There was something unreal about seeing Julianna Barwick do her sound check in Der Rathskeller Friday night. She didn’t do any “check one, check two” routine, no onomatopoeias were uttered. Instead, she held notes into the microphone, like angelic offerings. Using the console in front of her, she piled vocal on vocal and with some sort of switch, set the sounds into a loop.
Then, she stepped away. She walked off the stage, from one side to the next, listening to herself sing. Barwick talked to the people behind the soundboard while her voice emanated through the hall. It was, in my experience, unprecedented.
Barwick has been making music since 2009 and has cultivated a nice patch in ambient music, focusing primarily on voice. Her works are atmospheric, inasmuch as the strains of her voice (and others) waft through the mix, lash and luxuriate like the wheeling currents above.
There are other elements (electronic beeps and clattering drums stutter through “Prizewinning,” for instance, off her 2011 album The Magic Place, and her latest album, 2013’s Nepenthe, added more strings and piano), but what distinguishes her songs is the airiness of the vocals.
You might think, at first, that her music is too entrenched in ambient music to make sense live. But rather than play the part of studio rat, Barwick brings herself out and with her array of sound technologies, makes magic.
The venue was made up rather nicely for the concert. Tables/chairs were rearranged about half an hour before opener Muuny went on, and the lights were strategically darkened to create ambiance for the performers. Red light, shining from the top of the pillars where the arches started or stopped, spread over the brick patterning nicely.
Der Rathskeller, of course, draws a mixed crowd, and there were plenty of people there who hadn’t come to see Barwick perform, but she didn’t preclude anyone from enjoying the space either. This reviewer confesses he got a hot dog while Barwick was weaving her way through Nepenthe standout “One Half.” Reader, both song and dog were damn fine.
Muuny is an artist who works in a similar vein as Barwick. The loops he makes aren’t of his voice but bits of music. The effect is eerie. At the very start of his set, he set off something stertorous and rumbling, like electronic breathing. The music was reminiscent of Oneohtrix Point Never’s work circa Replica.
For the most part he didn’t sing. And when he did sing (like on the last song) his voice was made so low it sounded almost demonic; in fact, it sounded similar to Ezra Koenig’s vocals on songs like “Step” and “Diane Young.”
On the whole, the crowd seemed to enjoy Muuny’s set, in particular Barwick, who hopped around Der Rathskeller with a beer in hand—it’s no surprise that Barwick would take advantage of the beer selection in the Stiftskeller, since she collaborated with Dogfish Head Brewery last summer to make a limited release beer, “Rosabi.
For the most part, Barwick styled her set around Nepenthe tracks, sometimes working through two or three before the audience was able to get in any applause. Each time, there was a bit of a jolt that ran through Barwick, almost as if she was still surprised that people were coming to see her perform. But why wouldn’t they? Her music’s like a balm.
Even as, truth be told, I felt myself sagging in my chair a bit (the show started at 8 p.m. and didn’t end until 10:30 p.m.), I still felt the music’s soothing effect work over me. It was worth the mild discomfort.
“Nepenthe” is a Greek word that means “not-sorrow,” but more figuratively functions as a “drug of forgetfulness.” It’s referenced in “The Odyssey” and “The Raven,” among other works. It’s like the brownout biscuit from “Octopus Pie.” Taking Nepenthe is usually interpreted as inducing oneself with amnesia, similar to drinking the waters of the Lethe. Nepenthe was apparently inspired by a death in Barwick’s family, which would make the title apt for her.
But neither Nepenthe nor Nepenthe, I think, is about forgetting entirely. Drink from the Lethe and you forget everything. Neither is it an analgesic, or a pain-remover. Nepenthe is a means of leavening sorrow, of removing its onus. Something more mystical, more rare and in truth more desirable than amnesia. That’s what Barwick brought to Der Rathskeller.
And as an added bonus, she closed her set with two winners from The Magic Place, both at the request of the audience: “White Flag” (a song that sounds like a heavenly chorus on record and was dutifully replicated live) and “Prizewinning.”