Through the Looking Glass: Julia Holter’s Ekstasis

You are late. For a very important date. A curious journey into a strange realm of delicate and somber layers of sound. Follow me, if you will, for a brief diversion into a land of dream sounds and reveries. Follow me down the rabbit hole into Julia Holter’s Ekstasis.

A digression on terminology…. For the classic language scholars, perhaps the origin of the word or term Ekstasis is not lost on them. For the remainder (of us) who traffic in the more contemporary languages, Ekstasis is the Greek form of “ecstasy”. As defined in the Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary1 , “ecstasy” is: (1) a state of being beyond reason and self-control; (2) a state of overwhelming emotion; esp: rapturous delight (3) Trance; esp: a mystic or prophetic trance.2

Each subtle variation on the definition of “ecstasy” is both an apt description of and excellent synthesis of this unique album by Los Angeles’ Julia Holter. As you might have gathered by way of my introduction, Ekstasis is not your traditional or conventional record. Holter is regarded as “experimental pop music” by certain music media (read: Pitchfork by way of whom I discovered her music some months back). However, I think the term “experimental” in this context does not connote the usual associations one tends to have with experimental, such as “atonal”, non-melodic, improvisational, lacking structure, etc. Rather, Holter’s music is experimental in so far as it eschews (for the most part) the traditional verse-chorus-verse song structure and focuses more on layering various instruments, sounds, and vocal arrangements to create a soundscape of dream-laced compositions. In many ways, she is no different than a number of DJ/producers such as Four Tet or The Books (now defunct); instrumental-only indie/rock bands such as Tortoise; or more recognizable dream/fuzz-pop bands like the Cocteau Twins, Beach House, the Lower Dens, or, even Bon Iver, on the last album. Perhaps, the term “experimental” is used for branding purposes. Or, then again, it may be a way of situating Julia in the tradition of musicians on the margin between music and performance art such as Laurie Anderson or Meredith Monk. Personally, I find Julia’s work leaning more towards the music side and is “arguably” more accessible (in part because I don’t think you need to “get the work” to appreciate the work).

But, what does it sound like? A delicate quasi-Baroque chamber orchestra overlaid with a cascade of Julia’s siren-like vocals, subtle synthesizer melodies, and minimal percussion (for accent). Of course, each song has even more nuanced variations on this theme, but the whole record has an otherworldly, old-world meshed against modernity feel evocative of Dead Can Dance or Kronos Quartet (both exquisite synthesizers of eastern and western musical traditions). Although this is a record that (I would argue) is about the sum of its parts, there are two stellar tracks that could stand on their own: “In the Same Room” and “Marienbad”. “In the Same Room” was the first track that caught my attention and it has all the elements of baroque production and vocal layering previously discussed. However, unlike the remainder of the album, it is has the feel of a “traditional” pop song in part because of the percussion at the outset of the song which lays a blueprint of anticipation for what is to come – don’t be surprised, though, if expectations aren’t met. (If you are a fan of Beach House, this track will definitely appeal to you.). On the opposite end of the spectrum, “Marienbadwanders in a series of varying vocal motifs of curiosity, whimsy, nightmare, and, finally, epiphany. If Philip Glass set out to make a mini-vocal arrangement in the vein of Einstein on the Beach and invited David Lynch3 to supply the aural narrative, this would be their scion. Enough discussing the odd and opulent landscape of Ekstasis, please take venture into its rapturous delight below:

  • Listen to the entirety of Ekstasis here via Spotify.
  • Listen toMarienbad” here. (For non-Spotify users)
  • See the video for “In the Same Room” here.
  • Visit Julia Holter’s website here.

First Listen Alert!!! As always, I try my best to update on bands and records, being spotlighted on NPR’s First Listen. Starting today, NPR will be streaming the following three records for free (click on name to listen):

It is pure cosmic coincidence (or the Super Moon?) that I am writing about Julia Holter’s record on the day that two artists who traffic in a similar aesthetic (i.e., Beach House and Exitmusic) are being streamed on NPR. Although I’ve only listened through the Beach House and Exitmusic albums once, they are excellent background/atmospheric music to accompany a day of work — who knows you might impress your co-workers.

May your day be merry and bright,

a.a.

1 Note: From the print not the online version. As a recalcitrant Luddite, I maintain an unhealthy collection of dictionaries of varying lengths. One day, I will be bold enough to graduate to the OED’s voluminous and tiny print, but for now the MWCD will do.

2 A fourth entry exists which references the pharmaceutical “party” drug of the late 80s/90s most often associated with raves, house music, and the European trip-hop scene. I am venturing a guess that Julia was not referencing this usage.

3 I tried so hard not to invoke David Lynch, but, if ever the term Lynchian or Lynch-esque were appropriate, then Ekstasis captures it. (Think more of the mid-early Lynch work, i.e. Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart, or Twin Peaks.)

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