About ten years ago, I saw a terrific show at the Whitechapel Gallery in London by an artist called Janet Cardiff. The centrepiece of the exhibition, as I remember it, was a room in which were placed a large ring of speakers, playing Thomas Tallis’ choral piece, “Spem In Alium”, in such a way that each singer’s voice emanated from a separate point.
It’s a wonderful piece of music, but experienced in this way it really emphasised the spacial possibilities of music. Here, it was possible to move about in the soundfield and hear the piece from radically different angles. I’ve seen bands try something similar with quadrophonic performances – I seem to remember a phase of Super Furry Animals doing this – but nothing quite so flexible and at times disorienting (maybe playing the Flaming Lips‘ “Zaireeka” on four stereos is the best analogue).
Anyhow, I was playing “The Magic Place” by Julianna Barwick last night, and something in there reminded me of Cardiff’s installation. Barwick’s album is released on Asthmatic Kitty and recorded in Sufjan Stevens’ place, and it almost entirely consists of her wordless harmonies, looped and layered until she completes something dense and rapturous.
There are plenty of interesting comparisons to be made here, but it’s track two, “Keep Up The Good Work”, that seems to me most connected with medieval polyphony. And the way the loops loom in and out, there’s an illusion of depth which keeps fluctuating: as if Barwick’s vocal tracks have been separated out into different channels and different speakers, and it’s possible to move among them.
Rarely, I guess, has a record so deserved to be labelled ethereal. Maybe a more realistic precedent would be the Cocteau Twins: “Vow”, in particular, has the air of something from perhaps “Victorialand” or “The Moon And The Melodies”, though I haven’t played them in years and can’t be sure. An even better example from 4AD’s eldritch phase might be Le Mystère Des Voix Bulgares, though “The Magic Place” itself and “Cloak” make me think of that choir remixed by a lunar hand like, say, Wolfgang Voigt.
A working knowledge of minimalist techno becomes more apparent on the penultimate “Prizewinning”, where the one and only beat on the album appears, muffled, deep in the mix. Gradually, though, it builds into a battery of martial drumming, an artful and unexpected climax to an album where only the odd piano, synth and a bass (on “Bob In Your Gait”) seem to supplement Barwick’s vocal science.
More references for this lovely record: spectral passages of the Bon Iver album; portions of Panda Bear’s solo work, especially “Young Prayer” (I must write about “Tomboy”, incidentally); a less gothic Fursaxa; and, I’m afraid, Sigur Ros – “Bob In Your Gait” strays perilously close to their textures for my liking.
You could, too, indict Barwick as a kind of Brooklyn Enya. But mostly it works beautifully. Let me know what you think.