Grouper is a dark star of the Portland experimental scene. She hardly needs any introduction, but her records have hypnotized international audiences for years, yet she remains somewhat aloof from the local music scene. She DOES pop up, from time to time, making sporadic and memorable appearances, often times at small, inexpensive events. Saturday evening’s performance was part of Reed College’s Art Week; an early, free all-ages show in Reed College’s Chapel.
March 9th, 2013 @ Reed College’s Eliot Hall in Portland, OR
The theme was REVERIE (a topic close to my heart), and this was their goal:
— from the RAW website
Liz Harris’ tape loops, faraway guitar strumming, and submerged vocals are perfect for such an immersive gameplan. Attending a Grouper show can be a bit like going to church. It gives black-clad hipsters a chance to dress up and be reverential. You even tend to see people you know from around town; it’s a real postmodern black metal congregation. Her voice and peculiarly thick guitar are well-suited for the sacred geometry of a cathedral, and filing through the mahogany corridors of Reed College raised the sacramental feeling, a feeling of hushed expectation.
My friends and I arrived to a standing-room-only crowd; people were lulling in the aisles, cuddling on the ground. Liz Harris started playing moments after we arrived, squatting in the back. She played alone, a heavily-processed guitar and a tape loop mixer her only set-up. She would weave and manipulate her droning loops, and occasionally interrupt the aqueous flow with a song — that is to say, singing and a guitar melody. I would always classify Grouper as noise pop; she writes amazing songs, but they’re swathed in cottony noise. Stylized, I would say. Between songs, she would pause for a moment, retune her guitar silently, and burst into another faraway song. Tonight’s show was of a whole; there were songs but I couldn’t tell you what they were. I aspire to one day know the names, dates, chords, and melodies of every Grouper song, but I’m not there yet.
This performance was not as transportive as other times I’ve seen Grouper play. The sound was merely okay, with a small PA hastily thrown up in the hallowed halls of the chapel. The guitar outweighed the vocals, even more than usual, and there seemed a jarring, disrupted flow to the proceedings, slightly jerky, as impatient Reed patrons shuffled and coughed, filing in and out of the back entrance, making any significant trance state difficult. This was no doubt partially due to my frame of mind, too. My ordinary noise zen trance pre-game was disrupted by actually having friends to go to a performance with.
Which brings me to the real heart of this review; the act of sitting in a chapel, listening to hypnotic repetitive ambient noise. It’s trance-inducing, by nature, with very little stimuli to distract you from your very own self. Going to an experimental noise performance does become like going to church on Sundays, showing up to funky arthouse venues over and over, like a modern day Elysian mystery. The ritualistic repetition alone makes it a kind of ceremony, likely to illuminate your intangible self, your thoughts and emotions. Sometimes it is holy beyond compare; sometimes it is unbearably secular and mundane. Saturday night’s show was probably 60/40; banal thoughts of laundry and finance laced with Angelic visitations, as I rocked back on my tailbone, watching the dramatic shadows of the censors splayed across the vaulted ceilings. Towards the very end, the flow finally took over, building in volume like a My Bloody Valentine spectacle, that good old jet engine rush that noise freaks live and die for. I felt something sparkle and pop, like watching the dying trails of a copper bottlerocket. I felt cleansed and complete, filing out of the chapel.
That’s the nice thing about an artist like Grouper, or any career artist that you follow, grow along with. They will show you who you are, where you’re at in your life. I’ve had the good fortune of seeing Grouper four times since I’ve been living in Portland (she was one of the magnetic pulls toward this region, my starving for an experimental scene in the dryness of the desert). These bands and musicians become like friends and family, sometimes boring and normal, sometimes wildly exciting. They make inspired ART seem possible, part of your daily life.
The audience seemed divided on its way out. I overheard conflicting sentiments, such as, “She seems talented at putting people to sleep,” to “You wouldn’t believe the things I saw!” Polarizing, as usual. It all boils down to how you feel about listening to tape loops in an ambient environment. Some of us like to listen; some are looking for some holy spectacle. While I wouldn’t say this was the finest Grouper performance I’ve seen, it was still a unique experience from a talented artist. The setting was sublime, and there’s nothing I would rather do on a Saturday night than sit in church and listen to some tape drone with some introspective brethren.