How Julianna Barwick Created A Soundtrack For Ace Hotel’s Sister City That’s Never The Same Twice

Zia Anger

For those who have always been drawn to Julianna Barwick’s exquisite soundscapes, on her latest project the artist has taken the term and turned it into reality. Partnering with the Ace Hotel for their latest boutique hotel offering, Sister City, located in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Barwick created a sound installation for the hotel lobby that works with AI technology and cameras on the roof to pull together a score that’s never the same twice. The cameras help the AI change the score based on weather and light, in an attempt to match the music of the place with the mood of the city.

Instead of relying on a staid playlist or something like the slightly cheesy, self-aggrandizing presence of a live player and a grand piano, the hotel brought their emphasis on technology all the way into small but crucial details like the sonics of the hotel’s main shared space. Working with technology from Microsoft and her own signature ambient, looping style, the Southern-raised, LA-living composer, vocalist and producer has created a unique, completely individual musical project that even she hasn’t heard in action yet.

Sister City opens tomorrow, May 16, and it isn’t until then that the apparatus to create the living score will be fully set up and begin soundtracking the hotel’s lobby. And though she’s living in Los Angeles now, Barwick said she sees this project as a tribute to the many years she spent living, performing, and creating in New York — a fitting send-off for a city known for its ability to shape artists, from an artist who built her following there. Since she was prepping for a set at last weekend’s Form Acrosanti festival, I spoke with Barwick about the project over the phone, discussing influences like Brian Eno and whether or not we’ll ever be able to hear the hotel’s soundtrack outside of Sister City’s lobby. Read a condensed, edited version of our conversation below.

How did you get involved with the project and what drew you to want to work with the Ace Hotel on this?

The company Listen, they haven’t really been mentioned, but they’re a creative company. They facilitate all kinds of cool collaborations and installations and things like that. They hit me up probably almost a year ago, and asked if wanted to make music in collaboration with Microsoft to score the lobby of a new Ace Hotel in New York City. I thought it was a really cool opportunity, and a way to learn so many new things, so I was onboard immediately. We’ve just been working all together on it ever since.

Additionally, it has been a really delightful project to do, like an homage to my time in New York, because I lived there for 16 years and had infinity experiences there. It was really cool for it to come full circle, especially in that neighborhood where I saw a million shows, Other Music was there. It’s been really awesome for it to be full circle in that New York City way, and then also to learn about this new technology. It’s a totally new world for me.

In a video clip where you’re talking about the project, you describe it a sound installation that’s ever-changing. I think it’s so interesting to relate the fact that it’s ever-changing to your own role as the artist and creator. Because that’s a pretty interesting tension with the freedom of the installation.

Right. What is interesting about it is I made five different sets that would play through the day, so morning, noon, afternoon, evening, and night. I created a ton of music and little sound bites for when the AI recognizes the events, which are the things that the camera reads. There’s a camera pointed up into the sky on the roof, and it’s reading weather, and airplanes, and all kinds of things like that. I made all of the music, but I can’t be there 24 hours a day, seven days a week, running it. I think the interesting thing about this project is the AI is used as a tool to create the music as well, so it’s doing a lot of work when I can’t be there do it. It’s an interesting way to look at it, and in that way, it can always be on. It can always be reading information and events and keep the score constantly moving, and it will never be the same two days in a row ever. I just find that really interesting, but that’s the role that the AI has in it.

Even maybe a couple of decade-old fears about AI and technology are around the idea that like, ‘They’re going to use us.’ But it’s an interesting role reversal because the music is using the AI. It feels like the music has the power in this dichotomy here.

And without the music, the AI could read the events, but then what? It did take, in this instance, several humans to dream this up, set it up, do the work, and then apply the AI to make it interesting. The Microsoft music technologist on the project wrote the program. It’s a generative music program that she wrote, so things are just accumulating. The AI is reading the events, and it goes straight into that program that she wrote. You need that conduit in between.

I was going to ask you if you were working with the machines and tech directly or just providing music and sound that they then filtered through their systems, and it sounds like it’s the latter.

Yeah. In fact, I haven’t even heard what it sounds like. It’s not open yet. It opens on May 16. It’ll install and actually start working on May 16, and I’ll be hearing it for the first time, too. It’s real-time AI technology detecting the things that are going around and it and being applied. That’s really exciting! But I haven’t heard it yet.

Courtesy of Ace Hotel

In that same video clip, you were talking about the types of emotions or words that you want to evoke in a hotel, or maybe that you had in mind for this project. “Sanctuary,” “calm,” and “delight” are some of the words. When you’re going into a composition with those words in mind, what are some specific sounds or maybe instruments you use?

