or This is The Most Important Thing You Will Read About Pop Music This Year
I have seen the future of rock ’n’ roll, and her name is Caterina Barbieri. Since you are wondering what the hell I am talking about, let me take you from A to B and back again.
Preface: Governments Rise and Fall But The Music of Your Life, Heart, and Memories Lasts A Lifetime.
Remember that stuff you loved in 10th grade that really embarrasses you now? It still gives you chills when it comes on the Classic Rock station, doesn’t it?
It never goes away. It never goes away.
Music is the frame of memory, especially for those of us who don’t have eight hundred thousand cellphone pics to serve as a simulacrum for actual memory. You, yes you, my friend, hang your broken heart, your ecstatic heart, your shouts of good news and your shivers of tragedy on music, don’t you?
Trust your damn heart. That’s the definition of Rock ’n’ Roll.
Part I: What is Rock?
Rock is any sound that moves me, troubles me, causes elation or ecstasy, promotes ease or tension; it is anything that enchants me and surrounds me.
Sometimes I will hear Petula Clark singing every teenager’s dream of inclusion over perfect mod horns, and I will think, oh baby, that’s rock’n’roll. Other times, I’ll be totally warped and wrapped by Satie’s holy whispers, and I’ll think, yessir, that’s rock’n’roll. Or maybe I’ll hear Tuvan throat singers hissing and howling with the buzz heard in both Genesis and Revelation, ohhhhh that hum heard in the womb and the same one we will hear at the end of time, and I’ll know, ohyeah, that’s rock’n’roll. And how about Madonna whumping and huffing through the sassy, Ramones-simple synth punk of “Ray of Light”, swinging on the Eternal Monkey Bars of the Two Chord Playground? You betcha that’s rock’n’roll. And have you heard the mad electric organ on Bob Marley’s Ali-like challenge to the Dark Lord who rides to town in a Coffin, “Mr. Brown”? Doesn’t get any more rock’n’roll then that.
Fingers around my throat, fist up my bottom, both of them meeting to tenderly stroke my heart: That’s rock’n’roll.
So even if I use the word “Pop” a whole lot in this piece, I want to say that, well, if it conjures a certain feeling in my – whether it’s the Carpenters or Penderecki, the Beach Boys or Boston or the hum from the refrigerator in the deli down the street – I’ll call it rock’n’roll. So we are really talking about the continual rebirth of The Rock and The Roll here.
It’s important to remember that rock’n’roll is a state of the mind, a state of the heart, a bucket for your tears, a protector of the fearful and lonely. It can be anything. So…
Part II: Watch Yr Narrative, Honey
Certain writers – heck, a lot of writers – appear to think that pop –wait, make that Pop – can only be the stuff falling off of the branches and growing out of the roots of one single tree. Admittedly it is a very large tree, but it’s a single tree nonetheless. Sticking to this story, putting all your Pop under the shade of just this one tree, does not allow for different narratives.
Here’s the narrative you’re familiar with:
In the 19th and 20th Century, America’s willing and unwilling immigrants re-assembled their traditional and archaic elements of rhythm, melody, and harmony into something that becomes the distinctly American forms of blues, folk, Cajun, Hillbilly, country, gospel, etcetera.
When subjected to cultural and racial integration, migration, electrification, and the influence of shorter pop formats disseminated by the piano roll, vaudeville, minstrelsy, and the radio, these components emerge in the years immediately following the Second World War as the (very) recognizable forms of r’n’b, doo-wop, jump blues, country, and rock’n’roll.
These strains evolve fairly steadily (profoundly altered by the onset and ubiquity of Beatle-ism, but this is another story), diversifying into the many, many forms of pop, rock, r’n’b, country, jazz, reggae, and hip hop we are all familiar with and hear (both environmentally and intentionally) every day.
This narrative (massively simplified here, of course) accounts for virtually all the current forms of pop music.
There is another narrative entirely.
Standing on the shoulders of this entirely separate narrative, we find some of the most fascinating and engaging music being made in the 21st century.
In other words, due to an evolutionary trail that has virtually nothing at all to do with the one (very loosely) detailed above, we may find the future, and one helluva future it is, too.
