Music Review: Beth Gibbons / Krzysztof Penderecki – Henryk Górecki: Symphony No. 3 (Symphony of Sorrowful Songs)

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Beth Gibbons / Krzysztof Penderecki

Henryk Górecki: Symphony No. 3 (Symphony of Sorrowful Songs)

[Domino; 2019]

Rating: 3.5/5

Henryk Górecki’s Symphony No. 3, known by the subtitle of The Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, is at once a fetishistic commodity, a masterpiece, and merely a thing, a sound, a lightness, and a light. With its 1992 recording on Elektra Nonesuch by David Zinman conducting the London Sinfonietta and Dawn Upshaw soloing, the symphony attained an almost mythical status, becoming, by some metrics, the best-selling classical record of all time. According to this myth and its dawning within the unspeakable beauty of these sorrowful songs, Górecki, whose mystical voice is capable of giving expression to the Holocaust after which not even poetry could have been written, lives near Auschwitz and in a style of holy minimalism voices suffering itself.

With unspeakable beauty, the composer voices, according to this myth, the unspeakable in unspeakable horror and suffering, witnesses what can’t be witnessed there where the witness vanishes beneath their pain. The symphony’s lack of lyricism — in favor of the pure, sonorous insistence of a voice wavering in a void and the unraveling of a single motif until it becomes overcome with its clarity — voices a silence that is precisely that silent emptiness from where any voice arises.

In a word, the symphony is emptiness itself, laid bare. As a musical piece, it has no interiority, and, bereft of depth and profundity, lacking even sentimentality, it proclaims, like its libretti, nothing but loss, including its own. There’s no inner meaning, no moral narrative, no didactic form that might be gleaned. Rather, there’s a sonority that, in repeating itself, disrobes itself, revealing the nothingness from which a voice might sing its sorrow. Yet, when the vacuity at the source of the symphony is not heard, when it becomes a sheen of something more, an intimation of more meaning than tongue could tell, then such emptiness attracts any meaning that might gather to its light, no longer visible beneath so many wings.

The unique tone of this new recording — with Krzysztof Penderecki conducting the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra and Beth Gibbons, the ghostly voice of Portishead’s angst, soloing — is due to the fact that it returns the work by insisting on its illusory nature, to that which it always was merely a thing, a bareness, a scar. In so doing, this recording renders music back into its essence, that language that, instead of communicating meanings, is, as Adorno has it, the human attempt, doomed as ever, to name the Name, which has been dispersed.

Because, almost repeating Adorno’s well-worn dictum about poetry and the Holocaust, when Górecki was offered a commission by the Polish government to compose a work for the unveiling of a memorial cenotaph at Auschwitz-Birkenau, the composer in an interview with Tadeusz Marek was cited for having posed “the question whether the problem of Auschwitz embraces more than the subject of Auschwitz, and whether indeed it is a problem that music can fully express.” This work, the working title for which was “Barbaric Mass,” was abandoned, and even though it clamored for realization, Górecki himself suggested Penderecki as a replacement, who quickly composed Dies irae, which was performed April 1967 for the international ceremony.

It is quite fitting, then, that the composer whose atonal astringencies and strident clusters of pain found their expression of horror in such works as Threnody for the victims of Hiroshima, and the Dies oratorium might be the one who returns this all too holy work to its emptiness. Because, before any witness to pain and any question of the witness, whether a stone can return the Gorgon’s gaze, there is the immediacy of pain. Of loss and losing, there is a scene of pain where a vanishing might suddenly appear or a vanishing might be heard; it is a matter of hearing, of touching or being touched by what vanishes and, vanishing, what voices only its vanishing. As Jean-Luc Nancy writes, one episode, known under the heading Noli me tangere from the Gospel of John, gives a particularly good example of this sudden appearance within which a vanishing is played out.

It is not a parable spoken by Jesus; it is a scene from the general parable that his life and his mission make up. In this scene he speaks, he makes an appeal, and he leaves. He speaks in order to say that he is there and that he is leaving immediately. He speaks in order to say to the other that he is not where he is believed to be; he is already elsewhere, while nonetheless being present: here, but not right here. It is up to the other to understand. It is up to the other to see and to hear.

Each word of each text, each syllable and song that is enunciated in tender annunciation in Górecki’s Third Symphony, touches on this hearing that can’t touch and so is touched by a maternal love for a love that coincides with a maternal loss, a pain that is only disappearance.