I was using a lot of synths. I was trying to think of what I would want to listen to. But as far as keeping the people that are staying at the hotel in mind, I wanted it to not be background music. But it needed to work with the ethos of the hotel, because Sister City is a new Ace Hotel, and they want it to be peaceful and streamlined. And you’re independent, and you check yourself in. It’s just kind of like an oasis kind of situation. I was just thinking about all of those things and wanting to create a score that sounded like me, beautiful but not boring and background. I also kept in mind the different times of day, so for the morning, I wanted it to be a little bit more energetic and more chilled down towards the end of the day. Things like that, so I was really keeping in mind all of the different variables. And then coming up with what I thought would be nice to listen to and interesting to listen to.

You’ve also talked a lot, I’ve read in the past, about how vocals influence your music more than, necessarily, ambient music. Were there any singers or vocal styles you were more drawn to use in this piece or things in your own voice that you tended to emphasize because it was such a different context?

There are so many vocal takes all across this score. I think for all five sets, the morning, noon, afternoon, evening, I did three or four vocal passes over the whole thing and then individual little vocal samples. I was playing with different effects on my vocals just because, really, it’s a 24-hour score. We were really trying to make it as varied as possible, so I was playing around with a lot of different vocal effects and things like that to keep the possibilities infinite. But I can never not sing with reverb, so there’s a little reverb on everything.

This project has drawn comparisons and possibly, it seems, inspiration from projects like Brian Eno’s Music For Airports. Can you talk a little bit about your relationship to that piece or maybe others that might have influenced your work here?

I definitely drew inspiration from Eno on this, for sure, just in learning about generative music. As far as what the vibe and the sound would be like, it was definitely Eno-influenced. I can’t deny that for a second. Especially with washes of sense and slowly moving, it’s very Eno-esque I would say, in some ways. I don’t know. I drew inspiration from him for sure. What else? I’m trying to think if there was anything in particular that I was drawing inspiration from. I really love Eno’s app, Bloom. I don’t know if you know what that is. It’s an app that he created where there’s a background tone, and then you just use your finger to drop in sounds. Then, the sounds start to cycle, and they kind of disappear and then you can bring in new ones. I had that in mind, for sure, because it just matched the structure and idea of this project, in a way. I would say those two things, for sure.

Courtesy of Ace Hotel

After doing this type of installation, is it something you would consider doing again in the future? Did you enjoy the collaborative nature? Or does it feel like a one-off thing?

I would absolutely, one hundred percent, do something like this again. I learned so much on this project. The music technologist on the project used Ableton, so I taught myself Ableton and learned how to work with the needs of someone else. It wasn’t unlike scoring a film in some ways because you have the director, and producer, and the various people giving input. I actually didn’t think of that until now, but it is. You want to give them what they want but still sound like you, and I really like walking that fine line between those two things. I think that it really worked out well with this. I think that everyone is really happy with what it sounds like. All we can do, really, right now is kind of imagine what it’s going to sound like in the space. It wasn’t like making a record. It was more like scoring a film. It was more collaborative in that way, for sure.

Is the score going to be released as an album one day, or is it going to stay exclusive to the lobby?

Hopefully. It will not be in the lobby forever. It could possibly… I don’t know. Maybe? That’d be cool. It would be cool to get a little, just like an hour-long, version of the five different sets, just like an abbreviated version. I would personally like to hear that.

I would love to hear it.

I can’t see why not, unless it’s just legal, bureaucratic stuff, but I can’t see why that wouldn’t happen in the future. That would be really cool. I would love that.

Will any of these songs make it into live performances, or does it feel like it’s in a separate space from that?

It feels a little separate right now. When I was working on it, the melodies and the chord progressions would get stuck in my head, so I wouldn’t say no. It could definitely work its way in, possibly.

Your last album, Will, came out in 2016. How did work on this project impact your timeline for a new album?

I’m working on a new record right now. And looking to have it out probably later this year and start doing a bunch of shows next year. After I was touring Will all year in 2016, I moved to LA from New York at the end of 2016, and then worked on music for a ballet. That was my big project in 2017, which, of course, was New York City-based. Then, this project has been my main project over the last year, so I just started working on a new record. I’m working with Nosaj Thing (Jason Chung), so, that’s really exciting. That’s what’s next. And, of course, I’m pursuing scoring films because that’s been my lifelong dream, so hopefully, I’ll get there.

Courtesy of Ace Hotel

To learn more about Sister City and their Lobby Sound Installation visit their website.