This other narrative begins long after the one we just discussed (we shall call the first narrative discussed The Juba/Celt Narrative). This “other” narrative begins relatively recently, in the mid-20th Century.
Now, all these narratives have central figures, high profile artists who can be easily identified as a catalyst in the origin, development, and popular dissemination of a certain story. Although this can be misleading, it is an effective tool, especially when trying to shorthand the whole thing. For instance, we might state that Elvis Presley is the central figure of the Juba/Celt Narrative, even though it could be just as accurate to say that Ike Turner, Emmett Miller, Hardrock Gunther, Goree Carter, and especially Louis Jordan “invented” modern rock’n’roll. But since so many evolutionary trails (hillbilly, r’n’b, jump blues, gospel, electrification of the hillbilly combo, etcetera) coalesce very publicly with Presley, it is efficient and not inaccurate to anoint him as a central figure in the Juba/Celt Narrative.
The “Elvis” of this “other” narrative, the one we are about to discuss, is La Monte Young.
La Monte Young (born in 1935, and still alive) is the profoundly original and influential maxi-minimalist drone composer whose work led directly to the innovations (and adaptations) of Terry Riley, Steven Reich, Phillip Glass, the Velvet Underground, Glenn Branca, and many, many others. In this “other” narrative, we may also see significant antecedents in the work of Schoenberg, Cage, Ives, Satie, and Henry Cowell, plus some other names my Berklee friends can chime in with.
But what exactly is this “other” narrative that begins with La Monte Young?
It is ultra simple music of almost mountainous impact that discards virtually all “traditional” Western/post-Renaissance/non-secular notions of structure and expertise. It is the sound of stomps, drones, saws, hums, buzzes, the harmonics of nature and the trash and thrush of metal machine; it is the sound of overhead wires and overheard uptown busses, the slow turning of the earth and the prayer wheel. In essence, La Monte Young combined the drone-based music of India, Asia and other aboriginal cultures with the mechanical ambience of the modern world.
Although elements of this drone-based archaic sound had emerged in the Juba/Celt Narrative (a quick listen to the Carter Family, Sid Hemphill, or even Bo Diddley reveals that), the La Monte Young Narrative made archaic drone the absolute center of its evolutionary DNA, while also discarding nearly all the structural affectations of post-Stephen Foster Western pop. The La Monte Young Narrative, in essence, leapfrogs over virtually the entire Juba/Celt Narrative, linking prehistory and pre-Western music with the manufactured noise of the Industrial age.
Shortly after Young emerged in the late 1950s, the artists working with and expanding the La Monte Young Narrative became more fascinated with the psychoacoustic properties of harmony, repetition, and density (as displayed in the work of everyone from Glass to Stuart Dempster, Terry Riley to James Tenney). More significantly, The LMYN becomes greatly facilitated (even defined) by the rapid developments in music technology, specifically electric organs, synthesizers, and sequencers (and later, digital recording and editing).
Around 1974, largely thanks to the innovations of Kraftwerk (who blended bubblegum pop with the mesmeric density and repetition of the LMYN-influenced avant garde), the La Monte Young Narrative begins to impact pop (we will consider the Velvet Underground, who were profoundly influenced by Young, an outlier). From Kratfwerk (and the Velvets), the influence of the LYMN spread to the work of Giorgio Moroder, and it is echoed in the radio-friendly minimalism of Low-era Bowie, PiL, Radiohead, Stereolab, and guitar based acts like Sonic Youth, Swans, and a tapestry of noise metal and dark metal bands, each of whom reflected influences that could be traced back to the LMYN.
But essentially, these earlier pop ideations of La Monte Young Narrative are a sidebar.
Every single one of us been drawn back to the drone, the unison chant, the note that hypnotizes and frightens, balms and repulses. When you were on the playground, didn’t you ever challenge a friend to sing or hum or chant in unison with you, and you achieved a strange kind of ecstasy you could rarely find in pop?
The La Monte Young Narrative liberates that compulsion, and turns it into the foundation of a genre. It is only a matter of time before that genre becomes the basis of a common Pop.
Part III: From the Endless Sea, which is the color of olives and ink, Arises the Future.
In the last few years, a small group of artists are finding a way to make artistically compelling and aggressively brilliant music that has a very direct connection to the La Monte Young Narrative.
