CD Reviews

Tuesday 14th December

December 15, 2010

julia holterVery tired and somewhat stressed today after a difficult day. i have been listening to music tonight through the haze of a cloudy headache, and I’m surprising myself by settling down to write about it now… If the rest of this post is even more vague than usual please understand why!

The CD I have been playing this evening, and on and off since the end of last week, is a new disc containing three pieces by Julia Holter on the Engraved Glass label as part of its .point engraved series. I don’t know very much about Holter, and google hasn’t revealed too much more to me, but that’s fine. if I was writing for The Wire here I would do the research, but as this is TWE then gut reactions and uninformed guesswork is de rigeur… Holter seems to play cello, but it would I think be fair to say that the majority of the sounds heard on this disc, which is titled Celebration involve field recordings at their heart. The first track, which is my favourite here, is named Bars in Afternoons, and as you might expect is made of recordings of said spaces, with the bars in particular here found in Paris and Los Angeles. The track begins with a clearly recorded wistful if bland piano gently floating around the sound of chattering voices and clanking cutlery and glasses. Whether all of these sounds were heard at once in the same room, or whether some layering of different recordings has taken place here its hard to tell, though certainly all of the voices are in french at this stage. A few minutes in, and Elton John’s dreadful I’m still standing can be heard, somewhat hazily, as if played on a slightly detuned radio. Then the sounds of the bar conversation are joined by the twittering of birds, and I am now sure that this is a collage of different recordings, though at the heart of it all remains the one recording from Paris. A little later, at almost the twelve minute mark, a pop song that sounds like a cross between ABBA and Nico appears, filling the foreground and staying there for several minutes while the chatter and bar sounds continue somewhere behind until the track end suddenly.

This opening track goes somewhere most field recordings don’t, though exactly where that is I am struggling to define. Holter is hiding nothing here, and is presenting just what she heard in these bars rather than focussing on the sounds we might expect (creaking doors, running taps etc) So she was in a bar when a song played, so that appears on the CD. The matter-of-factness of this piece, the documentary feeling, despite the potential amount of overdubbing done is really great. The appearance of the pop songs makes it feel very real, like something we have all experienced, and placing it here on a CD somehow makes us listen more carefully, studying the sounds, despite their seemingly everyday status. A refreshingly original piece.

The second track here, titled La Celebracion, recorded in LA and Orange County at different points earlier this year sits more comfortably in familiar field recordings territory. It opens with the dull roar of overpassing aircraft, the twitter of birds and some strange, far off sounds that could be music playing, or maybe the sound of a fairground. Despite the fact we have heard music made of these sounds before this piece is done very well indeed, with a grey haziness filling the early parts of this track that is really very beautiful. About five minutes in, some loud fireworks suddenly begin to explode in a series of loud, dull pops. Firework sounds are also far from original on this kind of release, but again they work well here, nicely chosen dramatic sounds offsetting the deadened backdrop we began with.

The closing track is a version of Harmony 17, taken from Michael Pisaro’s Harmony Series of compositions, and was originally available as a free download from the Compost and Height net label. Holter’s realisation sees her spend half an hour at Union Station, Los Angeles, late at night just before the station closed, as it apparently does every night, for just one minute. (Exactly why it does this is anyone’s guess) Holter plays cello in the station, very quietly and dry, mostly playing what must be the lowest notes possible on the instrument. She only begins playing after we have listened to the sounds of the heating and ventilation systems humming, and people’s low conversations caught in the long resonant tunnels of the space and amplified several times over. Regular readers here will be aware of my love of the sound of this kind of place, railway stations, airports, particularly in the early hours of the morning. This is a suitably beautiful recording of such a place, with as little or as much going on as you wish your ears to hear and your mind to focus upon. When the cello appears its almost a disappointment as it masks the ambient sounds slightly rather than blend into them. Amusingly, halfway through, during a space in her playing, someone approaches Holter to ask about what she is doing, sounding quite inspired by her playing rather than being upset by it. Now, in the UK, if someone sat making low droning sounds in a late night subway station they probably wouldn’t be treated so well.

While I really enjoy each of the last two tracks, it is the opening Bars in Afternoons that I am most take with here. Certainly though, while field recordings albums are ten a penny right now, and the overall quality of the genre seems to be flattening out a little, this is one disc I think stands out from the crowd, and like Anne Guthrie and Michael Pisaro’s releases on the .point engraved series from earlier this year it forms part of a nice series of discs that are testament to the taste and ear of the label’s curator, Mr riley French. Good stuff.

Comments (6)

  • Brian Olewnick

    December 15, 2010 at 2:11 am

    I’ll get to writing on this one in a week or so, but I agree pretty much with your take. That first cut is just outstanding, gorgeous.

  • michael pisaro

    December 15, 2010 at 5:03 pm

    Very happy to see you review this one Richard. I haven’t heard it yet, but know Julia well, so thought I’d just fill in a little of the info you were looking for. She’s a young (mid-20’s) Los Angeles-based composer and songwriter (and recent graduate of CalArts). Julia is one of the people for whom the boundary between experimental and pop oriented music hardly seems to exist (she’s got a release coming out in the next year on Leaving Records that totally blurs the distinction). She also does very interesting work with mixed media (especially video) and is one of the founders of HumanEar Music. She’s very talented and an integral part of the larger community of young experimental musicians here.

  • Richard Pinnell

    December 15, 2010 at 9:22 pm

    Interesting Michael, thanks. So is there any chance that the female singing voice is actually Julia?

  • michael pisaro

    December 15, 2010 at 10:57 pm

    Just got my copy today (thanks Jez!). That’s got to be Julia singing the song at the end. Wonderful track, I agree.

  • oliviablock

    December 15, 2010 at 11:12 pm

    I met Julia in California a while ago and was impressed by her, personally. I have liked the bits and pieces I have heard of hers so I am happy to see this review. I hope to hear more of her work in the future.

  • JrF

    December 16, 2010 at 9:48 am

    thanks Richard ! have only just seen this review as i’ve been struck down with flu & haven’t been well enough to turn the computer on much (crikey !). Julia’s songs are great – she has a cassette release which I think is more song based too.

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