Magic and Ineffable Emotion: Listening to Bon Iver and Julianna Barwick

The word magic occurs prominently in music—in lyrics, songs titles, and album titles—probably because music is (noticeably) intertwined with whatever magic is. Magic relates to feelings that arise when you listen to music, either the subtle-type that you may not notice but it just makes you “feel better” or feel stronger in whatever direction, or even cleansed, or the not-so-subtle tingling sensation that you may experience in various parts of your body. I’m sure that people have felt this magic since the creation of music – and this magic is similar to what people feel in other contexts when they get “the chills” or those odd emotional charges that all relate to what some of the apostles called the “holy fire.”

Two albums from 2011 have chiseled out sonic structures from these sensations and have given us magic from among their nervous systems: Bon Iver’s Bon Iver and Julianna Barwick’s The Magic Place.

I’m glad that Bon Iver doesn’t name magic anywhere on their album because that would ruin the inherent magic in the work, especially given their soft and sensational aesthetic – and I bet that Justin Vernon knows this. Being involved in magic sort of means by definition that you don’t directly name it, though there are exceptions out there, like Lou Reed’s album Magic And Loss (1992). If Bon Iver named magic, given their aesthetic, first they would inevitably slip into the melodramatic (the bad kind), the specious, then the ironic, and then they would seem like dicks. It takes courage and savvy to work energetically with the heartfelt, satiny fabric with which they work, and still show restraint, ambiguity, and individuality. All of this helps pull off legitimate, deep, emotional resonance and arousal of a generalized awe that harmony exists.

Vernon does almost name magic right at the get-go, on “Perth,” the first track on Bon Iver: “Iʼm tearing up, across your face /
 Move dust through the light 
/ To fide your name 
/ It’s something fane 
/ This is not a place 
/ Not yet awake, I’m raised of make.” But he doesn’t (and his syntax is weird), so he guides us not directly into the Inferno but into personal, fiery places. Though the opening military-esque drumbeat does extinguish things a bit on the first few listens.

Bon Iver can be a sonic translation of the visual image and the associations flames can have on the psyche, when watched in silence and among darkness, with all the intimacy and primitive feel. There’s quite a lot of magic that comes to mind when one observes the actions of flames: there’s something of life and survival there that’s beyond human understanding. Bon Iver gives us fire, but we come back to human contexts, because Justin’s voice creates sound as rich as human tissue and it’s full of smooth dynamism, like young human joints.

As for Julianna Barwick, she deserves the right to use the word magic in her title, probably because there are no lyrics at all and so she doesn’t explicitly verbalize anything in her album; she just does stuff – radiant and absorbing vocal loops that put you in the middle of your emotional processes and never tell you what to do with them, where to go, or what to make of them. Which is fucking great. The Magic Place welcomes and unreservedly gives, no matter your emotional state – it can even fluctuate with your change of emotional state, morph as you participate in it – either when you’re full of adrenaline, full of joy, catatonically depressed, mildly depressed, unsure, or any state other than strictly rational. There’s enough intelligence and subtle complexity in the music that it can satisfy your intellectual needs, and then once you start paying attention, you’ll be drawn into an emotional realm, whether you like it or not.

Further, the reference to magic in the title works in this case because it’s a reference to a concrete detail, specifically, as she describes on the Asthmatic Kitty website, “The Magic Place was a tree on our farm…It was one tree that grew up, down and around. You had to crawl in and once you were inside, it was like there were different rooms, and you could actually lay in the branches.”

When you’re a kid a space like this can be a cavern, and listening to the album, we are definitely in the midst of a cavern – but not in the comfort of a womb; there are echoes, loops, and vibrant clarity; there’s light bursting out of church stained glass windows, nothing muffled or dark, although when we’re involved with this album we have – and so did Julianna apparently – about as much linguistic ability to make sense of things as we did in the womb.

The point here is not to pass yea-or-nay judgment on instances of magic. Magic is, like anything and everything that has meaning, about personal relationships to mystery. But, well, let’s not think we’re too smart for it or too sophisticated or civilized or simply that we’re removed from it nowadays. But let’s not get too conceited about it either, because it seems to come when the ego goes and somatic environments notice shadows among their signals, and media and medium and qualia and technical dynamics get all friendly and absorb into each other.

Music, like myth, serves the purpose of working drama out of the psyche; it expands our field of expression by allowing us to project onto it; it helps us to grow and to stagnate; it works heavily with lines of association, with resonance, with un-, semi- and subconscious networks, and (I’ll say it) magically helps us deal with (though not always make sense of) the sorrows and joys of life.

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