Essential New Music: Caterina Barbieri’s “Fantas Variations”

“Fantas” originally appeared on Caterina Barbieri’s 2019 LP, Ecstatic Computation, as a cascade of tone-bursts that bounced, Superball style, away from a descending melody. The piece contained a built-in paradox; while each of its synthetic sounds was a massive, disco-worthy blast, its indelible theme was infused with wistful melancholy. Contradictions are great starting points for reinterpretation, and the Italian electronic musician set about seeing just how far afield the tune could be taken. She invited a diverse array of musicians—including saxophonist Bendik Giske, guitarist Walter Zanetti and organist Kali Malone—to see what they could make of it, and eight (nine on the download) comprise Fantas Variations.

While this might sound like the premise for a typical remix record, the results place Barbieri’s work within an older tradition of reinterpretation. Although her main instrument is the Buchla modular synthesizer, her first was the classical guitar, on which she studied modern, baroque and Renaissance repertoire at a conservatory in Bologna. And while Barbieri’s compositions deliver an undeniable emotional charge, their rigorous arrangements correspond to classical structural principals. 

All of which means that “Fantas” makes as much sense performed by Evelyn Saylor’s all-female vocal ensemble as it does Carlos Maria’s arsenal of old drum machines. Zanetti’s layered treatment and liquid tone seeks to dispel the tune’s blues (much like ex-Emeralds guitarist Mark McGuire’s solo recordings) and couldn’t be farther in sentiment from Malone’s sepulchral rendition.

The double-vinyl edition of Fantas Variations breaks down into two tracks per side, which exerts a certain formal discipline, but Barbieri messes with the flow by putting a locked groove in the middle of one side. While repetition is inevitable, complacency, it seems, is out of the question.

—Bill Meyer