9:30 presents at U Street Music Hall
1115 U Street NW
Washington, DC, 20009
Aviary is an epic journey through what Julia Holter describes as “the cacophony of the mind in a melting world.” Out on October 26 via Domino, it’s the Los Angeles composer’s most breathtakingly expansive album yet, full of startling turns and dazzling instrumental arrangements. The follow-up to her critically acclaimed 2015 record, Have You in My Wilderness, it takes as its starting point a line from a 2009 short story by writer Etel Adnan: "I found myself in an aviary full of shrieking birds." It’s a scenario that sounds straight out of a horror movie, but it’s also a pretty good metaphor for life in 2018, with its endless onslaught of political scandals, freakish natural disasters, and voices shouting their desires and resentments into the void.
“Amidst all the internal and external babble we experience daily, it's hard to find one's foundation,” says Holter. “I think this album is reflecting that feeling of cacophony and how one responds to it as a person—how one behaves, how one looks for love, for solace. Maybe it’s a matter of listening to and gathering the seeming madness, of forming something out of it and envisioning a future.”
Fittingly for an album about the chatter of the mind, most of the songs on Aviary grew out of “cathartic solo improvisations” with voice and synth, recorded by Holter at home throughout 2017. Where Wilderness showcased her knack for writing immaculately constructed pop ballads, she describes Aviary as an exercise in letting her subconscious show her the way. “I was really trying to have fun and make a daring record. I found myself drawn to certain things that would happen when improvising—surprise utterances and slips.”
Holter then took her favorite parts of the home recordings and expanded upon them, writing lush arrangements for an ensemble of frequent collaborators. In early 2018, she recorded their contributions at Hollywood’s Band House Studios, with executive producer Cole MGN and co-producer Kenny Gilmore. Aviary combines her slyly theatrical vocals and Blade Runner-inspired synth work with an enveloping palette of violin and viola (Dina Maccabee, Andrew Tholl), double bass (Devin Hoff), and percussion (Corey Fogel). Drawing inspiration from the medieval world, she added trumpet and bagpipes into the mix, played by Sarah Belle Reid and Tashi Wada, respectively.
To evoke an overwhelming swirl of voices, Holter indulged her love for wordplay, often combining multiple languages and temporal tenses in a single phrase and embracing phonetic sound over meaning. “Chaitius” playfully combines her own words in English with lyrics from a medieval Occitan troubadour song. “I Would Rather See” borrows its references to chariots and steadfast footsoldiers from a mesostic poem she made using an Anne Carson translation of Sappho; “Why Sad Song”, the album’s ruefully meditative closer, is an English-language phonetic translation of a song by Nepalese Buddhist nun Choying Drolma. But Aviary also elevates the “babble” concept to a compositional principle. “A lot of the songs play with hocketing, which is something you have in medieval music, where melodies are shared by different interrupting voices,” says Holter.
On Aviary, we travel a world populated by birds, angels, and ghosts—at once characters in a mystery of uncertain denouement and a stand-in for the memories and thought-images that seem to fly through the mind on their own volition. Inklings of impending doom (“Everything Is an Emergency”) hover side-by-side with ecstatic professions of love (“Turn the Light On”) and moments of triumphant solidarity (“Voce Simul”). Like other recent projects—composing and performing a live score to Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, as well as arranging her album Tragedy for opera, in 2017—Aviary sees Holter juxtaposing ancient and contemporary reference points. Time collapses, with references to the deep past—Joan of Arc, the Christian Crusades, the mass hysteria of the dance of Saint Vitus—seeming to double as metaphors for our hopes and anxieties in the present. Jetting between medieval chamber music and proggy jazz-rock transports, plaintive balladry and android robotics, it’s a journey full of wild twists and turns—but it’s one that seems to cling to a sense of radical hope, even in its most somber moments.
Back in the 5th century, North African theologian Saint Augustine envisioned the trajectory of human history in terms of an ongoing conflict between the City of God and the City of Man, aka “the earthly city.” As Thomas Pinsky describes it in his translation of Dante’s Inferno, the City of Man “may also be thought of as a radical representation of the world in which we live, stripped of all temporizing and all hope." When the world you live in starts to feel more and more like a hell, it can be hard to know which way to turn—and while it isn’t art’s job to show us the way, what it can do is offer us glimpses of what defiance looks like. On “Words I Heard,” a melodic standout full of swirling strings, it’s there in a simple line of text: I love you in the City of Man.
