Julia Holter Aviary

[Domino; 2018]

Styles: chamber pop, experimental orchestral, birdsong
Others: Nite Jewel, Joanna Newsom, Richard Dawson, Joni Mitchell

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.

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