In 2011, around the release of her second record The Magic Place, I asked Brooklyn’s Julianna Barwick about the ideal venue for performing her music:
Last night, Barwick played her new record Nepenthe in full, its pure white light ringing out in Manhattan’s Judson Memorial Church, completed 1893. (The woods were presumably booked.)
I’ve seen Barwick play around the city for years, making dingy rock clubs become still and repentant with her slow, swirling vocal loops. Seen her play to tiny opening act crowds who couldn’t just be inside of her abstract choral sound, just had to chat and fidget. Watching her then, though, it was easy enough to imagine the course she’d take. Her music, built from live samples of her high, angelic voice gathering scale as they gradually commingle, was always so unique and specific that I had faith from the beginning that she’d eventually gain the status to present it in its proper context. Listeners have been catching on, accumulating steadily. They’re now willing to seek her out in strange venues to sunbathe in her celestial tones. Seated, eyes closed, soul lifted. Alright.
On record, Nepenthe provides more of the undiluted prettiness Barwick’s become known for. It’s been rightly noted that the record bends as far toward conventional pop songs as she’s ever attempted. There are, like, actual words that you can hear and understand. But the overwhelming take away is still worship for the human voice and its ability to be really, really beautiful.
She performed by herself, and then with the aid of violin and guitar. The musicians were asked to perform with extreme restraint, providing ultra-deliberate melodic aid to songs built around repeating sighs. She’s toured with Sigur Ros lately, and though the influence hadn’t occurred to me before, it definitely shows now. They’ve got the same ability to transcend language and still be understood. The same ability to turn something small and precious into a huge emotional sweep. It’s so delicate at times that it almost ceases to exist. Even in this space, with the pieces adding up to something incredibly grand, a chair shuffle, a sneeze, or a camera click could pop up in an instant, suddenly on equal footing with the wall of melody. It all sounds like the feeling we assume sleepy cats have when stretched out in a fat sunbeam.
About halfway through the set Barwick was joined by another four singers, including local notables like Sharon Van Etten and members of Prince Rama (yes, including the raccoon attack victim, Taraka Larson, looking spry and recovered). The presence of additional voices was kind of illuminating. The sounds Barwick makes are unreal. You’re frequently disoriented hearing a vocal line she made minutes ago morph and sustain on into something deeper, but just as often your jaw drops at the purity of the sound she’s making before any of the layering starts. Still, even the expanding power of Barwick’s loops can’t match the heft of four, real live talented people precisely delivering them. If her star continues to rise and touring budgets continue to swell, it’d probably be a good move for her to include a modest backing choir all the time. Making the sound less elusive, adding human loops to imbue her music with more flesh and blood, that seems like a natural next step towards translating her transfixing, but ethereal art into something solid. Into something that doesn’t have to be performed in a century-old church in complete rapt silence to make full sense.
Two camera phone videos of the show popped up this morning on YouTube. While the overall quality is as limited as you’d expect, you can hear the otherwordly tones that Barwick manages to coax out of her mouth somehow, as well as the multiplying effect of four additional voices.
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