IN THIS (PANDEMIC) TIME
Circumstance Synthesis by Julianna Barwick CONTENTS
- INTRO: Musical Wandering During the Pandemic
- ARTICLE: Ambient Music Meets AI (Artificial Intelligence)
- REVIEW: Circumstance Synthesis: Environmental Music Composed In Tandem With Nature
- PLAYLIST: Circumstance Synthesis by Julianna Barwick on YouTube and Spotify
- PLAYLIST: Ambient 1: Music for Airports by Brian Eno on YouTube and Spotify
IN THIS (PANDEMIC) TIME is a Kurated series influenced by the Coronavirus pandemic.
MUSICAL WANDERING DURING THE PANDEMIC
Exceptional times like these change us. They disrupt our thoughts and senses to the core; plunk us down in a skewed global landscape where our daily lives are disheveled and worse.
I know this mess is affecting all of us in many different ways. I’m hoping the best for everyone as we walk this strange ground together. As we do, something we have in common is music. We’re moved by it to find meaning; to inspire, distract and take us away; to calm and energize; entertain and release.
In the pandemic’s early days, I’ve been drawn to sounds and songs I wouldn’t usually give much attention. The crisis has struck me with a sense of strange awe, vulnerability, dread and anger. It’s highlighted the need for calm and perspective. The heart and body respond to what is. The Kurated soundtrack in the next while will reflect that.
First up is today’s column about an innovative ambient, site-specific composition built partly by AI from LA-based artist Julianna Barwick. Coming soon Kurated will feature a Canadian neo-classical piano star, a Jookin-style dancer performing in an art museum, a subtly surreal soundtrack piece from a new film, and a band that features raw and stinging guitar licks underscored by the pounding on a homemade, plywood box.
21 March 2020
CIRCUMSTANCE SYNTHESIS: AMBIENT MUSIC MEETS AI
Unobtrusive and ethereal, ambient music offers an expansive soundscape that lets our thoughts roam.
Ambient was made popular and named in the late ‘70s by influential British musician Brian Eno. Its intention, he said, is to “induce calm and a space to think.” Further it “must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting.”
Indeed, ambient music has been dismissed as being very ignorable and uninteresting – a balm of banality for all things “new age”.
But at its best –as in Eno’s 1978 Ambient 1: Music for Airports–the music is transcendent and subtly magnificent.
Music Made From The Top Of A New York City Hotel
Julianna Barwick “crafts ethereal, largely wordless soundscapes, all of which are built around multiple loops and layers of her angelic voice,” says her biography on AllMusic.com.
“Barwick, who credits a rural church choir upbringing for her unique sound, begins most tracks with a single phrase or refrain, then uses a loop station and the occasional piano or percussive instrument to build the song into a swirling mass of lush ambient folk.”
Her latest recording, Circumstance Synthesis, is a commissioned piece recorded from the rooftop of Manhattan’s Sister City Hotel with assistance from MicroSoft which handled the necessary AI programming adaptations for Barwick’s compositions.
“(AI) almost brings in another collaborator, and the possibilities are endless.” she said.REVIEW
Environmental music composed in tandem with nature
Circumstance Synthesis, records the skyward activity above a Manhattan hotel. The collection is divided into five different times of day.
Online electronic magazine Resident Advisor reviewed the album in January. Writer Maya-Roisin Slater notes an increasing trend of using AI (Artificial Intelligence) in music composition. For example Warner Music Group recently signed a music contract for a bundle of code.
Here’s an excerpt from her review:
“On her new album, Julianna Barwick explores what algorithms and daily rhythms can create when playing off one another. Barwick installed a sky-facing camera on a hotel roof in New York, and, using Microsoft AI in combination with a custom-coded program, had the camera detect movement, which would trigger sounds crafted by Barwick from a sample bank. The results are environmental music not just inspired by a blazing orange sunset or flock of flying birds, but composed in tandem with them.
Because each track is tied to the lackadaisical pace of the sky, Circumstance Synthesis has a meandering quality. With “Afternoon,” vaporous vocals float by like thick sheets of clouds. “Night” is scattered with reverberating synth lines that melt into pillowy pads, fizzling to the end. Examples like this validate the album’s concept as more than just a thought experiment. Barwick’s approach is integral to what’s great about the release, a lush score to the day’s airborne activity.
While the production process lends the album a unique backstory, Circumstance Synthesis also raises some tricky questions. That AI Warner Records signed? It’s making ambient music, too. Its first few albums share eerily similar titles to Barwick’s: Rainy Night, Cloudy Afternoon and Foggy Morning, among others. On the one hand, Circumstance Synthesis is a compelling project that tests the collaborative potential of nature and technology. On the other, it overlaps with sinister trends in music. As the algorithms behind streaming platforms like Spotify funnel listeners into chillout or wind-down playlists and robots hone their atmospheric sound-design skills, it feels like modern ambient is drifting into a neoliberal twist on muzak—a tool to placate us in our coworking spaces and home offices.
It may be a cop-out to say that the album lacks some of the intimate and personal elements of Barwick’s previous work, but I will anyway. Even though all the right elements are there, and it follows Brian Eno’s criteria for the genre to “induce calm and a space to think,” I can’t help but miss the secrets and intentions I normally perceive to be hidden in ambient tracks. But sentimentality aside, Circumstance Synthesis reflects an innovative approach to biomusic, and is a beautiful reminder to take pause and notice all the things traveling above, around and below.”