One of the composer’s first works, Three Songs, op. 3 (1956), dedicated “in memory of my dear mother,” begins with a song titled “Do matki (To Mother).” Transposing a poem by the Polish poet Słowacki, the song sings of a mother passing from darkness into light, turning back for an instant to see, or to see if she can see, her son. The second song, based on a poem by the same poet, sings of children following the funeral bier of their mother. The third sings of the acceptance of death; in it, a bird flies away from its perch on a small branch that in its wake trembles with the pleasure of having been visited.

Another piece titled Do Matki (known also by the Latin name “Ad matrem”), op. 29 (1971), and dedicated to his mother’s memory, also evokes this lingering touch of departure, where arising out of the brash violence of brass, timpani, and the insistence of a choral calling “Mater mea,” a soprano solo is released, intoning in a longing lament “Mater mea, lacrimosa dolorosa” with the restraint, for instance, of branches after a wind has passed through or the shiver one sustains after a last exit through a doorway.

The Third Symphony, if it means anything at all, gathers its meaning from this sense of being touched by departure in the scene of the maternal’s doleful requiem. Like in Fra Angelico’s painting of the Noli me tangere that depicts such hands that cannot grasp that for which they yearn, there is only emptiness. Yet, in that emptiness, there where Christ’s stigmata seem to bleed from wound into the red flower heads scattered in the distance of separation, such distance becomes the only closeness, departure the only arrival, and blood flows in flowers shared. The text for the first movement, a 15th-century “Holy Cross Lament,” a kind of Stabat mater that touches on this touch, reads simply:

My son, my chosen and beloved,
Share your wounds with your mother
And because, dear son, I have always carried you in my heart
And always served you faithfully,
Speak to your mother, to make her happy,
Although you are already leaving me, my cherished hope.

In Penderecki’s hands and on Beth Gibbons’s lips, there is a sense of unsentimental urgency to reach the sharing of wounds that occurs in a distance that can be enunciated only in leaving and heard only after the sounds themselves have left. The fugal succession of the single orchestral motif that turns in on itself, impelled into a thick insistence that neither rises nor falls but grows only more immanent to itself until it can do nothing but shatter into a silence, which, marked by the resounding clarity of a single piano note, clears a trembling stillness from where Gibbon’s fragile but unyielding voice can express the only ever lost and wounded sharing of a loss.

The second text Górecki found is in a book on the “Palace,” a Gestapo prison in the southern Polish town Zakopane, in which, among the names and dates scrawled onto the prison walls, the composer observed a simple plea from an 18-year-old girl: “Mother, don’t cry. Most chaste Queen of Heaven, support me always. Ave Maria.” A simple gesture of lightness and yearning that shimmers through an orchestral swell here succumbs to a deep brooding from where a voice, as any lightness, can rise weightlessly, note by note over wavering strings, to find again the high brightness that it never left, for it was the source of its lightness, its slightness, its grace. Although the text of this song is the source of the work’s reputation as a Holocaust memorial, the young girl according to Górecki survived both her imprisonment and the war, and to abstract her Catholic prayer to a larger testament would be almost perverse in a common tendency to see Jewish pain through the light of Christian salvation.

The third text, a folk song from southern Poland, voices a mother imploring for her son’s return from war, though neither date, nor death, nor enemy are identified. Out of a wavering consternation in the orchestra, the mother’s plea simply rises and falls, consoled by strings that cushion her voice as if with the hands of so many ghosts uplifting her to a clarity in which the voice merges as with a light, resounding an A-major triad that vanishes with repetition into its echoing shroud.

Although death hovers around this symphony as its shadow, the promise of resurrection is so near to the work’s pain that it lends it its particular lightness, its ambivalence between sublimity and suffering. The pain in this work is the ambivalence of being touched by that which one nevertheless can’t touch, of being touched by this nevertheless. Likewise, its performance: The beauty in Penderecki and Gibbons’s expression, after all excess has been excised, finds its tenderness in the fragility of matter burdened by salvation’s imposition. Gibbons’s voice, urging contralto into soprano, shudders in a coarse fragility, where the ornament of opera-hall vibrato collapses into the weakness of voicing more pain than can be voiced. The strings loom faster than the famous recordings insist on a grit no resin can smooth and deny the sheer lightness that moves them, sounding of the heft and humility of merely matter.

