By day, Marc Barreca serves as a bankruptcy judge in Seattle, a job he's held since 2010. By night, he creates fascinating experimental-electronic music. It's a weird and unique dichotomy, but Barreca treats the situation as if it's no big deal, even while admitting in an interview at his West Seattle studio that these "worlds don't intersect even a little bit, so it's an odd set of affairs."
Few of Barreca's coworkers know about his musical activities. He senses that they just wouldn't get it, and his personality prohibits him from blabbing, though there's no law forbidding him to speak of it, as long as he doesn't promote himself from the bench. "I've scoured the canons of judicial ethics," Barreca says, "and I saw nothing in there about electronic music, as long as I promise not to make any money at it... which is assured."
We laugh, because the market for Barreca's brand of cerebral tone exploration is minuscule. But those who do love it, do so passionately. For example, a clerk for a New York district court judge once gushed, "Oh my god! You are the same guy who did [the 2012 album] Tremble... and you're a bankruptcy judge? I love this!" If only more legal professionals did what Barreca's doing, our society might be better off.
Back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Barreca was one of a handful of Seattle/Olympia musicians making distinctive electronic recordings and performing live improvisations, most of which had gone largely ignored until this decade, when small labels like New York's RVNG Intl. and Germany's VOD began reissuing the works of K. Leimer, Savant, Young Scientist (Seattle's first live electronic band, featuring Barreca, James Husted, and the Blackouts' Roland Barker; Barreca describes them as sounding like Zeit-era Tangerine Dream), and the good judge himself. Going to law school and raising a family halted Barreca's musical career from about 1986 to 2006. But once his kids had gone to college and he left his high-pressure law firm for the bench, Barreca resumed recording and put out several full-lengths that have strengthened his legacy as one of Seattle's foremost purveyors of heady minimalist composition.
Whereas his professional life is highly structured, Barreca's music isn't conceived with any specific function in mind. He mainly thinks of it as something you'd want to hear on a powerful stereo system in your home, as you would the work of vintage synth music by Morton Subotnick and Pauline Oliveros, both of whom Barreca reveres.
Discussing his latest collab with Leimer, Dual Mono, Barreca describes it as "objectively trying to be minimal ambient. I don't want to say 'music for airports,' but sort of intended to be subliminal, background-y, but good."
Speaking of Leimer, Barreca considers his music "more smoothly harmonic. Mine is a little more dynamic. I've always liked Subotnick, so it's sort of like if you could picture Robert Fripp and Brian Eno meeting Morton Subotnick on a cold night or something, that's what I've striven for. You get a lot of intense electronic stuff in there alongside some ambient sensibilities."
In recent years, Barreca's mysterious, ambient-leaning excursions have enjoyed a renewed interest thanks to RVNG Intl.'s March reissue of his 1983 masterpiece, Music for Industry Works (via its Freedom to Spend subsidiary). Earlier this year in these pages, I called it a "classic critique of capitalism set to post–My Life in the Bush of Ghosts eeriness." The record abounds with subtly unnerving atmospheres, hypnotic rhythms, and a riveting sense of systemic malfunction. It's a rare fusion of industrial-inflected production with the quirky percussion accents of exotica.
Further profile raising has come through Leimer's Palace of Lights, which has issued several of Barreca's recent albums on CD, while re-releasing on vinyl his local touchstone of early electronic music, 1980's Twilight. You should also check out Barreca/Leimer's recent releases, 2015's Field Characteristics and 2017's double CD Dual Mono, for an exemplary display of discreet electronic-music intricacy that would please fans of Brian Eno and Tim Hecker.
When he was working on Twilight and Music Works for Industry, Barreca had no inkling people would clamor for them nearly four decades later. "I was doing it because I thought it was a cool thing to explore," he says. "This sounds bad, but I wasn't making it for an audience. I was trying to make stuff that I would want to hear. I would hope that some other people would have the same taste and want to hear it. It blows me away that anybody would want to revive it 35 years later.
"One of the things I'm pleased about now," Barreca continues, "is how much young people have accepted electronic music, even if it's mainly dance music, but certainly the ambient, which is closer to what we would have been aiming at back then."
"I find it interesting and admirable that [Barreca's] music has evolved and changed so much over the years, without ever really abandoning the original thread he was following," says experimental musician and Wayward Music Series curator Steve Peters, who played saxophone on Barreca's Twilight and Music Works for Industry in the early 1980s.
In a rare live performance at Machine House Brewery in June, Barreca played a Roland accordion—with which he triggered all sorts of loops—and a laptop (one of the only times I've seen an electronic musician not use a Mac) to coax ambient sounds as tranquil as aquarium bubbles and burbles, a turquoise aural mist à la Jan Jelinek and Masayoshi Fujita. Barreca's set spanned molecular new age, skewed coldwave, and the introspective dance approach of Music Works for Industry. Much of it consisted of barely perceptible ebbs and flows of mutedly radiant tones, hinting at a sacred stillness. Many people were sitting and meditating.
After the show, we chatted briefly, and Barreca complained about the hum coming from the MHB's massive refrigerator; I honestly thought it was part of his set. Later he revealed that his next album will have more "internal beats—rhythm as texture." While we were talking, a man perhaps in his 60s said, "I didn't get [what you were doing], but it sounded great."
And that casual remark summarizes Barreca's status as an elder statesman of Seattle's electronic-music history—a shadowy figure whose elusive work lures you in, if only you'd dig deeply enough to know about it.