SCOPE Productions is pretty good at playing matchmaker. The University of Iowa student organization paired up the experimental ambience of musician Julianna Barwick with the intimate setting of Danforth Chapel on the UI campus. The resulting concert held April 9 was a match made in heaven.
Barwick played Iowa City last year as part of Mission Creek Festival, in advance of her third full-length album, the critically acclaimed Nepenthe. Each year, there's always (at least) one Mission Creek act that you regret not seeing; for me, Barwick was 2013's missed opportunity. (This year? Weekend.) But SCOPE's booking eased my pain and provided a few dozen fans a gentle transition back to our everyday lives after the live music smorgasbord of Mission Creek Festival 2014.
Barwick's music is built on a foundation of ethereal vocal work, looped atop itself numerous times to create a beautiful wash of sound. Her vocals are punctuated with simple piano notes, keyboard sounds, and bits of percussion.
It's one thing to hear the end product via a recorded album (and if you haven't heard her catalog, you really should); it's quite another to watch her create on the spot. From the spartan Danforth "stage," Barwick would sing and record a snippet, loop that segment while singing and recording a second snippet (often different from the first), loop the second segment, and so on. This seemingly effortless exercise yielded a lush chorus that filled the cozy venue, all the more impressive after learning that Barwick was dealing with some serious allergy issues on this night.
"One Half," one of the standout tracks on Nepenthe, shone brightest on this evening. Barwick spent the first couple of minutes creating vocal layer upon vocal layer, each clearly unique from the others, before bringing the song to a halt. These sounds alone were enough to elicit applause, but the song resumed with Barwick singing repeatedly over the previously created loops, "I guess I was // asleep that night // just waiting for"-a lyric that isn't complete, isn't finite, much like the trancelike looping of her music in general.
Another standout song, "Crystal Lake," seemed to differ a bit from the recorded version. Unlike most of the songs performed during this show, Barwick didn't pile on the vocal layers, allowing the somewhat otherworldly keyboard sounds some prominence. Also, the more singular vocal approach offered a bit more vulnerability to Barwick's voice; it humanized her vocal output after a few songs' worth of transforming it into instrumentation.
Barwick is a humble performer, nodding to the crowd and whispering "thank you" at the end of each song. Heck, she even came out after opening act Vasillus concluded its set to personally let us know that she'd need about 10 to 15 minutes to set up, almost as if she were asking our permission or forgiveness. A relatively short wait, and well worth it to hear her perform.
The opener, Vasillus, the moniker of Brooklyn-based artist Ahmad Bilal, entertained the crowd from the drop. The key element to the music was Bilal's soulful voice, which simply soared over the sinister synths ("synthister," if I may create a new word) and drum machine dirge. He was clearly enjoying the performance, so much so that he caught himself joyfully cursing in church. No sin in having fun, my man.