Experimental, classical and pop—we look back on a gifted artist's entrancing breakout album.
Julia Holter has always been a bit of an anomaly. Her productions toe the blurry line between classic composition and synthesised sounds, sitting somewhere between electronic and acoustic approaches, physical and digital space, experimental and pop music. When Tragedy came out in 2011, the album was released on the new Leaving Records label in Los Angeles. Holter came up with a bunch of so-called "bedroom producers" and was associated with other dream pop artists like Ariel Pink, Geneva Jacuzzi and Nite Jewel, who were also living and working in California.
"I literally was on the floor of a bedroom I shared with my partner at the time, squeezed between the bed and the wall really close by," Holter told me. "That was my working space, and a lot of people I knew worked that way also."
Holter had been making music for a decade by the time she started writing and recording the LP. She'd self-released three albums, performing delicate sonic collages that crossed genres, styles and instruments live at small DIY shows with a mostly local art crowd. Holter had just graduated from CalArts with her second degree in composition and been trained in piano but preferred pop over classical music. "I didn't feel comfortable because I didn't feel as deep and skilful as the others," she said. "I felt like kind of a dilettante, and was definitely treated as such—I was dealt with kind of as an amateur in school. My teachers tended to be kind of confused and not impressed with me, which is why it's funny that I get associated with being 'academic' because I don't think I am, really."
That said, it's easy to see where you could make the mistake of thinking that Holter's Tragedy is an "academic" record. The original in-sleeve is a speculative opera score drawing on the ancient Greek drama Hippolytus. The musical notation comes with remarks on how it could be performed. An environmental field recording, foghorn and a crackling recording of an opera singer opens "Introduction" before Holter hums a drifting acapella melody high up in the mix. That track's sheet music includes the note, "with some rubato. chantlike." On the nine-minute closer, "Finale," a lilting, off-kilter organ line leads into Holter's vocals gasping over an orchestral synth.
Holter found inspiration in something called "early music," the Western term for a broad era comprising Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque styles. Her interest in the voice and its translation throughout history comes through in Tragedy, where she works with the material of the past to deliver on the promise of contemporary experimental pop, drawing comparisons to the avant-garde electronic and vocal experiments of Meredith Monk and Laurie Anderson. The creaking, clattering plod of acoustic percussion and a rising organ build-up on "Try To Make Yourself A Work Of Art" carries Holter's rhythmic recitation of a curse from Hippolytus. In "The Falling Age," dissonant orchestration wavers alongside swelling synth atmospherics and sub-bass oscillations.
"I've always noticed that sound tends to be immediate for me to make," Holter said. "I make them in real time and record them, and often a lot of my music is a product of improvisation and momentary accidents and unplanned utterances, whereas actual text is harder for me to generate myself." This focus on the charming moments of chance and error come through best on Tragedy and its liner notes: "Not necessary for everyone to be perfectly together at all times / Looseness might be nice."