Yet, if this work means anything at all — caught as it is between the ultimate meaning of messianic witness and just these three simple songs, nothing more, nothing less, that empty themselves even of emptiness — captures an indeterminacy in the maternal herself. Kristeva writes in her essay “Stabat Mater” that the maternal “means the ambivalent principle that derives on the one hand from the species and on the other hand from a catastrophe of identity which plunges the proper Name into that ‘unnameable’ that somehow involves our imaginary representations of femininity, non-language, or the body.” But after all pretense of the unnameable excess of meaning has vanished into an unsentimental bareness of matter and fragility, what’s left? Can such a spectacle be reduced into mere matter with no excess of signification just by insisting on its illusory nature? Can a rose disrobe its petal-form?

Even if what remains is not nothing, it’s a joy to be undone. Nothingless, and with emptiness pronounced, the light, extinguished, still somehow glistens in the dust of mothwing offal plunging in the night

SASAMI shares video for “Free” from the debut album you had no idea was coming since TMT is your only source of news from the outside world

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Former Cherry Glazer member and French Horn enthusiast Sasami Ashworth has just shared the video for “Free”—the fourth single off her upcoming debut album — which gives us the perfect opportunity to let the world know that said-album is coming out in the first place (not like the announcement was made a month ago or anything).

So here you go: SASAMI by SASAMI will be out on March 8 via Domino.

A wistful, slow-burning rock ballad with a backing-vocal cameo from Devendra Banhart, “Free” talks about how “sometimes when you lose in love, freedom is the consolation prize, and in that way, you’ve actually transcended,” which makes me think that Nintendo Switch I bought myself after my last breakup was a waste of money. The video was shot in Australia earlier this year by director Riley Blakeway.

One last thing you might’ve not known about SASAMI is that she’s likely the hardest-working solo performer on the planet right now, seemingly on tour or in the studio all 366 days of the year. Which means she’s likely to bring her melodic rock to *your* town this Spring, so be sure to skim her tour dates after clicking the album pre-order link and watching the video for “Free” below:


SASAMI tracklisting:

01. Was A Window (feat. Dustin Payseur)
02. Not The Time
03. Morning Comes
04. Free (feat. Devendra Banhart)
05. Pacify My Heart
06. At Hollywood
07. Jealousy
08. Callous
09. Adult Contemporary (feat. Soko)
10. Turned Out I Was Everyone

SASAMI tour dates:

02.27.19 – Berlin, Germany – Badehaus
02.28.19 – Hamburg, Germany – Aalhaus
03.02.19 – Copenhagen, Denmark – Bakken
03.04.19 – Brussels, Belgium – Botanique Witloofbar
03.05.19 – Amsterdam, Netherlands – Paradiso (Upstairs)
03.06.19 – Paris, France – Pop-Up Du Label
03.08.19 – London, UK – The Lexington
03.12 – 3.15.19 – Austin, TX – SXSW
04.02.19 – San Diego, CA – Soda Bar
04.03.19 – Los Angeles, CA – The Echo
04.09.19 – San Francisco, CA – Rickshaw Stop
04.11.19 – Portland, OR – Doug Fir
04.12.19 – Seattle, WA – Barboza
04.13.19 – Vancouver, BC – Wise Hall
04.15.19 – Boise, ID – Neurolux
04.17.19 – Denver, CO – Lost Lake
04.18.19 – Omaha, NE – Reverb
04.19.19 – Des Moines, IA – Vaudeville Mews
04.20.19 – St. Paul, MN – Amsterdam Bar and Hall
04.21.19 – Milwaukee, WI – Colectivo (Back Room)
04.23.19 – Chicago, IL – Schubas
04.24.19 – Pontiac, MI – Pike Room
04.25.19 – Toronto, ON – Baby G
04.26.19 – Montreal, QC – Quai Des Brumes
04.27.19 – Boston, MA – Brighton Music Hall
04.29.19 – Philadelphia, PA – PhilaMOCA
04.30.19 – Brooklyn, NY – Elsewhere
05.03.19 – Washington, DC – DC9
05.04.19 – Pittsburgh, PA – Club Cafe
05.05.19 – Columbus, OH – Rumba Café
05.06.19 – Nashville, TN – The Basement
05.08.19 – Dallas, TX – Three Links
05.09.19 – Austin, TX – Barracuda
05.12.19 – Arcosanti, AZ – FORM

Julia Holter makes me format all her tour dates and unveils new video for “Les Jeux To You,” TMT readers scramble to learn French

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If I could take ONE ALBUM with me to a desert island…uh, well, actually, it’d probably consist of recorded instructions on how the fuck NOT to DIE on a goddamn desert island.

