Photo by Ben Saren, courtesy of Moogfest
Liz Harris performs as Grouper sitting on the floor, alone, surrounded by gear. Her readily available assemblage of effects pedals and instruments conjures the impression of an artist at work in some cavernous, post-industrial studio space, utterly absorbed in the work of careful consideration. To watch her perform is to stumble in on a process that could remain unseen and still be as significant; to be in the same room is inherently intimate—even when that room is a packed thousand-seat auditorium, as it was last night, when Harris played her set at the Carolina Theatre for Moogfest in Durham, North Carolina.
The venue was fitting: Grouper may keep her warehouse show-friendly vibe intact, but she deserves to be seen as an artist of the first order. She's a preeminent figure in the world of noise, and she is squarely on the path if not already in the place of being considered the kind of musical icon who commands concert halls and lofty audiences. Her performance last night was every bit as immersive and transportive as a classical symphony. I was cleansed. I fell asleep three times. It ruled. I'll explain.
Grouper's music is a constant drift: Even when not much is cutting through the noise your ears are buffeted by a low wash of sound that above all has the effect of making you consider the substance of the empty space around you. Have you ever, like, thought about air? How it's both an absence of anything and itself a substance? Carve out some time and make a point to do so.
Anyway, the appreciation of space as such—or perhaps more accurately sound as such or rather sound as space or something like that—is the defining feature of Grouper's music, uniting her most abstract noise tracks, the comparatively focused deliberative songwriting on her most recent album Ruins, and her symphonic live performance. There is always a lingering rustle pregnant with meaning.
So yeah, I drifted into sleep, and it was an essential part of the journey, a pathway to epiphany. Is this sounding New-Agey and psychedelic enough yet? Well, here's the thing: Life is full of psychological burdens, and a few of those have been weighing on me, and lifting said burdens is hard because the more you think about them the more burdensome they can become. Most effective in the burden-lifting endeavor is a quiet background processing, letting the mind whir and softly untangle its knots (if this metaphor seems mixed, consider this: the mind is a complicated and busy place).
By the second time I fell asleep, this background mental process was cruising along. The journey was fully underway. The knots were getting untangled. It wasn't so much a sleep—that's probably the wrong word, giving the wrong impression of this whole experience—as a dormant trance state (“nothing like grabbing a few hours in a dormant trance state!” I always say, when the opportunity to nap presents itself). I can't help but think that this mental trek was the intention of the night. The visual accompaniment for the performance transitioned, imperceptibly, from flickers that showed a woman in a room with her arms up against a window to shots of a girl playing in the ocean to scenes of nature and light wholesale— its own journey of liberation. For this final segment, a new palette of nature sounds, including trills of birdsong, began to work their way into the musical composition, feeling a bit like a call for an escape to nature.
It was around this time that I was roused from the third of my somnolent excursions to contemplate something else about Grouper's music and really the world at large: The secret, above all, to making the most of it is paying attention. Life is always a slow untangle, and giving it time to do its untangling is essential for health and happiness. Grouper makes music that is fascinated with this studied process, that enacts it through composition. An album like Ruins comes together through extensive rumination, and in its creation encourages a similarly ruminative mindset in the listener. Music is often described as a soundtrack to life, but Grouper's music, in addition to being excellently atmospheric soundtrack material, is also about living a life worth soundtracking. Three sleeps in, I found myself thusly encouraged. Then the music ended, and Liz Harris stood up and quickly walked offstage.
Kyle Kramer is an editor at Noisey. Follow him on Twitter.