Ambient Musician Brings Showgoers to Tears

Owen Harrington

Last Saturday evening at about 8 p.m. I entered Fairchild Chapel, beginning the arduous wait until ambient singer-songwriter Liz Harris, also known as Grouper, arrived onstage. The opening act, cave weta, didn’t come until 8:45 p.m. His performance began with a quiet, high-pitched hum, which served as the basis for the rest of the song, as the manipulation of some pedals and hearty doses of feedback kept the once-feeble sound going for the next 15 minutes. At times, the performance, characterized by deep drones with peculiar textures, was lovely. cave weta shone especially towards the end when vocal loops were incorporated into the mix, adding a more human and melodic element to the formidable wall of sound. At some points, however, when the high-pitched frequencies became the focus of the performance, the piece became a bit irritating. Perhaps I am a purist, but I love my drones deep, loud and conducive to zoning out.

When cave weta finished his set, I waited anxiously for Grouper to appear. The Portland-based recording artist has been releasing music for 10 years under this moniker, including her 10th album Ruins, which she released last year to critical acclaim. Her music manipulates multiple genres but is generally pretty mellow, combining a soft tape hiss, guitar and keyboard soundscapes, soft, layered vocals and a constant stream of reverb to create her unique sound.

When an artist of Harris’ notoriety enters a room of such intimate size as Fairchild Chapel, one almost expects a certain amount of fanfare to accompany it, but this was not the case. Harris slipped up to the stage twice, almost unnoticed, before her performance even began, probably mistaken for a student as she was even wearing the official “mitre” of the Oberlin fashion cult: the Carhartt beanie. But once she made her presence known to the audience, sitting cross-legged on the stage and flanked by two candelabras, Harris held everyone’s attention. Much like her arrival at Fairchild, her performance began softly and unobtrusively. Harris’ signature quiet tape hiss graced our ears before any other sound as she entered into “Vanishing Point” from her 2013 album The Man Who Died in His Boat. She subtly manipulated ephemeral keyboard sounds throughout the track. To my surprise, she then layered on her song “Alien Observer” and began to sing along, adding vocal harmonies to the recordings and loops she had been playing previously.
By this point, I was enraptured by Harris’ performance. She sat before us on stage, a small figure beneath tall ceilings and stained glass whose voice, delicate loops and guitar still filled the entire room. She commanded the crowd like a religious leader; each song was a gorgeous litany, exalting a world not quite our own. The songs, while recognizable, began to blend into one dreamy blanket of fog, the sounds intertwining as they bounced off the walls of Fairchild.

Perhaps most striking was Harris’ voice, which, though subdued and often soft, was nonetheless always present and filled up an incredible amount of sonic space when combined with her many-layered loops and subtle yet melismatic melodies. Her songs came across as deeply spiritual, almost like meditative chants. This particular quality of her music lent itself perfectly to the environment she was playing in; her cross-legged position in a grotto-like church altar was deeply reminiscent of an oracle cryptically dispensing wisdom from beyond. As Harris’ performance went on, the music became even more meditative and took on a oneiric quality, becoming perhaps even more beautiful and less grounded in melody.

This trend culminated in the final part of the show, when Harris put down her guitar, turned away her microphone and began to work only with her electronics. The result was a beautifully crafted, dream-like wall of sound that undulated and morphed for five or seven minutes before reaching a crescendo and then coming to an abrupt but well-timed end. The show lasted for about an hour, though it felt like it existed somewhere on a different timeline from ours. When Harris stopped playing and uttered her first and only words of the evening, “Thanks, guys,” it seemed as though we listeners had suddenly been snapped back to reality. Many in the audience were almost too moved to speak, and clapping seemed vaguely inappropriate though certainly well deserved.

When the lights came back on, and the audience began milling about, I spoke to a handful of people, including Review Arts editor Danny Evans, who said he had been moved to tears by the performance, and rightfully so. If you were lucky enough to attend the show, I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did. And for those who could not make it, I implore you to keep your eyes open for future Grouper concerts. I assure you, they’re not to be missed.