But, truly: if I could take seven or eight, Julia Holter’s stunning 2018 effort Aviary would be one of them.

In fact, the only thing I can think of that could make Holter’s most recent chamber-pop stunner more memorable (particularly if I was slowly starving to death on a hideous beach somewhere with nothing to look at but tortuously endless blue sky and water) is some handy visual aids for its constituent tracks.

OH COOL LOOK: HERE’S ONE NOW. It was directed by Geneva Jacuzzi, stars Holter and Tashi Wada, and kinda puts a somewhat positive spin on the whole concept of “beach torture.” Yep, this’ll do nicely:

Julia Whole-tour:

02.19.19 – Washington, DC – U Street Music Hall *
02.20.19 – Philadelphia, PA – Underground Arts *
02.22.19 – New York, NY – Warsaw *
02.23.19 – Boston, MA – Brighton Music Hall *
02.24.19 – Montreal, QC – La Sala Rossa *
02.26.19 – Toronto, ON – The Great Hall *
02.27.19 – Detroit, MI – El Club *
02.28.19 – Chicago, IL – Thalia Hall *
03.01.19 – St. Paul, MN – Turf Club *
03.04.19 – Vancouver, BC – Imperial ^
03.05.19 – Portland, OR – Doug Fir ^
03.06.19 – Seattle, WA – Neumos ^
03.08.19 – San Francisco, CA – Great American Music Hall ^
03.09.19 – Los Angeles, CA – Lodge Room ^
03.10.19 – San Diego, CA – The Loft, San Diego State University ^
05.27.19 – Guimaraes, Portugal – Centro Cultural Villa Flor
05.28.19- Garda, Italy – Teatro Municipal de Guarda
05.29.19 – Lisbon, Portugal – Capitólio
05.31.19 – Barcelona, Spain – Primavera Sound Festival
06.02.19 – Hilvarenbeek, Netherlands – Best Kept Secret Festival
06.03.19 – Brighton, UK – The Old Market
06.04.19 – Birmingham, UK – Glee Club
06.07.19 – London, UK – Field Day Festival
06.08.19 – Paris, FR – Vilette Sonique
06.09.19 – Luxembourg – Rotondes
06.12.19 – Bergen, Norway – Bergen Festival
06.13.19 – Oslo. Norway – Piknik I Parken
06.16.19 – Duisburg, Germany – Traumzeit Festival
06.17.19 – Schörndorf, Germany – Manufaktur
06.20.19 – Linz, Austria – Rosengarten
06.21.19 – Vienna, Austria – WUK
06.23.19 – Milan, Italy – Magnolia
06.24.19 – Ferrara, Italy – Cortile Castello Estense
06.25.19 – Zurich, Switzerland – Kaufleuten
06.26.19 – Lucerne, Switzerland – Südpol
06.29.19 – Bialystok, Poland – Halfway Festival
07.04.19 – Roskilde, Denmark – Roskilde Festival

* Jessica Moss
^ Tess Roby

Portishead’s Beth Gibbons and the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra to release new film/album of Henryk Górecki’s Symphony No. 3

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Henryk Górecki’s Symphony No. 3 has been getting some notable love lately — and that’s saying something when you consider how appreciated the “sorrowful” piece generally is among composers, classical musicians, and maybe even the construction workers who secretly dabble in cynicism as they consciously build our futile symbols of humanity. Saxophonist Colin Stetson released his own rendition of the three-movement symphony a few years ago; and now, famed vocalist and songwriter, Beth Gibbons (whom, 11 years back, rejoined her Portishead cohorts for a Third and seemingly final album) is now putting to wax her own performance, recorded in 2014 at the National Opera Grand Theater in Warsaw, Poland.

Krzysztof Penderecki conducted the performance in-question, with Gibbons joining the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra and director Michał Merczyński giving glorious sight to the sad sounds. Domino will be sponsoring the release of both audio and film of the gig on March 29.

