In Culture

Variations on a theme - Julianna Barwick

Episode Summary

Julianna Barwick, Los Angeles-based musician and composer, marries process and improvisation in this episode of Variations on a theme. And host Dessane Lopez Cassell explores how Sol LeWitt built complex works from simple layers and unpredictable deviations. For more information about Microsoft's In Culture podcast and to read the transcript, please visit:

Episode Notes

“So many things can influence how the songs will just shift a little bit in each place, and I found that really interesting when I read that about his philosophy behind his wall drawings,” Julianna Barwick says of the influence of Sol LeWitt’s artistic process. In this episode of Variations on a theme, host Dessane Lopez Cassell speaks to the composer and performer about how she creates a choir of one — “loop by loop by loop, and shape by shape by shape.” We also take a closer look at the relationship between conceptual art and experimental music.

For more information about Microsoft's In Culture podcast and to read the transcript, please visit:

Episode Transcription

Sol LeWitt: The wall drawings that I do are really so simple that anyone can do them. They're just a matter of drawing lines. You don't have to have any special talent to draw a line, a straight line or whatever kind of line it is.

Dessane Lopez Cassell: That's Sol LeWitt, the late great Conceptual artist. And I'm Dessane Lopez Cassell. You're listening to Variations on a theme.

Dessane Lopez Cassell: This podcast series explores key themes in LeWitt's body of work and considers how other creative folks have both responded to and been inspired by his influence. This episode is also about growing simple elements into something more complex, all while embracing the unpredictable. In Sol LeWitt's art, those defining simple elements were often the kind of lines he mentioned at the top, the most recognizable components of some of his most iconic works. Yet, his process often folded those gestures into something more complicated by embracing the variations brought to it by the various individual attractors who installed his wall drawings. Through this process of push and pull, you end up with something far richer than just the sum of parts.

Dessane Lopez Cassell: In this episode, we'll explore these ideas of process and transformation through the work of the musician, Julianna Barwick. Rather than lines, she works with simple fragments of melody, which she sings and builds into music that's as gorgeous as it is free-flowing. You can hear that pretty clearly in her song Safe from her album Healing Is a Miracle, released in 2020.

Dessane Lopez Cassell: We're going to talk more about what's playing out in Julianna's music, and we'll also hear from her about how an encounter with LeWitt's wall drawings helped her think more about the role of chance in her artistic practice. All of that's coming up in just a bit. But first, let's take a step back and talk about LeWitt and music.

Dessane Lopez Cassell: Music was a huge influence on him. In an interview with Christie's from 2015, Sol's widow, Carol LeWitt, discussed his love of Bach and his few compositions. She says he often joked that he learned much of what he knew about serial art from those pieces, because they were a perfect sequential system. LeWitt was also an obsessive collector of objects you'd probably expect, like the work of other visual artists, to things you maybe wouldn't, like stamps. Anyway, his music collection included scores by folks like the minimalist composers, Steve Reich and Philip Glass, contemporaries of LeWitt's whose music sort of sounds the way a LeWitt wall drawing looks.

Dessane Lopez Cassell: So those musical influences that LeWitt took into his art, some of them filtered back into the music world. There are some really direct examples of that, like Laurie Anderson, a former student of LeWitt's who embraced music as part of her artistic practice more fully, in part at his urging. But you can hear traces of LeWitt in so much contemporary music, where minimalism, and conceptualism, and from songwriting, production approaches, and the overall aesthetics of sound. We wanted to talk to someone who could actually trace that influence back to an experience with the artist himself.

Julianna Barwick: Hi, my name is Julianna Barwick, and I am a musician and composer living in Los Angeles.

Dessane Lopez Cassell: Julianna's primary instrument is her voice, and it's an incredible one, airy and expansive all at once. Soft, yet powerful. She fell in love with singing in church as a kid in Louisiana. To hear her talk about it in interviews, she just loved the pure joyousness of the human voice, and that completely carries over into her music. In the 2000s, after she'd moved to New York to study photography at Hunter College, she started making and releasing music built around her vocals. Layering her vocal lines and drenching them in reverb and other effects, she sort of turns her voice into a full ensemble, textures and rhythms, kind of a choir of one, creating music that blends abstraction with this really beautiful sense of intimacy.

