Liz Harris closes the door on Grouper
“Clarity” has never been a term one would immediately associate with Liz Harris.
Over nearly a decade, the Oregon-based musician and artist has built a magisterial and enigmatic body of work under her Grouper alias, revelling in obfuscation, both sonic and temporal. She has consistently occupied a liminal space between distant celestial planes and an ageless natural world, creating pieces dense in layers of drone, vocal wisp and heavily sustained guitar and keyboard that are quiet, unnerving and crushingly beautiful. Dragging A Dead Deer Up A Hill, the 2008 full-length released on John Twell’s Type Records, is still arguably her finest moment: a breathtakingly realised collection of suffocated dream pop, it was the closest Harris had drifted to accessible songwriting, but still wholly ethereal and smothered in the gloaming woodsiness it was fundamentally embedded in.
The double set of AIA: Alien Observer and AIA: Dream Loss, both released in 2011, streamlined this aesthetic further, cementing Harris as an inimitably singular artist and dispelling any notions that her particular vein of expression was close to being comprehensively mined. Listen to the utterly heartbreaking centrepiece Vapour Trails and try to disagree.
All of which makes Ruins such an unexpected entry into Harris’s catalogue. Her music has always been sparse underneath the ecstatic wash, but here, for the most part, she strips back her tools to an analogue piano, near-whispered vocals and field recordings of animal life and ambient weather.
Clearing – the record’s opener proper given first track Made of Metal’s barely- audible smattering of frog song and minimalistic percussion – is a quietly devastating induction to the approach, oddly sing-song and laconically propulsive in its own way, the wonderful half-hook factoring oriental inflections reminiscent of the prettiest guzheng compositions. Call Across Rooms further displays an overt soulfulness, showing us that Harris isn’t simply rehashing the traditional Grouper aesthetic in a different guise, while Lighthouse recalls both the impressionistic lilt of Debussy (honestly) and Joe Hisaishi’s score for Spirited Away, albeit overlaid with more evocative croaking. What hits hardest is how transparently clear it all is, a veil giddily lifted. The exception is found in the closing Made of Air. One of her first experiments with recording, it reverts focus to the woozy haze of early collections Way Their Crept and Cover The Windows And The Walls, and, because Harris has inferred that this could be her last record as Grouper, acts as a particularly melancholy and poignant bookend, if a jarring change in tone within the immediate curated context.
“Ruins wasn’t preconceived, just the time and space,” Harris tells us over e-mail. “I had gone to Portugal a ways back and made friends in Lisbon with Sergio Hydalgo, where I was hosted by the collective he works with, ZDB. He and I talked for years about a special project, and ended up planning together that I would come present an excerpt of SLEEP [one of the recordings that comprised 2012’s long-form Violet Replacement] at Teatro Maria Matos. Following that, I would spend some time at his Aunt’s cabin near the beach, where there was a piano I could play or record with if it felt right. There was no pressure to make anything.” Despite this, she states, “[the record] was born from a limited environment with limitations that I chose. I missed piano; I wanted to record without effects, leave things plain.”
With Ruins, we observe Harris shifting to a world that’s warmer and more recognisably human than the brooding, cascadian unknown of her previous work. Snippets of press and interview material preceding the record made note of the artist using the recording process to vent personal and political feelings; such stark catharsis is an especially beguiling prospect given just how often she has tended to err away from conventional emoting.
“It was the first time I’d sat still in a clear quiet space since the end of a relationship a couple years prior, [the first time I’d] immersed myself in work, music and art and travel, ignored what felt hard – dating, world news, social contact,” she explains. “I was just starting to return to the present, to my body, feeling calm enough to look at myself honestly, where I’d ended up after those few years. Just beginning to consider dating again, pay attention to the world again. A lot of frustration and sadness had built up. I felt some parts of me were lost. So, it’s a kind of break-up album, I guess. That relationship; also breaking up with a version of myself, or trying to anyway.”
Given her previous work’s compulsive obsession with the elements and half- conscious states, we ask whether this realignment has altered the importance of capturing specific physical or spiritual space as part of her creative process. “Ruins is very much about the literal human in a present and literal world; real relationships with real people, the sound of the frogs outside, the sound of a storm that woke me up. A more impressionistic landscape is definitely still present, and has much to do with water [a common theme throughout her albums] and other more abstract sounds. I can’t escape those two.”
Ruins is a concise work, verging on abrupt, for the most part conveying a series of sketches or vignettes. If it is to be her last release under the Grouper name, it’s a peculiar way to bow out; the form and tone feels experimental, rather than a logical conclusion to her previous output. It’s to Harris’s credit – and in no small part her unwavering ability to create such haunting soundscapes from self-imposed and limited means – that the collection avoids becoming bathetic. In any case, it’s still wholly idiosyncratic, a wonderful and beguiling work in its own right, and one which hints at further forays into previously untapped resources of modern-classical and minimalist influence.
“In my interactions with almost everything, I have two separate speeds that overlap – very fast and very slow,” Harris concludes. “I’m sure that if I’d gone to public school I’d have been thrown into a separate classroom or given Ritalin. Instead I was given a lot of space and time alone to come up with my own methods. Mine allow me to be myself; to be precise, and to relax/ remove at the same time … Obsessing on the details, with a zen-like approach.”
Ruins is out now via Kranky