As one might expect, Gibbons reportedly prepped intensely for the performance. See for yourself via the short trailer for the release down below — and, as soon as your eyes are dry again, head here to pre-order on vinyl and CD.


Henryk Górecki: Symphony No. 3 (Symphony of Sorrowful Songs) tracklisting:

01. I. Lento—Sostenuto tranquillo ma cantabile
02. II. Lento e largo—Tranquillissimo
03. III. Lento—Cantabile-semplice

Avey Tare calmly announces new album Cows On Hourglass Pond, quietly shares video, doesn’t shriek or anything

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Remember Avey Tare’s 2017 album Eucalyptus?

Well FORGET THAT SHIT. There’s a NEW one coming out.

Yes, Dave Portner (of Animal Collective? Remember them?), has just announced a new album, Cows On Hourglass Pond, for release on March 22 via Domino. And TOTALLY UNLIKE his last album, this one was “recorded between January – March 2018 by Dave Portner at Laughing Gas in Asheville, NC on a Tascam 48 half-inch reel-to-reel tape machine. The album was mixed by Adam McDaniel and Dave Portner at Drop of Sun in Asheville, NC.”

Wow, impressive string of words, right?

The first song to be unveiled from the album is called “Saturdays (Again).” The accompanying video — directed by Abby Portner — can be viewed down below. “For the “Saturdays (Again)” video,” she says, “I wanted to try and create what it would look like inside Avey Tare’s new record cover, if you were to step inside and hang out with Dave and the cows in a surreal, colorful landscape. Since I did parts of the record art and paintings in the press photos, I wanted it to all be included inside this video.”

Wow, impressive string of words, right?

Well, guess what? There’s also an impressive string of spring tour dates coming our way! Check those out down below too.

Oh but wait! First, pre-order the album physically here and digitally right over here!

Wow, impressive string of pre-order links, right?

Okay. I’m done. You might wanna hurry up and get ON all this new shit, though, before someone from Animal Collective announces something EVEN NEWER on us and renders all this shit totally obsolete!


cite>Cows On Hourglass Pond vinyl tracklisting:

Side A
01. What’s The Goodside?
02. Eyes On Eyes
03. Nostalgia in Lemonade
04. Saturdays (Again)
05. Chilly Blue

Side B
01. K.C. Yours
02. Our Little Chapter
03. Taken Boy
04. Remember Mayan
05. HORS_

Bonus 10-inch – Side A
01. Tipped in Hugs

Bonus 10” – Side B
01. Dog Says Goodbye

Avey Tour:

03-21 – Knoxville, TX – Big Ears Festival
03-28 – Asheville, NC – The Mothlight
03-29 – Baltimore, MD – Ottobar
03-30 – Philadelphia, PA – PhilaMOCA
04-01 – Brooklyn, NY – Market Hotel
04-02 – Burlington, VT – ArtsRiot
04-04 – Toronto, ON – Horseshoe Tavern
04-05 – Detroit, MI – Deluxx Fluxx
04-06 – Chicago, IL – Co Prosperity Sphere
04-07 – St. Paul, MN – Amsterdam Bar & Grill
04-11 – Seattle, WA – Neumos
04-12 – Portland, OR – Holocene
04-13 – Arcata, CA – The Miniplex in Richard’s Goat Tavern & Tearoom
04-15 – San Francisco, CA – The Chapel
04-16 – Los Angeles, CA – The Echo
04-17 – Tucson, AZ – 191 Toole
04-19 – Dallas, TX – Club Dada
04-20 – Austin, TX – Antone’s Nightclub
04-22 – New Orleans, LA – Gasa Gasa

Panda Bear teams with Dean Blunt on new video for “Token,” expands tour

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Hide your bamboo! Panda Bear is back with another single from his forthcoming album Buoys, out February 8 on Domino. It’s called “Token” and arrives with a totally hilarious video courtesy of Dean Blunt that’s almost certainly not what you’d expect from such a hype collab.

Opening with a set of title cards narrating Dean’s failed attempts to come up with a concept, the video settles into a home video-style montage of a goofy, faux-morose, camera-shy Dean riding bumper cars, navigating the horrors of a modern-day amusement park, and flying drones. As Noah Lennox sings about “a slap on a jelly ass” (!?) and getting into some kind of building, we follow Dean through what looks like a slow descent into the most cuddly mental breakdown of all time, all strobelights, kaleidoscopic stuffed prizes, and one oddly satisfying ending. The happiest Dean, it seems, is the one who has lost his mind.

