UC Berkeley alumna Liz Harris blends art, music in live show

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Since studying practice of art at UC Berkeley in 2002, Liz Harris has enjoyed critical success as a noise/ambient musician under the moniker Grouper. Harris’ skills were on full display when she recently played at the Swedish American Hall as part of San Francisco’s Noise Pop Festival.

Grouper incorporates her art background into her performances, using an above-the-stage screen displaying projections of her art with a grainy VHS aesthetic. Harris sat cross-legged with a guitar in her lap and a microphone stand hunched over before her, gearing up for what was ultimately a winsome performance.

The screen was abducted by black-and-white graphic textures, as shots of rippling water in black and white appeared like crinkling cellophane, reflecting and refracting light upon her pretty face. Leaves, water and human eyes flashed quickly and lingered across the screen, culminating in an eerie yet beautiful visual experience.

But the graphics don’t beat the music. If Grouper was part of a Dungeons & Dragons adventuring party, she would be a bard. Her sound is saturated with a lo-fi production style and heavy use of guitar pedals, hypnotizing listeners into a trance.

Certainly, the experience of going to an ambient show is in no way comparable to shows in other genres. The protocol regarding falling asleep is rather unclear, yet snores resound through the hall as if to complement the music. What is clear is that people are knocking out left and right.

The fact that people are falling asleep in their seats is strange in its own right, but what’s weirder is that people are convening in a public space to do so.

The Swedish American Hall is a somewhat ecclesiastic setting, which tints the set with shades of spirituality. It almost feels as though people are convening for not only experimental music credentials, but also for religious experience.

To some, Harris’ music is perceived like a comforting and pastoral lullaby. On her most recent album release, Ruins, delicate piano and a sampling of croaking frogs, chirping crickets, rain, and wind create a dreamy soundscape. On previous albums, such as the popular Dragging A Dead Deer Up A Hill, shoegaze guitar effects daze the listener.

To others, her music can induce anxiety. Reverberations that mimic howling winds and distant mysterious voices lurking in darkness come off as chilling — haunting.

Considering that she treats her work more like performance and installation art or guided concentration meditation and less like a show, sleep almost seems to be an encouraged form of audience engagement.

Yet something deeply embedded in her music is reminiscent of awakening. Droning vibrations are so repetitive and long that listeners are forced to either become hyper-aware of time or lost within it.

There’s sufficient space to bum out. Her work can be so trance-like that it verges on psychologically jarring. With Grouper, it’s quite possible that you’ll find yourself immersed in a bad trip while completely sober.

After lulling listeners to near-unconsciousness throughout the show, she wrenches them back to reality at its end.

To conclude her set, Harris allows sounds redolent of approaching trains to blare before cutting off the sound altogether. It happens in an instant, and she mutters an almost-exasperated “Thanks!” before walking offstage to applause.

This is the first and last time Harris speaks to the crowd. She appears elusive but unpretentious. Actually, she seems downright humble for a musician of a genre that is so esoteric.

Lo-fi and shoegaze (a late ’80s alternative rock genre that features heavily affected guitars) are subgenres with narrow listenership. Furthermore, it’s difficult to imagine listening to this kind of music anywhere outside of a bedroom, alone and stoned.

Yet Harris makes her show a communal, meditative experience. There is no space for applause between songs — and it’s not because people are napping in their chairs.

Though Harris looks to be reclusive and just out of reach, she is able to command the attention of a room to focus on an audio-visual happening … which sometimes involves dozing off.

Contact Jeila Saidi at [email protected]