Julianna Barwick’s lovely and layered sound hypnotizes at Sixth & I performance


Julianna Barwick performs at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue on Monday. (Kyle Gustafson/For The Washington Post)

Julianna Barwick plays music that is both evocative and interpretive — voice-based compositions that feature more sounds than specific lyrics. Her performance at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue on Monday night was spectral and ancient, looping back on and repeating itself to the point of hypnosis.

The Brooklyn-based artist builds her music with layers of her voice, gently whooshing samples and rippling piano chords. Each of the pieces she played during the hour-long set Monday began very quietly, built to a peak in which multiple versions of Barwick’s voice were locking and unlocking with each other and then oscillated to a quiet conclusion.

She uses very few words in her songs, relying instead on emotive vocal lines that are part moan, part cry and part shriek of joy. Yet, for all the intensely inward-facing elements, her music is driven by an assuring radiance that is quite singular — Barwick manages to evoke a yearning for something uncertain and beyond human communication, while assuring the listener that beyond is indeed where we want to go.

That’s all great when you’re listening to her recordings (especially her full-length releases “Nepenthe” and “The Magic Place”), but live performance obviously brings atmosphere and visual communication into play. And while it made perfect sense to hold the performance in the synagogue’s lovely sanctuary, the images that accompanied the music — a constantly rotating set of celestial haze and outer-spacey images — were exceedingly trite compared with the range of expression in Barwick’s voice.

And that range was quite remarkable. From shivering high notes to sweeping, wind-across-the-water midrange tones, she displayed a remarkable command of pace and texture, especially given that she had only the swirling layers of her own voice as a guide.

The bulk of the set was drawn from 2013’s “Nepenthe,” which was recorded in Iceland with the assistance of Alex Somers, who has collaborated with uber-atmospheric rockers Sigur Rós. But Barwick’s work is so singular that it is best absorbed as a piece, and Monday night’s show (especially if you closed your eyes) soaked right to the soul.

Foster is a freelance writer.

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