Traveling Through a Sea: The Music of Grouper

Traveling Through a Sea: The Music of Grouper

Photo by Jason Quigley

The music of Grouper, the moniker of Portland-based artist Liz Harris, elicits all sorts of semi-poetic description and creatively convoluted comparisons—like “Mazzy Star meets Arvo Pärt meets My Bloody Valentine,” if you can hear that in your head. While Harris’s uniquely noise-obscured take on the singer/songwriter might resist classification, what’s weird is that it doesn’t feel all that difficult or new, actually rather comfortable and familiar, which is perhaps why the rampant analogies to other artists are so tempting. This comfort leads to another critical allure: how it invites interpretation. For instance, the ways in which people describe the music—e.g., something you listen to while you walk back to your apartment late at night through empty streets while being whipped by the cold winter wind—are lonely descriptions, and one can imagine that a lot of those who listen to Harris’s music are lonely people. It’s not so much that the music functions as a locum for social interaction or as a source of yearned-for empathy; more that it makes loneliness feel beautiful instead of monotonous and crushing.

And have little doubt, Grouper’s music is incredibly beautiful. But personal projections like this might have very little to do with Harris’s actual intent. There’s a certain set of commonalities to abstract yet evocative music that encourages listeners to identify in a deeply emotional and visceral way, and this music has these qualities in spades. In the reviews of her albums there’s a tendency to talk about things like “what kind of girl” Liz Harris is, or the complex emotional inducements she intended with the music, based mostly on the internal agencies of listeners who have no real knowledge of the internal agency of the composer. Unsurprisingly, these attempts at identifying with a specific dark or isolated force behind the art can turn out to be misguided. Many of these individual idealizations also kind of fly in the face of other things one might notice given a closer look—her penchant for collaboration, whether it be with Xiu Xiu, Badgerlore, or Inca Ore, doesn’t indicate anything like an aggrieved outsider in a secluded cabin, nor does her unexceptionally well-balanced demeanor in person or interviews. Or take one of the few comprehensible couplets from her latest full-length, Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill: “love is enormous/it’s lifting me up”.

False countenance or not, the face behind the music is meaningful to people, and of course it’s the music and presentation itself that’s inducing it. While the style has changed over the four years since the release of the first eponymous CDR, especially with a fairly noticeable turn towards greater clarity and accessibility with 2007’s Cover the Windows and the Walls, there are some hallmarks of Grouper’s work that can be traced from inception. The instrumental rhythms tend to be little more than basic pulses, with a prevalence of drones underlying the structures and long-breathed and repetitive melodies floating over the top. Everything is bathed in reverb and delay, creating this quasi-aqueous sense of laying beneath waves of indistinct yet intimate sounds. Despite this aural envelopment, things are kept quite simple; the Wurlitzer featured in the early albums has given way to more guitar, but Harris’s voice has remained the binding phenomenon. Yet in a paradoxical way the voice isn’t treated as the cohesive musical factor at all, but rather is buried in the mix behind blasted phonic haze. Everything sounds de-emphasized.

The various levels of formal, rhythmic, timbral, and harmonic stasis in Grouper’s music then act like the treatment of a canvas for musician and audience alike. That may seem like a forced analogy, but its fairly apt given Harris’s visual predilections—she was an art student at Berkeley before turning her focus to music, and still contributes visually to her music career with album artwork and concert videos. It’s fitting then that she describes her treatment of the beclouded lyrics as similar to her use of pastels in visual works, which really only invites further listener speculation. The cumulative effect of all these little ambiguities leaves a body of work begging for subconscious and personal interpretation.

At a recent show at the New Museum, one of Grouper’s own coruscated videos played behind but also over her, lightly masking her in a really very beautiful way as she played. It was befitting of the music in this elemental yet ineffable way, as though they both came from the same marrow. Which of course they did. The massive video projection emphasized the spare closeness of the setup—basically a singer, a guitar, and a handful of effects pedals; a hissing cassette backed up delicate melodies and casual strums. The six songs passed without any applause in the intermediary; the pre-Valentine’s Day crowd consisted of a large number of couples who did not converse softly or nestle with each other during the set, but sat rapt, focused in their attention like they were trying to commune directly with the light-veiled performer on the stage. Of the many in the audience who were experiencing something very unique and secluded with the music, none were wrong.

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