In a city of huge noise and mass distraction, experiences such as Grouper live feel few and far between.
When you dare not clear your throat or open a can of beer for fear of compromising the rich, thick, but dangerously quiet atmosphere Grouper endeavours to create, you know you’re among something special. Not just because Grouper ranks alongside the finest ambient musicians of her generation, and not only because her efforts operate under a different set of rules than most live situations, but, put simply, it is because the stakes are so extraordinarily high.
On the most basic scale of live music making (loud versus quiet) Grouper operates at the fascinating ‘other’ end. The end that very few artists dare to tread. Caked in reverb, one awry guitar string or dud piano stroke and the entire venue is polluted with an undesirable, off-key drone for minutes at a time. All it takes is one mistake for the spell to be broken, and yet, surrounded by a desk of cassette players, pedals, wires, an electric guitar, piano and microphones, Grouper is unflappable.
She sets about building a wall of ambience for the first ten minutes by shaping a looping, droning sonic terrain and then takes to embellishing it in the form of individual piano-or-guitar riff-led passages that bed into the aforementioned soundscape. There are very few opportunities for applause; each song merging into the next as she lulls the audience into operating, at least for an hour or so, at her pace.
It is mesmerising.
When Liz Harris begins to sing everything unifies. The spinning, ambient layers bed in alongside her vocal; the crowd, the low-lit staging, the decaying, former Hackney Arts Centre, freshly rebranded EartH (Evolutionary Arts space) unifies and even though the set does feel very much on the edge (due to the high stakes mentioned previous), Grouper excels by showcasing the very thing she has championed throughout her career; what she feels necessary and absolutely no more.
As a result, not a single note goes missing.