Ecstatic Computation finds new limitations in the possibilities of the (mostly) solo synthesizer.
The preceding decade saw the synthesizer as a focal instrument revived, reinvented and disassembled in experimental circles around the world. While this was only one of many trends that marked this time, a renewed fascination in analog electronics and the work of composers like Laurie Spiegel was steadily present throughout. All of this makes Caterina Barbieri’s newest for Editions Mego even more special. Ecstatic Computation finds new limitations in the possibilities of the (mostly) solo synthesizer, creating deeply focused minimalist works that look inward and feel exhilarating in the steady repetitions.
If Barbieri’s debut, Patterns of Consciousness, was very much about the synthesizer – its restrictions, its tropes, its timbres – Ecstatic Computation focuses more on using the instrument’s idiosyncrasies as a tool for compositional freedom. Opener “Fantas” continually exploits filters and release time, both compositional ideas that return later in the album. Much of the track is guided by a melody that opens and closes, appears in lengthy, noisy phrases and plunky fragments. Although guided by a steady pulse, the rhythmic cohesion of “Fantas” is always in flux, epitomized by the track’s shift towards a moody, 7/8 progression in its middle. This provides an effective moment of darkness before the original melody combusts in the track’s final minute.
At the end of the more sentimental “Closest Approach to Your Orbit,” the core melodic phrase starts to randomly and sporadically fall away, like an algorithmic flipping of each sequencer “1” to a “0,” a single note at a time. While the album at large explores a more colorful sound palette than Patterns, the most notably unique track is “Arrows of Time.” Built almost solely around a harpsichord and the affected vocals of Annie Gårlid and Evelyn Saylor, the constant flow of eighth notes that marks so much of the surrounding material is thrown out in favor of a droning, straight-ahead call-and-response between the track’s core sounds. Opposing this is “Pinnacles of You,” the most straight-forwardly repetitious track here. Barbieri employs a progression by timbre rather than harmony or melody, carefully changing the active layers and filters on her synths without ever drifting far from the track’s motif.
“Bow of Perception” concludes the album in a sort of stylistic postlude, incorporating something of each great element that preceded it. The opening leg of the track recalls the spaciousness of “Arrows of Time,” though that track’s bliss is replaced by an unsettling lack of grounding. A melody is eventually delivered, but through fragmented statements. Each clip is interspersed with echoes and shrill drones, upsetting the listener’s ability to track the full phrase. Like the explosive sounds that concluded “Fantas,” the ending of “Bow of Perception” jolts the listener out of the calm control Barbieri cultivates throughout the bulk of the track. Almost humorous in its discarding of steady arpeggios and psychedelic melodies, moments like this glitching breakdown show that Barbieri has not lost sight of the playful nature of synth music. Ecstatic Computation is a true triumph of electronic composition. Barbieri has proven that she is able to see the benefits in every facet of one instrument, and successfully builds towers of sound that will undoubtedly remain engaging for years to come.