“In a lot of the songs, when I mention love, it’s about a seeking for compassion and humility in a world where it feels like empathy is always being tested,” Holter says. In Aviary’s case, that search for sweetness—that bridging of the gulf—becomes a metaphor for the creative process itself, cutting through the hierarchies of history, language, and musical form to offer something more fluid, more inclusive, more idiosyncratic. “For a long time in music, there has been a discussion about what ‘dissonance’ and ‘consonance’ actually are,” the artist explains. But what, Holter asks, is the sound of empathy?
Montreal violinist Jessica Moss has performed and recorded with a wide spectrum of ensembles over the last two decades. Best known as a permanent member of Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra, she was also a founding member of avant-klezmer group Black Ox Orkestar, recorded and toured with the Vic Chesnutt band for the two albums released on Constellation, and worked extensively with Carla Bozulich’s Evangelista. She has also performed and recorded as a guest with many of Montreal’s best known artists, most recently with Big|Brave on their acclaimed 2016 record for Southern Lord. She was featured in Jem Cohen’s Empires of Tin project, and joined members of Godspeed, Fugazi, White Magic and Dirty Three to perform the live score to Cohen’s film We Have An Anchor in various locations at Europe and the USA.
Though she’s been playing violin practically her entire life, Jessica has always felt most at home in a collaborative setting and has been steadfastly devoted to the practice of ensemble playing. This has generally meant creation 'in the service of': the other parts being played, the lyrics being sung, the structure of the song, and/or the recording and mixing at hand. The practices inherent in group creation and performance inform her very person in many ways and have given her a deep understanding and respect for both group dynamics and 'working communities' in general.
Moss’ catalyst to create solo work was a 2014 virtual collaboration with Olympia, USA musician Kevin Doria, who creates intensely rich and layered minimalist drone music under the moniker Total Life and with his bands Growing and Hiss Tracts. Simultaneously she was commissioned by La Biennale de Montréal to create a site specific composition that reflected on the theme of the 2014 exhibition.
Alone in her practice space equipped with the tools, methods, and experiences gleaned from years in studios, rehearsal spaces, performing and touring, Jessica commenced building her unique style and structure. The music that came was longform and narrative, conjuring images with sounds and melodies and occasional lyrics, and telling exigent stories of troubled times. Written by ear and memory and never committed to paper, Moss conceives for live performance, where she makes use of violin, a myriad of pedals, a microphone, and three amplifiers.
Moss’s first solo recordings came in the form of a self-released cassette entitled Under Plastic Island (2015), a beautiful, swirling meditation on the island of plastic trash floating in the ocean, the result of a trip to Brooklyn during which she spent time in the basement recording studio of friend and occasional collaborator Guy Picciotto (Fugazi). In 2017 she released her first solo LP on Constellation, Pools of Light, recorded with kindred spirit Radwan Ghazi Moumneh. Comprised of two side-length multi-movement compositions, it is a stunning work that unfolds at a stately, inexorable pace, combining sound-art and signal-processed timbres, extended melodic and contrapuntal lines, and the periodic deployment of stark, minimalist vocals.
Since the release of Pools Of Light, Moss has been newly ascendant as a live soloist, captivating audiences with her gritty, warmly expressive electronic- and drone-inflected post-classical Minimalism (and sometimes Maximalism), accented by a distinctive melodic sensibility that channels Klezmer, Balkan and Middle Eastern tropes. Moss has toured extensively throughout North America and Europe, playing over 80 shows in 2017-2018, including festival appearances at Big Ears, WSO New Music, Le Guess Who?, ATP, Zemlika and Supersonic, participation in multiple editions of Basilica Hudson’s 24-Hour Drone Fest, and a mix of headlining and support dates with the likes of Zu, BIG|BRAVE (on whose most recent album she also plays), GAS, Xylouris White, and labelmates Godspeed You! Black Emperor among many others. Moss recently collaborated with Angel Deradoorian, Nick Zinner, Clarice Jensen, and Francesco Donadello as part of a residency at Berlin’s PEOPLE festival, and composed the score for the Fact Award-winning documentary Laila at the Bridge. Heading into 2019, she will be collaborating with Roy Montgomery as well as composing and performing the live score for “DUST,” a new production from award-winning Australian dance company Dancenorth. Moss also creates all her own video work to accompany her solo music.