Image Credit: RVNG Intl.
Just like 'indie', 'alternative' and 'experimental', 'ambient' is an unhelpful – even useless – term in music. In fact, the amount of music that isn't 'indie' in some form is a minority. What exactly is music 'alternative' to, when popular music can encompass virtually anything? What is music if not an experiment? Likewise, there is very little music that is truly ambient: a lot of music described as ambient is derivative of other works in the genre, and has very little concern with concepts of space and atmosphere. It just sounds sort of pretty.
But Julianna Barwick's latest release is an exception, as a body of work which was actually composed with and for the filling of space. The music was first written for a newly opened New York hotel, named Sister City, which commissioned Barwick to create music to be played throughout its lobby. It was also composed using AI technology that tracked the New York skyline, which Barwick then used as a stimulus. Ambience for the purists.
Circumstance Synthesis seems to follow Eno's dictum of his seminal ambient tetralogy, that 'it must be as ignorable as it is interesting.' It follows a cycle, that of a single day. The tracks are entitled 'morning', 'noon', 'afternoon', 'evening' and 'night'. If you stretched the pieces out across this actual time-span, the music would fit this structure well. As Eno would say, the music does not demand attention, but allows attention to shift in and out of it naturally.
However, despite the surface-level simplicity, Barwick does not skimp on substance. That is one of the most satisfying things about this piece of work: there is musicianship behind the spacious production and the lush flurry of sounds which wash in and out of the arrangement. In 'morning', various tracks of Barwick's reverb drenched vocals swim in and out of each other's paths creating a fascinating progression of harmony. The melodies are woozy and modal, overlapping and giving way to one another over scattered pulses of sparse percussion and watery synths. Throughout the following pieces, this tone and atmosphere is altered with changes of pulse and sonic lens; as the musical day ends its arc, the production becomes more muffled, or muted. But the sound is still ethereal, whether in light or in shade. It is consistent but nevertheless effortlessly compelling.
As 'afternoon' passes to 'evening', the synths seem to begin taking over from the vocals as we imagine the sun beginning to set. The synth melodies soar heroically, but with a beautiful touch of pathos, over Barwick's subdued tones. Finally, as 'night' comes around, cute, bouncy synths teeter across the dimmed atmosphere over lullaby-esque vocal drones and melodic phrases.
Barwick creates a captivating EP which harbours a great attention to detail, and a fascination with the world and its many registers and subtleties of atmosphere. Listen while on a lonesome walk, or staring out of a window for half an hour.