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“Sunlight, Heaven”–Julianna Barwick–Records Under the Radar

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Photo by Juliana Mazza

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The music of Julianna Barwick is nearly wordless; it is composed almost entirely of her non-verbal vocalizations. She sings and then loops her own voice, over and over, slowly building the song from scratch. It is reminiscent of hymns, of monks chanting, of reverberations in a cave. Her voice is beautiful: it can be keening or round and clear as a bell. She often uses a variety of vocal tones, sampled and layered atop one another, to construct her compositions.

The tracks comprising Barwick’s debut EP, Florine, are not “songs” in the traditional sense. There is no verse or chorus, no hook or even a readily discernible melody. Rather, it is as though each song slowly approaches the listener, initial tendrils of sound floating languidly by, and then increasing in speed and frequency, until the layering, looping sounds become a deluge. Then, after building to a peak, the song recedes, like the tide going out.

The one track with identifiable words is “Choose,” whose lyrics consist of Barwick singing “Anyway you choose” and then looping that short phrase over and over itself, constructing a sort of round. The song has a certain primal insistence, not only for the way it recalls field recordings of primitive tribes, or the basic synthesizer thump that accompanies her singing.  Indeed, this song and all the others on Florine are primal and essential because they are composed with that oldest and most basic of instruments, the human voice. It seems only natural that there are songs titled “Sunlight, Heaven” and “Cloudbank”—as though Barwick is chanting in worshipful recognition of the natural world. That might seem to be hyperbole, except that the songs revel so in their own sound, celebrating the power and nuance that is present inside every voice.

The only real irony is that Barwick utilizes the technology of samplers to acheive these transcendent sounds, but even that drops away when one sees Barwick perform live. Yes, she uses a sampler, but the starkness of the stage—empty except for her small frame, a microphone, and what amounts to a little metal box on the ground—reemphasizes the beauty and potency of the sounds she produces. It is a sound both new and ancient, and it strikes at the very center of human aural experience.

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