Before the written word, rhyme and rhythm documented the exploits of heroes. Song emerged as a mnemonic medium for Greek storytellers, spinning verse and into narrative choruses and epic poetry. The foibles of vision and memory meant that no two re-tellings ever conveyed the story exactly right. Rather, these sculptors of song expressed the contours of emotion with protean plots—winding tortuous paths to the same destination.
This was the Homeric version of “you get the gist.”
So, it’s not just in record titles that Julia Holter recalls the craft of the ancients. Though Tragedy and Ekstasis certainly bring to mind Aeschylus and Oepidus, the names of these albums hint at Holter’s larger project—to convey the grand variability of emotion by rising to the occasion of the moment, instead of falling prey to the definitive.
In April, Holter released In The Same Room, an album that retools previous work committed to vinyl for the dynamics of live performance. Though live records recall the indulgence of jam bands or drug-fueled madness of jazz, Holter takes explicit guidance from the ancients: her 2011 record Tragedy is indeed an operatic re-staging of Euripides’ play Hippolytos. The structural DNA of her compositions remain, interpolated into the demands of the present. Ever the shape-shifter, Holter breathes something vital into her music with each performance.
It makes sense, then, that Holter has taken up residency at National Sawdust, not a traditional rock venue but an artist-directed stage dedicated to “exploration and discovery.” Saturday night’s Northside Festival performance marked her debut as National Sawdust’s artist-in-residence, seeing her work re-imagined for a solo show. Think of it as “MTV Unplugged” for the Greek muses.
The room was little more than a glorified black box theater—angular, intimate, and imposing. Though the walls were painted a midnight black, they had been decorated with jagged white polygons that extended to the floor and ceiling. The eerie effect, as if the audience were surrounded by ice caps splitting apart before our eyes, heightened Holter’s lilting melisma.
She sat at a stately Bosendorfer, banging at its keys with mingled precision and passion. The last time I saw Holter, on a damp evening in Portland, Maine, she played a cello, looping its sound onto itself to summon an orchestral tsunami. The piano, however, afforded her minimal processing, save for its sustain pedal, exposing Holter to the ravages of live music. “Aw fuck,” she exclaimed at one point, a few seconds into song, “I did something crazy to my finger on that last one.”
“That last one” referred to her interpretation of “Sea Calls Me Home” from 2015’s Have You In My Wilderness. While the LP version is almost a rock number, propelled by percussion and a fuzzy harpsichord before swelling into a swirl whistles and brass, Holter’s performance on Saturday dialed back the sonic drama to let the song’s tragedy unfold. “I can’t swim! It’s lucidity! So clear!” she sang, describing an Odysseus resigned to his watery fate before Scylla and Charybdis.
But Holter’s gift as an interpreter extends beyond her own compositions. With a nervous “I’ve never played this song before, but I’m sure you all know it—I’m just late to good music,” she launched into a rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Take This Waltz.” Joined by Tashi Wada on a synthesizer providing a humming counterpoint, Holter exchanged Cohen’s baritone for her own soprano. The song opened itself to the audience and Holter offered a new flood of visions and memories in that concert hall in Vienna. That we were in Williamsburg was a matter of mere incidence.
Photos by Laura Corinn