It's so easy to misunderstand ambient music. Whereas most genres rely on familiar tempos, instrumentation, song structures, and lyrical tropes, ambient has no such foundational concerns. Other styles give you something to hold on to; ambient music, in many ways, is asking you to let go. Fitting then, that such an ambiguous label has become an umbrella for everything from musique concrète to static-laced noise to film scores. Beyond its formal quirks, ambient has, for many, held certain stigmas: that its primary purpose is as pleasant background music, that it's compositionally equivalent to recording wind chimes or whale songs, that "anyone can make it." Because of all this, ambient has been undervalued for much of the past 20 years, lumped in with anodyne new-age acts like Enya and, for the most part, critically disregarded.
Then, in 2011, an album of "ambient folk" was released by a relatively unknown singer/composer named Julianna Barwick, which made the music world at large sit up and start listening. So what makes the work of Julianna Barwick different?
The songs on her debut, The Magic Place, are populated almost exclusively by Barwick's voice: looped, processed, reversed—her formless hymns piling on top of one another to create complexly interwoven threads of feather-light vocals. When something as terrestrial as a piano surfaces, like on standout cut "Keep Up the Good Work," it feels like an epiphany. What's most striking is how the album manages to sound both bare and full at the same time; the monastic simplicity of the compositions are lent a choral richness by the layers upon layers of harmonics. It's a gorgeous collection, a coherent statement of purpose from an artist who had a crystal-clear vision of the music she wanted to make.
Her singing isn't so far removed from the wordless chanteuse vocals underpinning such chill-out-room classics as Orbital's "Halcyon + On + On" or Future Sound of London's "Papua New Guinea." Indeed, electronic producers like Diplo and Helado Negro took a stab at giving Barwick's tunes an EDM makeover on the Matrimony Remixes release, to expectedly disappointing ends. What these remixes failed to understand is that, in some ways, Barwick's popularity rests on her representing a respite from electronic music's recent turn toward aggressively loud, speaker-quaking club bangers.
In many ways, Barwick is the perfect Trojan horse for ambient as a whole to reenter popular consciousness. With her beatific voice, hypnotic intonations, and church-pew atmospherics, she evokes sepia-toned sing-alongs, sepulchral séances, and something more primal and organic: something stuck between heaven and earth, between the womb and the tomb. In short, she makes ambient music human.
Barwick's most recent release, Nepenthe, shows her leaning toward more traditional song structures and ambitiously filling out her compositions with symphonic flourishes. Faint wisps of guitar and violin give the appropriately titled "Pyrrhic" an earthen solemnity; lead single "One Half" builds and crests until an ocean of Barwicks is belting out a major-key, Sigur Rós–like refrain. Though it's certainly more accessible than her debut, Nepenthe is still rooted in ambient music's free-form, improvisational nature. It's not a "pop" record by any means, but like The Magic Place before it, the album's been embraced by many outside the electronic music sphere.
It's curious to witness how the critical response to Barwick mirrors the recent reappraisal of the sounds, textures, and philosophies of ambient music. From small things like Coldplay's use of ambient godfather Brian Eno on their latest work and club-ready remixes of tracks from Aphex Twin's seminal Selected Ambient Works II album, to a broader appreciation of modernist composers like William Basinski and Gavin Bryars, musicians of all stripes are drawing inspiration from ambient music in a heretofore unimagined way. Julianna Barwick represents an ideal intersection between these various cultural strands, situated between pop and electronic, synthetic and human, the old and the new, the religious and the interstellar.