Julia Holter and Spektral Quartet will be joining the Liquid Music Series on Monday, February 23, performing music of their own alongside Behind the Wallpaper, a recent composition by Alex Temple. Julia had a chance to answer a few questions about collaborating with Temple and Spektral Quartet, her life as an artist and growing up and living in Los Angeles.
How did you become involved with Spektral Quartet and Alex Temple? What drew you to Alex’s music and the Spektral Quartet as an ensemble?
I’ve known Alex since college, and she always has had an approach to her poetry and melodies that seems completely her own. Members of Spektral Quartet are also related to that circle of college music friends, so I was happy to be involved.
How does Alex Temple’s music relate to the music that you compose? Are there major similarities or differences?
I think our music might be similar in that there are definitely inspirations and influences, but none are particularly direct or obvious. Alex’s music does develop in a way more akin to classical music than mine–there are melodic themes developed in a more precise and traditional way, and harmonic progressions that are always forward-moving–they don’t work as cyclically as mine do. I’ve come to love working with melodies that repeat the way they do in pop music, but honestly, Alex probably does love this too, and probably works this way as well. So I don’t know ultimately! I would also say we are both pretty interested in characters and voices–a narrative, rather than simply “absolute” music.
Could you talk about what it’s like to perform music that you wrote versus music that was written by someone else?
It’s a challenge to perform music by other people, and I embrace that. I think it’s even more fun for me now, because I perform my own music so much. I have never been a very great classical pianist, and I have no vocal training. When I have performed others’ music in the past, it has always been music that is not meant to be virtuosic but demands some kind of intense focus and musicality. It’s always music that feels very soulful or necessary–never music that is meant to be “impressive”. I love the challenge of bringing real music like this to life. With my own music, it can be wonderful because I have an understanding of it the way you might understand your own body, but that is a totally different thing than working with someone else’s body!
Your music often tends toward the narrative or conceptual; is there narrative in Behind the Wallpaper? As the performer, how do you interpret the way music and concept connect in this piece?
There is no neat and tidy narrative to the piece, but there is definitely a narrative for each song, and overall, it is a cycle of songs to me. Like my own albums, there are connecting threads throughout, but not necessarily in some kind of obviously linear story form. I think that Temple is really interested in how to bring out characters and their environments. She seems to have a kind of theatrical or operatic perspective. She always seems to be thinking about “who” and “where” which is somehow even evident in her melodic style and harmonic choices. A lot of times the vocal parts have a kind of “recitative” kind of style to them, almost like speaking.
I find genre distinctions increasingly inadequate when discussing contemporary music. How do you like to describe or talk about your own music? How would you describe the music that you will be performing with the Spektral Quartet?
It’s hard to talk about any new music, whether it’s what we call “new music”, or just whatever is being put out in general. I have trouble talking about my music, except in very specific terms. I can talk about specific albums or works, explaining why I did what and the characters within them. Trying to sum up one’s music in general is strange for anyone and that may be something that has been true throughout time for many composers/artists, not just now. I would say that both Temple and I are presenting pieces of ours that are not easy to define musically or with a kind of musical genre, but clearly based on a kind of narrative, often presented by a “character” within that narrative.
As we begin a new year, any thoughts on the best music of 2014? What were 5 tracks that really stuck out to you in any genre?
Ahhhh hmm….I spent a lot of time in early 2014 listening to the 2013 Beyonce and MIA records. I loved that romantic and vague album by “Lewis” and the new album by Perfume Genius is really nice. I listened to a lot of Bulgarian choir music as well as Nina Simone and Lou Reed, old things.
What can you share about the music scene in Los Angeles right now? What distinguishes it from other cities as a place to create and present music?
I’m not sure what the scene is in LA to be honest. It is really huge and spread-out. There has never really been “a” scene–and arguably, there are no real dominant “scenes”. That mystery is what kind of makes it compelling to me…
Not only are you based in Los Angeles but you grew up there. How has your relationship to the city changed over time as you have become an increasingly successful and respected musician?
It hasn’t changed at all! I don’t hang out with almost anyone that I grew up with–most of them have moved away. But I have new friends that I’ve acquired over the past 10 years that I’ve lived here again since college. I love LA, it’s a great place to disappear in. You have to really fight to even have some kind of social life–it’s very easy to find solitude here. No one knows who I am here, in the sense of being “successful and respected”. I just spend time with my friends and otherwise, work on my music in my apartment. The only people in LA whose lives “change” because of their “success” would be famous actors, but I never even see famous actors–it’s pretty big.