First Unitarian audience gets lost in layering, looping of Julianna Barwick

Julianna Barwick is a Brooklyn musician.
Julianna Barwick is a Brooklyn musician.
Posted: February 12, 2014

Snow fell Sunday night as about 60 people slid into the pews of the First Unitarian Church side chapel for Julianna Barwick's sold-out concert. Dressed in black dress, black tights, and black boots, the Louisiana-born, Brooklyn-based singer and musician offered an enchanting solo performance.

Since her Sanguine EP (2006), Barwick's music has changed very little: she loops fragments of melodies to build angelic songs with swirling harmonies. Sometimes, there's some sparse instrumentation: a couple of piano notes, a delicate synth pulse, accompaniment from a small string section.

Barwick happily remains a mesmerizing choir of one, and her popularity has increased after working with hip record labels, including Sufjan Stevens' Asthmatic Kitty and Dead Oceans.

I only recognized two songs she performed because her songs are all very similar. One was "One Half," from Nepenthe (2013) - because it was one of the rare occasions when she sang recognizable words, namely the phrase "sleep at night." Since Barwick primarily used wordless vocal snippets, it was startling to hear her utter a complete phrase. Then there was "Bob in Your Gait," from The Magic Place (2010), which was Barwick's only song to start with a guitar loop.

But it didn't matter whether the audience knew which songs Barwick played. It was optimally experienced as a seamless, shifting totality of harmony and emotion - the best approach was getting lost in the vocal swarm.

Barwick performed with her eyes closed as if in a trance. Standing behind her keyboard, her movements were minimal. To her left, a screen showed projected images. It looked as if we were passing over various alien surfaces that could've been either planets seen from a God's-eye view, or bacteria seen through a microscope. The indistinguishable quality of the images matched Barwick's indistinguishable vocals. Whether up-close or faraway, there was still a warm sense of wonder to it all.

When the projections got old, I closed my eyes to let the sounds takeover. I thought about Ben Marcus' recent book The Flame Alphabet, and how, in it, children's voices become so toxic to adults that society crumbles. For Marcus, the voice is deadly. For Barwick, in contrast, it is radically soothing. Perhaps by avoiding familiar words, and using chants and fragments, she evades toxicity and locates something profoundly medicinal about the human voice.

When I looked around, at least a couple of audience members appeared to be asleep - a reasonable consequence of the soothing music. After Barwick's finale, as people gathered their coats and scarves, a young man and woman sitting directly behind me told each other they were ashamed of themselves for falling asleep.

I don't think Barwick would mind.

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