These artists include two of the most noteworthy artists of the last few years: Anna Von Hausswolff and Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith.
Hausswolff takes the energy of Scandinavian Dark Metal and channels it into a churchy, holy resonance that resembles Kate Bush if she went back to the car between takes and listened to Heilung and Impaled Nazarene. Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith uses analog synths and sequencers in such a remarkably emotional, original, melodic and affecting manner that she genuinely evokes the spirit of Brian Wilson, who also grabbed the silhouettes of birds and ballet dancers and transcribed them to sound. Although Smith’s music is clearly linked to the work of Riley, Reich, and Glass, I do not think of it as experimental, but as the cliffs-edge of a new pop.
And that’s where Caterina Barbieri comes into the picture.
Barbieri is a Berlin-based, Italian-born artist who also rises from the La Monte Young narrative. More specifically, she emerges from the branch of LMYN personified by Terry Riley, Steve Reich, and Phil Glass, makers of psych-stirring, knot winding and knee curling music that has the spiraling energy of dervish prayers and the intensity of subway brake noise. Importantly, she also carries with her the sweeter, more melodic lineage of the LMYN-based Krautrock artists, especially the work of the god-like Hans Joachim Roedelius.
Removing analog synthesizers and sequencers from both the dance floor and the concert hall, Barbieri engages the bubbling, randomized aspects of Riley, Glass and Reich to create deeply affecting, psychotronic investigations and stimulations of the mind and memory. At the same time, Barbieri never gets too far from an element of immediacy and accessibility that will be familiar to fans of both Kraftwerk and Pink Floyd (and it’s not that she sounds like either; she just summons the feel and effect of both).
On her two full-length albums (and in her riveting, transporting live performances), Barbieri summons the dot-dashes and Buddhist Mandala circles of Riley and Reich, but reduces them to a rapturous, almost joyous bubblegum. She also never lets the machines talk for her – she uses them as expressive, emotive tools.
Barbieri’s music is always in motion, even when it appears to be at its most still. Like all great post-Spector pop, there is a keen and constant sense of dynamic, layer, addition, subtraction, surprise, tension, and release (the only great pop band who completely discarded dynamic was the Ramones). Barbieri’s music gets inside your soul in a way that transcends thought, and it is in a constant state of engagement, alternately alerting, soothing, seductive, challenging, and enrapturing.
She also dispenses, almost as a defining element, a captivating psychotronic effect. This intention is revealed in the actual song titles: These include “This Causes Consciousness to Fracture” (which pretty much does exactly what it claims to); “Information Needed to Create an Entire Body” (which sounds like DNA trails transcribed); and “We Access Only a Fraction” (which sounds like the theme to a race between a thousand and eight brains to reach the finish line of human potential). In fact, the title of her fascinating and magnificent 2017 album, Patterns of Consciousness, pretty much gives us the idea of what’s going on throughout her music. Yet no one, not even a half-eared Rolling Stone-reading Eagles fan, would ever mistake this stuff for ambient, or chill-out type stuff. It is absolutely full of intention, tension, and energy. Unsettling yet environmental, it feels utterly natural, yet also reflective of everything organic and manufactured in our world.
It amazes me that there we still celebrate fools like Billy Corgan when there are actual geniuses like Caterina Barbieri out there, literally mining the future, scraping the cloudface away from the sky to find the silver and gold of a new pop.
Part IV: So Where Are We, class?
Pop evolves. Yes it does.
This is why today the radio plays Eminem and Coldplay, and we call this pop, and not the chants and stomps and drones of the Sons of Abraham who built the Pyramids (‘cos that was pop too, and only those who are incurably Beatlecentric might not know this). The Species Pop (and I am calling any common, loved, levitating, spiritually enlightening or socially engaging song Pop) has many, many narratives, and many, many Master Trees, with many, many roots: And although we have primarily lived in the age of the Juba/Celt Narrative, it is inevitable, heck, wonderful, that other narratives will surface.
And we may be verging on the era of another one, and artists like Caterina Barbieri are the pioneers, the beacon wielders, the bacon bakers, the Bunsen burners, the West Side Cowboys, the soothsayers, the fortunetellers, the forerunners.