“Do we have any knitters in the house?” asked Disjecta Art Center Executive Director Bryan Suereth this past Friday night. It wasn’t until two hands quickly shot up in the audience that I realized this question wasn’t a joke. The second annual Quiet Music Festival would be exactly what it advertised to be: quiet.
Until then, I had forecasted this to be a festival of typical Portland fare (100 or more of Portland’s residents pressed up against each other to the soundtrack of blaring music). But seeing everyone stretched out on out brightly patterned rugs and pillows, it only made sense that Liz Harris would be conjuring up dreamy electronic spirits here as her musical alter ego, Grouper.
As Harris took the stage, the lights were turned down, leaving on only a single lamp. Behind her, a projection of an overcast sky inched by slowly. With an electric guitar, loop/effects pedals and a mixing unit connected to multiple cassette tape players, Harris spun ambient, reverb-drenched harmonies that oozed over the audience. The lyrics may not have been easily distinguishable, but when blended with her guitar, created mesmerizing blankets of sound. By carefully overlapping a series of cassette recordings it was hard to tell where one song ended and another began.
By mid-set, a few people began to nod off around me. This may have been the only show I’ve been to where positive audience response is based as much on applause as the number of people who are lulled into a blissful sleep. Still, one of the most attractive attributes of Grouper’s music is the ability to lose yourself in it. This isn’t to say the music is static or lacks a narrative; there are repeating themes, melodies and lyrics. But because the music operates at such a slow pace, with ambiguous sounds and vocals moving through one another in a haze, it’s easy to find yourself floating a couple feet above the ground.
When the final tones from Harris’ cassette player drifted away like smoke, people sat upright and gave the loudest applause of the night. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little bummed “Alien Observer” or “Heavy Water/I’d Rather Be Sleeping” weren’t included in the set. But having waited to see one of my favorite up-and-coming bands for the past couple years, I was not disappointed. If anything, I’m now more excited to see Harris in her most recent collaboration with Seattle’s Tiny Vipers (Jesy Fortino) as the group Mirroring. Pick up their debut LP Foreign Body and see them live Friday, September 7th at Portland’s Musicfest NW.