Dessane Lopez Cassell: Like Sol LeWitt, Julianna Barwick builds from the ground up, forging complex works through combining relatively simple parts. In a LeWitt wall drawing, those parts might be a certain type of line drawn a certain way at certain intervals. In one of Julianna's compositions, they're vocal gestures, often wordless, which are looped, layered and transfigured. So while music critics have often described her work as ambient or even new-age, Julianna also sees her work in dialogue with visual art, particularly minimalism in the mold of LeWitt and his contemporaries like Dan Flavin. Her practice of making music with vocal loops...

Julianna Barwick: That's about as minimalist as you can get, because that's like your body.

Dessane Lopez Cassell: Just there, you heard a clip from Julianna's song Flowers, which highlights the really beautiful way she builds vocal loops into melodies. This one is also on her album Healing Is a Miracle.

Dessane Lopez Cassell: Julianna has never been big on writing lyrics, though she did try earlier on, but she didn't really love the results. Then around 2005, a friend let her borrow a loop pedal, a piece of gear that lets you record short musical snippets on the fly. They're made to be operated with your foot while you play another instrument like a guitar. Though, there's no reason you can't hook one up to a microphone and just sing. So that's what Julianna did. And it changed the game. Rather than following the linear structures we normally associate with say singer songwriters or pop stars, Julianna would record these discreet little segments and build a song out of the way they push and pull at each other.

Julianna Barwick: Loop by loop by loop, and shape by shape by shape.

Dessane Lopez Cassell: So in the midst of creating this sound, Julianna Barwick lays eyes on the work of Sol LeWitt.

Julianna Barwick: The first time I saw his work was actually at Dia Beacon. I think it probably would have been 2008, I want to say.

Dessane Lopez Cassell: If you've never been, Dia Beacon is a sprawling art institution just North of New York City. Housed in a former factory, it's particularly known for its commitment to minimalist art. And Julianna, she loves it there. She told me she finds the art and the space itself, with its long corridors and bright open spaces, to be really just endlessly inspiring.

Julianna Barwick: I sing all the time, so I wouldn't be surprised if I sang a lot while I was there.

Dessane Lopez Cassell: When Julianna visited, they were exhibiting a series of LeWitt's early wall drawings. She even remembers witnessing some of them being installed.

Julianna Barwick: So it was this really immersive experience.

Dessane Lopez Cassell: Reading the exhibition placards, she learned that the work of this team of artists who interpret and execute LeWitt's instructions, it's a key component of the work. And as much as she may have been taken with the physical works themselves, it was really that detail about the process. That's what really stuck with her. So back in New York, Julianna dug in.

Julianna Barwick: Just reading up on his work and his philosophies behind his art after the fact, I kind of drew a comparison with my own music-making. Because you can give the plans for the wall drawing to someone somewhere else, and they may read it a little differently or they may draw it ever so slightly differently than the last person that did it. So while the wall drawings may look very similar or almost exactly similar, there's just a little bit of wiggle room happening as a different human draws on the wall.

Dessane Lopez Cassell: Where LeWitt and Julianna meet is via their incremental approaches. Small parts repeat and build off of each other and bounce around, creating something new and potentially unexpected in the process. And as LeWitt and Julianna both found, working this way, it sort of creates new possibilities. Take LeWitt's lines and Julianna's vocal loops, they invite variation.

Julianna Barwick: Most of my stuff is pretty wordless and bordering on experimental. I can either build the loop 23 times or 86 times. It's so malleable in that sense.

