When this blog started, I wrote about high-school emo bands making ridiculous racket in an Oklahoma hole-in-the-wall venue that was later razed. On Valentine’s Day, I saw a woman make beautiful, artful ambient music in a North Carolina local art gallery. (Oh, how a decade can change things!) Julianna Barwick’s performance was a gorgeous one, made memorable by its unique setting.
The Carrack, a fascinating zero-commission art gallery, hosted the event. The organizers of the Carrack are strictly there to facilitate the existence of the space; they turn control of the space over to local artists to create the exhibitions in the gallery. Each artist gets the space for two weeks, organizing it however they want; any and all sales of art exhibited there go directly to the artist, with no cut for the gallery. You should definitely read up on its goals and strategies if you’re interested in community art.
The small gallery was a perfect space for Barwick and opener Vassilus to play. Both artists used a projector to show looped images that corresponded to their sounds: Vassilus’ images were dark and eerie, while Barwick’s were pictures of outer space similar to those from the Hubble Space Telescope. These images were complemented by the art on the walls and a view of downtown Durham out the windows behind the performers. It was a cool set-up.
Vassilus and Barwick make good touring partners because both are focused on the primacy of the voice in ambient/electronic settings. Vassilus’ take on that formula resulted in dystopian soundscapes populated by dark, mystical lyrics that invoked feelings of uneasiness, dread, and doom. The synth-heavy textures that formed the foundation of the tunes were never abrasive; they moved lightly in contrast to the brash baritone voice that powered the songs. I’m not sure if Vassilus would call themselves witch house, but fans of that sort of dark, claustrophobic, eerie mood would find this oddly-difficult-to-Google group right up their alley.
Although both bands were vocal-centric, their sets were night-and-day opposites. Barwick invited the audience to sit down in front of her on the gallery floor, creating a warm, inviting environment for her beautiful, ethereal music. She loops her own voice repeatedly when she performs, creating whole choirs of point, counterpoint, and harmony. She would occasionally play a note or chord on keyboard to ground the tunes, but the focus was squarely on the arching, soaring vocal performances. Barwick’s wide vocal range made her work even more impressive, as she could swoop from the highest soprano to booming alto with ease.
Barwick’s lush, sweeping sound was a perfect fit for Valentine’s Day; cuddling couples were present in high number. Instead making me uncomfortable (as it would in most shows), it made the atmosphere even more peaceful and romantic. Her set was graceful, unbroken by much stage banter other than the occasional “thank you.” The show was beautiful, and the evening was thoroughly engaging.