Julia Holter’s latest album Aviary, described as a “90-minute search for meaning in a dehumanising age”, was included in many lists of the best albums of 2018. The 15 songs feature elaborate instrumentation with strings and percussion, synths, voice (from delicate Kate Bush-ish vocals to 13th- and 14th-century vocal polyphony) and horns.
Holter’s musical influences vary from classical and medieval to electronic harpsichord, from Alice Coltrane’s Universal Consciousness strings to Vangelis’ Blade Runner synths. Aviary, which Holter describes as “the cacophony of the mind in a melting world”, leads off from a line by Lebanese-American writer and visual artist Etel Adnan: “I found myself in an aviary full of shrieking birds.”
For Holter, “aviary” is meant to evoke the way memories, beautiful and horrifying, fly around in our minds, echoing the grating noise of the world. She said she started thinking about beautiful and terrible thoughts and memories coexisting. “Bird sounds are beautiful, but they’re also shrieking and harsh.”
She formed connections between extremes: the beautiful and shrieking sounds of birds, and beautiful and terrible memories. From Mary Carruthers she learned that birdcages in the Middle Ages were seen as storehouses for memories. So in Aviary birds are like memories flying around, “everything kind of happening at once”.
Another Etel Adnan line, from Master of the Eclipse, also resonated with Holter: “What are poets for in these destitute times?” For the songwriter the question became “How do I make meaningful work in an era of crisis?” That is why the Blade Runner soundtrack was so inspiring – the noir-ness and the questions: What does it mean to be human? To have empathy?
A lot of Aviary is about the experience of trying to be a person. Holter said, “I’m a human trying to understand humanity in a time where our climate is changing. It’s a very scary and weird time.”
Is love the answer?
The song “Chaitius” uses a troubadour song with a lark as a metaphor for love, ascent and descent. “In all the human errors, there is something true,” Holter sings on “I Shall Love 2”: “What do the angels say? I shall love.”
What to do with love and words are prominent themes in Aviary.
Holter gathers her words from disparate sources. (“I think we’re always borrowing from each other.”) One track is called “Colligere”, which means “collecting”. Holter collects from poets through the ages: Dante, Pushkin, Sappho. It’s all about duality.
Some songs, such as “I Shall Love 2”, build slowly towards a magical crescendo. Others start noisily, like the bagpipe drones in “Every Day is an Emergency”, and end in bliss.
“Everyday is an Emergency”, with its squawking instruments, is like heaven to Holter. “It’s hard to listen to but it’s beautiful too, and that’s what I love so much. This duality of beauty and ugliness.”
The good and the bad, consonant and dissonant, beautiful and ugly, melodious and shrieking – whether birds or memories – it’s all connected.
Dissonant perhaps. But the closer you listen to Aviary the more beautiful it becomes.