Dessane Lopez Cassell: It's not a total stretch to think about the LeWitt you see at a museum as a performance. As we've discussed on this podcast before, LeWitt makes the instructions while a team of other artists actually executes them in physical space. And like most musicians in the 21st century, live performance is also a huge part of Julianna's art as well. Approaching a performance through a Sol LeWitt lens gave Julianna another way of thinking about what performance brings to her music. Because after all, it's not just a song from the record played live and in person, it's the concept. Those musical ideas pass through the filter of environment and context in which they're performed.

Julianna Barwick: The joy that I have found in performing live music is that it can be a little bit different every single time. It can have a lot to do with what travel was like getting there and people that I meet during the day, the weather. These little things that can affect your performance and will make your show in DC completely different than your show in Philadelphia the night before. So many things can influence how the songs will just shift a little bit in each place. And I found that really interesting when I read that about his philosophy behind his wall drawings.

Dessane Lopez Cassell: In this light, we can look at Julianna's studio albums as sort of a parallel to LeWitt's instructions. They're almost like a roadmap that comes alive during each show, changing night by night and city by city over the course of a tour. 

Dessane Lopez Cassell: In 2019, Julianna composed music to play in the lobby and quarters of Sister City, a boutique hotel in downtown Manhattan. If you're a long-time listener to the In Culture podcast, this may sound familiar to you. We did a story about it in the very first season. You should absolutely listen to that if you're curious, but here are the broad strokes. Julianna recorded all the musical elements. But rather than create the full arrangements, she let the city do the rest. Cameras on the roof of the hotel were pointed at the sky, and Microsoft AI would pair things like birds, clouds, and airplanes all to Julianna's music cues. The music would run 24 hours a day and sound as different as the day and time you happen to hear it. I wanted to ask Julianna about the project again, in the context of Sol LeWitt. Can you talk specifically about how you've approached those forms of technology and maybe how that's influenced the way in which you work with patterns?

Julianna Barwick: The music program was generative, so there would be patterns of that. And there was looping involved in the foundation of the music. But what was interesting with the AI was that it just shifted that ever so slightly. Kind of like what we were talking about earlier with whoever draws on the wall is looking at the instructions from Sol LeWitt, but their hand makes it just ever so slightly different. So that's how the AI worked. It really was like evergreen every day, just completely generative and new.

Dessane Lopez Cassell: It takes a certain kind of artist to see the beauty of not having consistency every single time, and one who actually makes space for that within their work. For Julianna Barwick, it's meant making music that's alive and responsive, something that's out of her hands in a way that's exciting for both the maker and the listener.

Julianna Barwick: I love the combination of immediacy and forethought that's combined in LeWitt's work and how it is ephemeral and everlasting all at the same time. I love how his work can be made anywhere on a wall. He has this well-laid-out plan of how he wants it to look like in the end, but it's very interpretive by the person doing the drawing, and the venue it's in, and the country it's in. There being these well-laid-out instructions and directions, but the end result has so many variables involved. So I love that combination of thinking.

Dessane Lopez Cassell: Big thanks to our guest, Julianna Barwick. Sol LeWitt Variations on a theme, is part of the Microsoft In Culture podcast. Follow us or subscribe wherever you're currently listening. And if you haven't already, listen back to the first season of this podcast, where we did an entire piece of Julianna's AI-driven music for Sister City. This season is written by producer Jordan Rothlein and me, Dessane Lopez Cassell. This episode was edited and mixed by Nat Weiner and features original music by Angular Wave Research. Very special thanks to the estate of Sol LeWitt, and to Lindsay Aveilhé, whose research on LeWitt has been integral to this project.

Dessane Lopez Cassell: This episode features a clip from an interview given by Sol LeWitt to Hazel de Berg, for the Hazel de Berg collection on March 27th, 1977. The audio recording appears courtesy of the National Library of Australia. This podcast season is a companion to an app from the estate of Sol LeWitt, which was developed in close collaboration with Microsoft. It uses state-of-the-art technology like artificial intelligence to help immerse users in LeWitt's life, artworks and process. Download it now, wherever you get your smartphone apps. Sol LeWitt, Variations on a theme is the production of Microsoft in collaboration with Listen, a sensory experience company in New York City.