Julia Holter Julia HolterTragedy
Julia Holter can be linked to other women who - in a diffuse space between ambient electronica, classical composition and esoteric pop - are opening the doors to an intimate and very personal dimension of nostalgia (though some might just call it hypnagogic, which is okay). We say “can be linked to” because those women, among which are Grimes, Laurel Halo and Liz Harris (Grouper), are very different from each other. But the general effect they generate by creating a unique world, often fantastic (not in the JK Rowling sense of the word but like those worlds described by writers like Angela Carter and Marion Zimmer Bradley: foggy, mystical, feminist and the right amount of darkness) is what brings their concepts together and makes them cater to the same audience. Julia Holter lives is Los Angeles and this is her first “official” release (out on digital and vinyl, limited to 300 copies) after an episode, like all those mentioned above (and we could add Rachel Evans, alias Motion Sickness Of Time Travel), of releasing her music on cassette on minuscule labels.
There are two essential pieces Julia Holter's sound is based on: ambient and classical music, particularly opera. The first resource allows her to build a transparent world where an abundance of synthetic textures provides a bed on which she can sing lazily, in a way reminiscent of the 4AD sound as executed by bands like His Name Is Alive. But “Tragedy” isn't an oceanic pop album in a Cocteau Twins kind of way. On tracks like “The Falling Age” there's even some trace (blurry and circumstantial but visible, albeit hardly) of Enya, another artist who has been popping up lately as an influence on the most fragile sections of the underground, parallel to the renewed interest in new age music of part of the hypnagogic lot. But on “The Falling Age” Julia Holter also samples some notes from a choral piece by Bach, something she repeats on “Finale”, an eight-minute ending based on organ sounds (and which, again, features some synth notes reminiscent of the aforementioned Irish singer).
The folklore Julia Holter uses, in any case, isn't Celtic but Greco-Latin. The theme of “Tragedy” is based on a Greek tragedy by Euripides, “Hippolytus” (adapted from the translation by Robert Bagg and E.P. Coleridge), which floods the work with textual or suggested references to the great European culture. The album, little by little, turns into a theatre piece (with a choir, like in Greek theatre) in which elements are used from music theatre, but also a completely free construction (in the vein of theorists like Baudrillard and other fans of post-modernism and the free deconstruction of discourse) and in which the chronological order and anachronisms aren't important. So “Celebration” is about the Hippolytus' adoration of Artemisia, “Try To Make Yourself A Work Of Art” is the jealous Aphrodite's curse of the hero, “Chorale” is the moment Phaedra becomes aware of her incestuous love for her stepson Hippolytus, and so on, until the bloody final - with a coda consisting of Artemis singing at a train station (sic).
But the whole underlying plot (rather pretentious, one could argue) is an annotation that allows for a different way to hear the album. Without it, “Tragedy” remains a precious collection of landscapes and sighs, of ambient variations and song ideas that go from robotic lullabies ( “Goddess Eye”, with a distinct flavour of electronic pioneer Raymond Scott) to the strange hybrid of arias and synth-pop. Apart from a conceptual singularity, “Tragedy” is valuable because of its sonic mystery - that's where Julia Holter hit the nail right on the head. She has constructed a strange, absorbing and unclassifiable record; a record that is out of this world, because, like the best literature, it has built a universe of its own.