As with first single “Dolphin,” “Token” and its heavily-delayed acoustic guitars represent a chillaxed change in direction following Panda Bear’s bumpin’ vinyl-only 2018 EP, A Day With The Homies. Check out the video below, along with expanded tour dates.

Panda Bear tour dates:

02.11.19 – Washington, DC – 9:30 Club
02.12.19 – Boston, MA – Paradise
02.14.19 – Brooklyn, NY – Pioneer Works
02.15.19 – Brooklyn, NY – Pioneer Works
02.16.19 – Chicago, IL – The Art Institute of Chicago
02.18.19 – Los Angeles, CA – Lodge Room
02.19.19 – Los Angeles, CA – Lodge Room
02.20.19 – San Francisco, CA – The Regency
04.19.19 – London, England – Electric Brixton
04.20.19 – Rotterdam, Netherlands – Motel Mozaique
04.21.19 – Berlin, Germany – Kesselhaus
04.23.19 – Brussels, Belgium – Les Nuits Botanique
04.24.19 – Lisbon, Portugal – Culturgest Lisbon
04.25.19 – Madrid, Spain – Conde Duque

Panda Bear announces North American tour dates for 2019

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Can you believe it’s been over three days since we first laid eyes on this painting of Noah Lennox cradling a french bulldog!? word (figuratively) <came through the wire about Panda Bear’s new album Buoys?!?

Well, it turns out indie music’s most iconic ursine is (literally) back in the headlines already with the extremely timely announcement of his 2019 tour across the North America…and panda bears aren’t even indigenous to that continent!

So I’ll make this simple: if you love the new single “Dolphin” — which is an altogether different animal (watch the video below) — and are confident in your need to see Noah Lennox’s electro-acoustic crooning live and in concert, check out those dates below and, you know, buy tickets! Now make like the sea and support Buoys (out February 8)!

Panda Bear live in an uninhabitable climate:

02.11.19 – Washington, DC – 9:30 Club*
02.12.19 – Boston, MA – Paradise Rock Club
02.15.19 – Brooklyn, NY – Pioneer Works
02.16.19 – Chicago, IL – The Art Institute of Chicago
02.18.19 – Los Angeles, CA – Lodge Room
02.20.19 – San Francisco, CA – The Regency Ballroom

Don’t let this amazing painting of Panda Bear holding a french bulldog distract you from the announcement of his new album Buoys

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A few months ago, Animal Collective released an audio-visual album called Tangerine Reef. Notably, Noah Lennox a.k.a. Panda Bear was absent from the proceedings for the first time in the band’s history. But don’t think for a second that the fluffiest animal in the collective was just eating bamboo all day while sitting around doing nothing though. No, Panda Bear was eating bamboo all day while sitting around recording a brand new album! It’s called Buoys, and it’s out February 8 via Domino.

Buoys will be Lennox’s sixth full-length Panda Bear album. After the vinyl-only release of his A Day With the Homies EP earlier this year, it will be a proper follow-up to 2015’s Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper.

Lennox co-produced and co-mixed the album with Rusty Santos, whom he last collaborated with on Person Pitch; so please allow yourself to get just a little bit more excited. Commenting on the album, Lennox says, “The last three records felt like a chapter to me, and this feels like the beginning of something new.”

Exemplifying that “something new,” Lennox has also released the album’s first single, “Dolphins.” Check out the video for the song honoring the buoys of the animal kingdom down below, as well as the album’s artwork, full tracklisting, and that painting of Lennox holding a frenchie again…because damn. Iconic.

Buoys will be out via Domino on February 8 and can be pre-ordered here.

And…here it comes:

Buoys tracklisting:

01. Dolphin
02. Cranked
03. Token
04. I Know I Don’t Know
05. Master
06. Buoys
07. Inner Monologue
08. Crescendo
09. Home Free

Music Review: Julia Holter – Aviary

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Julia Holter

Aviary

[Domino; 2018]

Rating: 4.5/5

Julia Holter has lost her mind. It is as if something inside Julia Holter has snapped. Julia Holter would like to go somewhere more quiet.

