St John At Hackney

The St John Sessions series of ambient, drone and modern classical shows at the Hackney church of the same name are the best musical initiative going in London right now, period. That tonight’s instalment is completely sold out should be testament to the organisers’ cumulatively excellent curation as much as Grouper’s ascendant profile.

Opener Heather Leigh isn’t an artist we’re immediately familiar with, and despite a musical CV peppered with artists we’d step over our own mother to see more frequently (collabs with Peter Brötzmann and Wolf Eyes, touring with Jandek, shows with Kevin Drumm etc) we just don’t ‘get’ her shtick. Perhaps we’re being churlish, but the wailing Bush-isms and arrhythmic, blown-out lap slide treatments feel one-dimensional and leave us cold. Another night maybe.

Not so with Liz Harris’ Grouper, who’s live iteration this evening is the closest to one of conventional songs we’ve seen her play, excepting her turn in Mirrorring a couple of years back. Drawing heavily on tracks from last year’s excellent Ruins – transposed from the delicate, solo piano of that record to a more usual reverb-drenched guitar and tape combo – the set is atypically accessible, expectedly elegiac and all-too-brief. It’s thrilling to hear her voice in such relative clarity. She’s an artist given to building her live persona around improvisational noise and long-form ambient pieces. It’s easy to forget that voice when it’s being used as a treated, droning extra instrument in her more abstracted work. It’s a haunting element when brought to the fore.

The fluttering, cyclical super-8 filmwork of long-time collaborator Paul Clipson are, as always, an ideal foil to Harris’ willingly uncharismatic stage presence. Certain segments seem rehashed from the his Café Oto show with Jefre Cantu-Ledesma a few years back (humbly rescinded if this isn’t the case). Also perplexing is Harris’ decision to play in part against a backing track (ditto). Despite the flaws, the Ruins highlight Clearing and the protracted closer of Made of Air – one of the earliest tracks she recorded under the Grouper name – are heady and beguiling all the same.