If you want to hear what the birth of Bryan Parys’ son was like, then you better pull up a chair and put on Julianna Barwick’s new album.
When it comes to birth stories, people want the cliché: “Mom and baby are doing great.”
Well: Mom and baby are doing great.
But that’s not much of a story, is it?
For months, I’d read about Julianna Barwick’s newest full-length, The Magic Place, before finally listening to and loving it. How she performed solo, but used simple effects and loops to layer her voice over itself until it seemed that the sky was singing to you. How she was “ambient.” How she was “post-rock.” And, in order to make the reviews get more hits, how she was “the indie Enya.”
It’s that last one that really gets to me—not that there’s anything wrong with Enya or with the New Age genre she’s often affixed to (just wait—Danger Mouse will probably work with her on his next album, call it Sale A Whey, and Pitchfork will give it an 8.3). So many reviews, including the one from the love-‘em-hate-‘em-or-both Pitchfork, seemed to compare Barwick to Enya without any real impetus. A more apt comparison would be Grouper, but because she’s relatively unknown, barely anyone would’ve paid attention.
The point, it seemed, was to create a fight within the review, battle it out a little on the page, and then hope that disparity spread to the reader’s responses. Sure, this kind of polarization process is par for the Web 2.0 course, but underneath it all, these reviewers really did like the record. The writers no doubt realized that Barwick’s airy compositions could be described as “ethereal” and knew that such a word had the potential to awkwardly bridge the borders between independent music and the modern music punch-line known as New Age. And so, the whole Enya thing was just a preemptive defensive measure to ward off any accusations that might diminish their snarky cred.
The problem is not with New Age, but how we try to explain things that we like by pitting them against the things we don’t. The whole exercise is cliché in the sense that it’s become a knee-jerk reflex to defend the things we like before anyone’s disagreed with us. When passion is born within us, we rush to references in an attempt to wrangle and define this New Thing, even if we risk permanently skewing our vision forever.
Case in point: I didn’t want to bring up the Enya thing. I did the very thing I tried to avoid. In essence, this cliché defense mechanism comes to replace the stories of birth, and we’re left only with voices shouting at each other, even if all those voices are in our own head.
Here’s what I meant to say. The Magic Place is not about the disembodied, faux-surrealist stigma attached to New Age music. With each line of melody, Barwick simultaneously grounds and transports the listener. The objects in the room at once swirl and anchor themselves into the landscape of memory. When the bass loop in “Bob in Your Gait” starts descending and climbing, the room dilates and contracts—but I am far from floating in the ether. As the notes peak and she continues layering fragile harmonies, the sounds around cease being background noise. I hear the spinning fan-blades in the bedroom, the passing cars, and a light rasp, and it takes me a few seconds to realize that it’s the sound of my sleeping son. Then it sinks in again like the first time: I have a son.
In other words, her music brings me both here and there, at home and in a green chair that I want to tell you all about. So, you’re going to need a birth story.
The room is swallowed in a darkness that somehow seems to cast a mottled green hue off the vinyl recliner I am trying not to sleep on. My wife Natalie is on the bed next to me, an ancient, matriarchal pain laying into her every ten minutes or so. “In labor,” everyone’s calling it. But, they’re quick to specify “early labor” so as to make sure we know that this fight between pain and the helplessness that 2 a.m. brings is far from over.
Ever since the previous morning, the whole “labor” affair has been obscured by ambiguity. Despite birth classes, books, paranoia-drenched web forums, and let-me-tell-you-how-it-really-is friends and family, Natalie and I still assumed that the moment you discovered you were “in labor” would be definitive and impossible to miss.
“There’s kind of a little wetness…” she says as I’m staring comatose at Twitter.
“Uh-huh.” [Literal pregnant pause.] “WAIT. Do you mean YOUR WATER BROKE?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” she says as if she can’t decide between fries or the vegetable du jour. “It started this morning, but there’s such little fluid it hardly seems urgent. Then again, it hasn’t stopped for about seven hours.”
I convince her to call her midwife, as a seven-hour leak has to be more broken than fixed.
What follows are a series of tests to determine if the “water” that is leaking out is in fact the kind that precedes delivery. The test at the office is inconclusive. She sends us over to the hospital for a different test that is “99.9% conclusive.” It is .1% inconclusive. Like the “is that a second pink line?” moment that started this whole circus ride nine months ago, I realize that these supposedly life-altering moments feel as insignificantly ambient as the whir of a distant ceiling fan.
In the end, the hospital decides—decides—that she is in labor, and they move us across the hall into a delivery suite.
And this brings us to that 2 a.m. limbo where neither of us are sleeping. Even in the moment it feels like a memory—gauzy, blurred edges coupled with the inability to soak in too many details. What sticks out is that green vinyl that somehow cuts the dark, as I endlessly find a way to sit and also lean in closer to Natalie. We talk here and there, but it is the language of the infirmed: “Are you ok?” “For now.” “Anything I can do?” “Not really.” We’ve been listening to a playlist I made of what I can only refer to as ethereal music, and the slow gallop of Barwick’s song “Bob In Your Gait” fills the pockets of green silence. All there is left to do is wait for centimeters and seconds to dilate.
I often feel self-conscious about my love for ambient music. “The music doesn’t go anywhere,” most non-fans say. Others have said that calling it “ambient” is just a way to make it seem less cheesy than the synthy, pan-pipe laden New Age music you hear at the massage parlor.
But, for me, the story is in the ambient noise. The whir of a fan, the hum of a lightbulb—these sounds frame the stage for the events we call life-changing. It is anything but disembodied. It was when we were listening to “Bob In Your Gait” at 2 a.m. that I first noticed that weird glow emanating off the vinyl chair, and then again when I reshuffled the playlist the next day, it was that song that played as I stood next to the chair and watched my son slide from a dark womb to a world that, against all logic, is able to cast its own muffled light against concentric shadows.
When people ask for our birth story, I want to tell them about that green chair, because it was the most real thing to me in the moment. It was through that mundane object that I grounded the brain-busting trauma-miracle happening in front of me. I want to tell them how that chair glowed, that we were listening to Julianna Barwick, that it could be called ambient, that yes, I do think the music goes somewhere, and in fact, it’s still bringing me there.
I stop myself before answering like this because, besides sounding pompous and longwinded, I realize my biggest fear about giving in and telling them the cliché response they’re looking for is that somehow it will invalidate my experience, turning it and my family into a cliché. In almost every way, the delivery was the definition of typical. No major complications, not too long/short, and all in all, just the next in a continuous line of similar stories happening all down the hospital’s hallways. I figure if I can give them a green chair and some ambience, that unique answer will come as close to birthing light in their minds the way it burns in mine.
Maybe that sounds kind of New Agey. I think it sounds like the oldest of ages. Either way, if you ask me about the birth of my son, you better pull up a chair.