Holter recognises that too much of what holds the world together is melting, whether that be the standard of public discourse, the dignity of institutional power or the literal constituent parts of our ecosystem. Holter never used to think her music had a political aspect, though she has changed her mind about that. “What I’ve come to realize is all music is political,” Holter says. “It’s not like I’m inserting politics into my songs, it’s just there, just like it’s inherently personal.” “But parts of me are in it — when people ask if my work is ‘political’ or ‘personal,’ yes it’s both of those things, as is all art — all art is political and personal whether it wants to be or not.”

Aviary starts like a movie and it lasts as long as one: 90 minutes on the dot, the length of an independent rom-com or a forgivingly concise blockbuster. A 15-track, 90-minute ride through the deepest recesses of Holter’s most avant-garde impulses, it seeks not to make sense of the madness but to excavate the humanity out of it. Over its 90 minute runtime, structure and traditionalism are continuously overturned. Clocking in at an epic 90 minutes, Aviary is just about double the length of every album she’s made before.

Each of the album’s lengthy songs is like an exotic bird flying into view, showcasing its distinct and magnificent plumage. The term “aviary,” by Holter’s account, refers to the music’s internal conversations, which roughly evoke birdsong. The album’s title comes from a line in a 2009 Etel Adnan short story: “I found myself in an aviary full of shrieking birds.” “Ultimately, what this record feels like to me are birds as memories, or birds as thoughts,” she says. “Birds can be beautiful, but birds can also make these terrible, shrieking sounds. Just like you can have beautiful memories and terrible memories, beautiful thoughts and terrible thoughts in the mind.” “I was invoking that, that feeling of the physical presence of memory. Just like birds can be beautiful, memory can be beautiful. But birds can also be terrifying and shrieking.” “These were, like, the birds in one’s mind — thoughts flying around your head. I was feeling a lot of the noise of the world, and at the same time, the presence of my memories sharing space with my thoughts. Maybe it’s an age thing — you start to notice this as you grow older or something — but there’s so much of the past in the present of your life. To me, the birds are symbols of memory.”

“In medieval times, bird cages were used visually as a trope for a storehouse of memories (as mentioned in Mary Carruther’s Book of Memory). I thought of birds as memories flying around in the mind — beautiful birds, shrieking birds — just like beautiful memories and terrible memories.” The Book of Memory I’ve been reading for a long time, by Mary Carruthers. I haven’t read it from start to finish, but I’ve had it for a long time. It just connects a lot of things in medieval thought that I seem interested in for some reason.” She cites an interest in medieval history that prompted her to read A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century by Barbara W. Tuchman. She tried to write her own manuscripts in the manner of medieval monks. That may sound eccentric, but for Holter, it relates directly back to music.

Though both of Holter’s parents are historians, and she thinks she must have inherited some of their interest in the past, she rejects the idea that her music is ‘academic’ or ‘literary.’ She’s no more influenced by outside texts than any other musician; having earned her master’s in composition, she’s just used to citing her sources more meticulously. Though Holter insists she’s not particularly literary — “I’m a slow reader, and I don’t really know a lot,” she says — her lyrical style is deeply influenced by her encounters with other people’s writing. Her lyrics tend to be studded with historical references and esoteric quotes — Aviary drips in Tibetan Buddhist chants, Pushkin poems, Medieval troubadour songs, and fragments of Sappho, though, unless you’re an expert in any one area, you’ll need to study the lyric sheet to parse them. According to Holter, the gathering of disparate sources like these was central to her process when choosing musical points of reference for the compositions that make up Aviary.

“Art is always a process of translation, of sharing from people to people, from century to century. I don’t know what the purpose of art is, but there’s some comfort that it still exists. Why was I making this record? I don’t know. Is this a refuge for me? No, I don’t know what this is. But we have to keep translating.” It’s not the text that counts; it’s the writing, the impulse to metabolize one work and make another. “Collecting texts from different times — that type of translation of voices. For me that’s what art is: It’s a translation of voices from different times. It’s a kind of recycling.” “One of the tracks is called ‘Colligere’ (as in ‘collecting’) and that one is about the process of collecting different texts from different places and reusing it and transferring from one voice to another, this constant translation from one era to another, that sharing from era to era feels like what this is all about, and that’s all we have, to me that sharing is love.”

