguration and expansion of human perceptions”. With this in mind, I travelled to see Barbieri perform at the Brighton Digital Festival, held at the Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts.

As an avowed minimalist, a key focus of Barbieri’s is repetition, specifically how that repetition plays out on the brains and bodies of listeners but live, her use of repetition is only one such tool. Equally important is the way that moments float up and away from the jittery analogue waveforms that make up the undercurrent of much of her performance. Whereas, for example, Reich’s most famous works take instances of repetition and intricately play them off against each other, Barbieri coaxes out shifts that, as a listener, you don’t always realise have happened until they have ascended far from the music’s roots.

This deftness of touch might have something to do with Barbieri’s background in classical music - perhaps this has given her a heightened a feel for the fundamentals. But she has also talked of being inspired by La Monte Young and his manipulation of sustained tones for transcendent ends; it’s not altogether surprising that Spotify’s algorithm picks out a piece by the long-form tone-sculpting Italian composer Giacinto Scelsi when I finish listening to one of Barbieri’s albums on the train down to Brighton. (“In the beginning was the tone”, wrote Alex Ross in a 2005 New Yorker article about Scelsi.)

For Barbieri, the move from classical music to electronic music was a decisive next step towards heightening that spiritualism and fundamentality. “For me the sounds coming out from that machine [her first synth, a Buchla 200] were pure spirituality,” she told FACT.

“Touching the knobs was like touching my own feelings. Being able to contemplate them at distance - as if they were objects - yet being completely immersed in them, exactly like when you are immersed in the sound and the sound is at the same time inside and outside of you. And you cannot tell the difference, because you become that sound and that sound becomes you.” That night at the Attenborough Centre, I can see - or rather feel - what Barbieri means. When she performs ‘Arrows Of Time’, for example, it feels like the track’s gargantuan harpsichord notes slice through the haze-filled air of the room to the centre of my skull.

“That sound becomes you” - it’s here we come full circle. When neurologists study the interaction between the brain and sound, it is just that: an interaction. Certain sounds are processed in certain ways by certain parts of the brain, and this process manifests in unpredictable ways. Exposed to certain types of music, people might stare, mystified, and pray for the whole thing to be over soon (they might even bang their heads repeatedly on the front of the stage), others might close their eyes and slip towards ecstasy.

The hope, as Herndon said in the past, is to create “communion” through performances, in the process breaking down the performer/ audience divide. No one person’s involvement is less valuable than another’s. “This computer can be this brain which keeps everything running,” said Herndon of Spawn, her nascent AI collaborator, in a recent interview with the New Statesman. “And then we are totally freed up to emote and express and enjoy each other onstage.” In this sense, as is typical of Herndon, the impact of the technology in question is magnified, but how can we define that impact? In a 1954 essay Martin Heidegger discussed approaches to thinking about technology. Often, he wrote, people think about technology in terms of “technique” and “instrumentality” - that is, a focus on the tools and how they are used. Instead, he said we should focus on technology as a “revealing” - somewhere between an agent for change and a reflection of the world that it materialises in.

Heidegger talks about this in terms of the change that would be wrought on centuries’ old pastural land subjected to the equipment, techniques and aims of coal mining. Not only would the land change, but this change would reflect the nature of technology in the wider world at that moment. (And it would, surely, reflect us as the society that births these things.) This, he said, is “the essence of technology”.

How does this play out in terms of a performance like Barbieri’s? Funnily enough, Barbieri’s set in Brighton is accompanied by visuals that could be used to illustrate Heidegger’s point. Video footage largely seems to concentrate on nature - stark landscapes; time-lapse footage of the Northern Lights; the earth viewed from space. But in every instance there is some technological counterpoint. A sped-up view of green, rainswept hills is interrupted every few seconds by an airliner streaking across the sky; the Northern Lights in the time-lapse morph rapidly enough that they might be an animation; in another shot a hulking wind turbine looms over moorland; someone holds a phone up to the sky. As Barbieri’s set reaches its climax we see footage of the earth from above. It consists of jerky, swooping, spinning shots, as if it is the early moments of simulated crash footage. Somewhere below is us, literally part of that world.

The “essence” of the performance is dependent, most obviously, on Barbieri herself, manipulating and chipping away at waveforms, intent on shaping the spiritual, emotional and neurological responses of other people. But it extends to the visuals, as well as the neurological and emotional reactions of audience and performers; the vibrations in stomachs, skulls and chests; the atmosphere in the room. These all become part of a wider, far-reaching whole, just as they are coloured by the external factors that led to everyone being in that specific room on that particular evening.

Heidegger suggested that art offers the best means to critique technology, because it is both a lot like it (both create change and are the result, for better or worse, of human ingenuity), but also distinct from it. Perhaps this distinction arises because art tends to reflect a haphazard, reflexive strand of curiosity - it doesn’t need the clear outcomes of science, so it can veer in any direction. Geeta Dayal, writing about Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt’s experiments with cybernetics in the 1970s, describes how these “garbled transmissions from the sciences… allowed for strange mutations to take root in culture, taking a life all their own.” This, put simply, is artistic licence.

When we enter a room at the beginning of a performance like Barbieri’s, we do so coloured by a world in which the influence of technology has never seemed so ubiquitous, so overawing (and, at times, awful). Maybe this is why I see the jet airliners, mobile phones, distorted reality, in the visuals accompanying Barbieri’s set. But technology is supposed to set us free. And in these darkened halls we offer our brains and bodies up to the good stuff. We expose ourselves to it, and we take it with us at the end of the night. You could say it’s essential.