Julianna Barwick Is Using the New York Sky to Make Music
On a recent Tuesday evening, the experimental musician Julianna Barwick checked into Sister City, a new two-hundred-room boutique hotel on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. If you’re having the sort of day that makes you want to minimize human interaction, Sister City is a merciful oasis: there are self-service registration kiosks in the lobby, and each floor features a supply closet containing the sorts of sundries that you’d usually have to request from the concierge. The lobby has sparse but careful décor—clean white walls, cherry-wood furniture, floor tiles in muted shades of green and gray—suggesting a Scandinavian sauna, or perhaps the careful serenity of a Japanese stationery store; the vibe is “Serenity Now!” filtered through Instagram.
Barwick, who has long, dark hair and inquisitive eyes, is using the sky immediately above the hotel as a source for a new composition. In collaboration with Luisa Pereira, a music technologist who teaches at New York University’s interactive-telecommunications program, Barwick has devised a dynamic and perpetually evolving score, which changes in response to the atmosphere and will play in the hotel’s lobby twenty-four hours a day. A camera mounted to the roof of the building sends information about the goings-on in the airspace above the hotel (rain, clouds, pigeons, airplanes, wind, sun, moonlight, drones, helicopters, constellations, what have you) to Pereira’s program, which uses Microsoft’s artificial intelligence to cue sounds written and recorded by Barwick. The premise feels both unnervingly machine-reliant and gorgeously organic, and it provides a promising model for how art and technology might feed each other in satisfying ways.
In the nineteen-nineties, the electronic musician Brian Eno coined the phrase “generative music” to describe work he was doing with music-creation software called Koan Pro. Eno and his collaborators established constraints, conditions, and variables; the computer made songs in response. Barwick doesn’t consider herself an acolyte of Eno, though she does admire his work. “I’m not a heavy ambient-music listener, per se—all along the way, people have presumed I know Eno’s catalogue back and forth,” she said. “I was in choirs my whole life. Voice lessons in high school, an opera chorus after high school. I was always making stuff up, singing out the window, making myself cry while singing to myself. My favorite songs were the mournful, emotional, beautiful ones.”
Experimental music began for her with a guitar loop pedal that she borrowed from a friend. “It appealed to my constitution,” she said, “not knowing what was going to happen, and being able to do it all really quickly.” She self-released a début LP, “Sanguine,” in 2006, and put out her first full-length album, “The Magic Place,” in 2011. (The album, released by Asthmatic Kitty, an independent label co-founded by Sufjan Stevens, was named after a sprawling tree on her family’s farm.) In 2016, she released her most recent album,“Will.” (She is now signed to Dead Oceans.) It’s an intimate and eerie collection—soft, looping synthesizers mingle breezily with Barwick’s lush and wordless singing. As it plays, I often feel as though I am discreetly listening in on some celestial conversation—the gods mulling our fates.
Sister City had its soft opening in early April, and Barwick’s composition goes live on May 16th, when the hotel begins operating at full capacity. For now, a Spotify playlist that Barwick curated—it includes music from Mary Lattimore, William Basinski, and Emily Sprague—plays while guests wait to check in. Barwick and I recently took an elevator up to Last Light, Sister City’s rooftop bar, which was still a week away from opening to the public. Employees scurried about, discussing cocktail recipes. The sky was a clear blue and dotted with what Barwick described as “ ‘Simpsons’ clouds.” The Manhattan skyline gleamed in the midday sun. She took her phone out and made a short video, sweeping the lens southwest, toward the World Trade Center, and then east, toward the Williamsburg Bridge. The clouds drifted. A jetliner zoomed past. Barwick was born in Louisiana, but she lived in New York City for sixteen years before moving to Los Angeles, in 2017. She believes that the trick to surviving life in New York is “to get in synch with the city, so it gives you energy instead of depletes you.” The Sister City project felt like an aesthetic match, but it also worked on her sense of nostalgia. “I knew it was going up on the Lower East Side, where I spent millions of hours,” she said. “Pink Pony, Max Fish. I used to walk through here, on my way to Other Music.”
Barwick didn’t want any of the sounds that are triggered by the camera (a synthesizer chord, or Barwick’s own voice laden with effects) to feel jarring, as if an alarm were being tripped each time a pigeon took wing above the Bowery. “I gave Luisa two or three different bass-line passes, five or six different vocal passes, two different synth passes, a vocal scale, and then six different sounds for each of the events,” Barwick said. Pereira’s program gently incorporates those samples into the five distinct background pieces—”Morning,” “Noon,” “Afternoon,” “Evening,” and “Night”—that Barwick wrote and recorded specifically for the project. The idea is that the score should feel fluid, easy, natural—like laying on your back in a meadow and watching the sky shift as the hours pass. “She’s built a program that allows so many different things to flow in and out,” Barwick said. “It’s infinite and evergreen.”
Barwick’s score, like her albums, is tender, emotive, and expansive. It has been given the rather unromantic name “Sister City Lobby Score, Powered by Microsoft,” but there’s something pleasurably irresolute about the piece and its eternally modifying relationship to both the cosmos and the man-made chaos of city life. The lobby doesn’t have windows that look directly out onto the street—though there is a blue stained-glass ceiling, and a glass door that leads to a courtyard—meaning Barwick’s music now acts as the space’s sole conduit for the conditions outside. It is the prettiest weather report I can ever imagine hearing.