Ultimately, that’s what music is to her — an emotional transmission, a pure state of being, a potential vehicle for empathy so that disparate people can occasionally feel similar things in an increasingly fragmented world. “I was trying to ruminate on empathy and love,” Holter says. “I’ve been thinking a lot about love and what it is and sharing with people or something.” “I’ve been thinking about love and empathy. It seems like a time where it’s questioned daily if empathy is a real thing,” Holter says. “Am I an empathic person? That stuff seems to all be questioned in the politics of today.” “Empathy is an obstacle to people in power who know they can’t stay there if their people start working together and listening to each other.”


In the reviews and interviews surrounding Aviary, a coherent narrative has taken shape: the political climate since 2016 has driven Julia Holter to near-madness, resulting in a dense, thrilling, perplexing 90-minute album interlaced with themes ranging from birds to memory to medieval manuscript culture to the necessity of empathy to the nature and purpose of art. These themes aren’t as disparate as they appear, and they in fact relate to one another, moebius-like, such that you end up back where you began by considering each one in turn.

As Holter points out, birds have been associated with memory since at least the Middle Ages, when monks and scribes would copy and re-copy texts like Hugh of Fouilloy’s De Avibus, a collection of illustrated morality tales about birds produced in the 12th and 13th centuries (such a book was called an aviary). Through the process of re-copying, the monks would focus intently on the text, word by word, patiently immersing themselves in its aesthetic world. However, differences would inevitably emerge, as they would misread and make mistakes. The process is emblematic of Holter’s own artistic practice, as she collects, translates, and transcribes literary texts into her lyrics and compositions, changing them to suit her own ends. This is the purpose of art, this caring for the past and its people enough to transfer their work into our own era, even if imperfectly, and thus into the future (if, indeed, there is a future).

Holter’s seemingly academic interest in the distant past is not obscurantism, but rather a radical act of personal politics. Transferring texts from person to person, century to century, assumes a continuity and therefore a mutual understanding between people from wildly different eras. Recognizing something not only valuable but urgently relevant in texts from Dante, Pushkin, Sappho, and the 12th-century troubadour Bernart de Ventadorn (all adapted for tracks on Aviary) demonstrates an empathy that Holter rightly fears is missing in today’s political climate. If we can recognize ourselves in those long dead, perhaps we could recognize ourselves in those still living. Without this empathy undergirding our discourse, it devolves into the shrieking of birds.

Aviary hearkens back to Holter’s earliest records, Tragedy and Ekstasis, in its adaptation of classic texts and in its compositional process. However, it represents an astounding step forward in its scope and ambition. The claustrophobia of Loud City Song and the self-imposed aesthetic limitations of Have You in My Wilderness have given way to wide-screen, exploratory, celebratory triumph. The album’s standout tracks are those propulsive numbers that give the listener a way to orient themselves within its sprawl (“Whether,” “I Shall Love 2,” “Les Jeux to You”). Even the most challenging songs, though, unveil immersive worlds upon multiple listens (“Chiatius,” “Every Day Is an Emergency,” “Colligere”). Although it initially seems like Aviary could benefit from trimming a few songs, choosing those songs would be an insurmountable task. Together, its 15 tracks form an intimidating but coherent whole that serves as Holter’s most sophisticated and engaging release to date. For a composer of Holter’s rapidly increasing stature, that is high praise indeed.

Watch: Julia Holter – “Words I Heard”

This post was originally published on this site

“I shall love.” The way you might go to the conservatory’s fern room in the dead of winter, the way you might attend a Polish Mass in a moment of crisis, the way you might check your favorite old webzine in the middle of the night, don’t go too far. Ave Maria on Maria Ave, she writes down the address for the Loud City Aviary, cheeping, where you sit and listen to the slowing spinning song, watch them cross, tweet, “Pedestrians are flightless birds.” Unbottled, I follow moss, though it couldn’t drag me away. I’m all all’s swell, sworn in birdsong, chiming in. I’ll forget how “Hello, Stranger” got me through a winter, I’ll forget the words I heard that sealed with wax will get me through this one again. The camera looks up, again and again, a spell to ward off darkness, the seasonal caring commentary of the House kids seeing the falling leaves and mistaking them for butterflies, or maybe saying, “Oh, pretty!” at some of the Virginia countryside. It’s the kettle, it’s the film, it’s feature-length (double LP). Have One On Me In My Wilderness, it’s Julia Holter back at the piano, in the studio, finding herself out of the woods, in the clear, right where you are, that’s where she loves, “in the city of man.” And how!

Aviary is out next Friday, October 26, via Domino.