Willie Reviews Julianna Barwick’s “Circumstance Synthesis”

Willie Reviews Julianna Barwick’s “Circumstance Synthesis”

Electronic musician Julianna Barwick’s Circumstance Synthesis sketches out a new angle of daytime from a familiar perch. RPM’s review:

The sun rises and then it sets, but everything in between is fair game for arbitrary human division. You can tell a lot about a person or group from their manner of slicing up the hours. For example, I’ve been reading Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose recently, and his faithful monks keep strict canonical hours—that is, prayer times define waking hours (matins, lauds, prime, etc.). And seeing that this cycle starts well before the sun rises made me unduly upset. I’ve never even thought to consider 2 a.m. an hour of the day proper, much less divide out most of the day before noon arrives. I understand that monks don’t work the swing shift, but still. It makes you feel a little bad. Listening to Julianna Barwick’s Circumstance Synthesis, you hear an even division of the day. In five tracks progressing from morning to night, Barwick creates as pure a song cycle as you can get. The record is built on a foundation of the only detectable cycle, and it’s the sound of time felt through the human senses. And Barwick’s vocabulary is an innate one. You don’t have to know what ambient music sounds like to know that “morning” sounds like morning and “night” sounds like night.

Barwick’s backdrop for the division of the day is the quiet contemplation of a moment. If you were to wake up at a pond and stay there throughout the day, the music would wash over you like a shifting shadow, moving far enough to change character, but slowly enough to make it all part of the same experience. The vocal echo on “morning” and “night” sound completely different. Where uncertain thought (echo) in the early hours is a groggy mind adjusting to trucks and planes and boats again, a wandering mind at night is razor-focused and capable of biting into itself. “night” details the process of escape to uncertainty, and “morning” is the transition back into sense. If you start the album over immediately after ending, the first track takes on an innocence that is almost embarrassing next to “night”’s frightening thoughts.

Though the swelling waters of the album are nearly innavigable, the key to piecing themes together is to imagine these pieces as art songs. If Schubert were playing these songs, you would hear the chords, so why not listen for the changes? The cool strength of the tonic becomes clear. On “noon,” a wisp of a rhythm appears, adding strength to the indecipherable phonemes of the vocals. The same frame of mind reveals that droning behavior does not always equal drones, like on “afternoon” and “evening.”

Julianna Barwick, photo from Bandcamp

But the real risk this record takes is incorporating what feel like interruptions. Using AI, Barwick recorded real-time environmental inputs: “an airplane, bright sun, clouds, birds.” I marked down a whole bunch of stray sounds on my first listen, which only made sense once I read about the process. Barwick translates those environmental disruptions into musical motifs. You won’t necessarily connect them between songs, but a rigorous analysis could reveal the precise conditions of the record’s recording. Where in the world did bird and airplane arrive within five seconds of each other? By reintroducing invisible sounds—the ones the human ear is so good at blocking out—the weighty, almost overdramatic depictions of day take on a new character. Though the realest kind of natural depiction includes squawking, we’re less likely to look for that in meditative music. While some of these pieces can be almost too inoffensive to make anything of, even knowing the process, the journey has enough surprises to delight both the patient and impatient listener.

Score: Glitches of the afternoon.