At the Guggenheim, Julianna Barwick and Grouper attempt to musically complement John Chamberlain’s twisted-metal sculpture
As people wandered up and down the Guggenheim's spiral amid John Chamberlain’s massive topiaries of crunched-up metal on Friday night, the music of Julianna Barwick and Grouper, who were to play the whorled space for a concert inaugurating the museum's "Divine Ricochet" music series, seemed an appropriate soundtrack to the subtly violent yet enigmatically poetic sculptures.
Brooklyn-based Barwick makes beautifully capacious instrumental music that layers wordless vocal samples over just a bare suggestion of instrumentation. Her most recent album, 2011’s The Magic Place, sounds something like a combination of Enya, Gregorian chants, and Animal Collective.
Grouper, the performing name of Portland-based musician Liz Harris, is even harder to place. Her breakthrough album, Dragging A Dead Deer Up A Hill, gained her a following with its ethereal vocals, lo-fi folk instrumentation, and sort of skewed pop-rock sensibility (a bit of Neutral Milk Hotel's way into classic pop). But her subsequent releases, A I A and Violet Replacement, have been more staunchly avant-garde. The latter, which formed the basis of her Guggenheim performance, is an hour-long piece composed of field recordings, tape loops, and droning ambient noise—with little trace of her light vocal style from releases past.
The crowd was mostly young adults in their finest blazers and sun dresses (a springy response to the warm weather), and they seemed happy to wander the museum's galleries until the performance's rather late (for the museum and the Upper East Side) start time of 10 p.m. One Grouper fan told me excitedly that he’d seen her three or four times, and said her music "lends itself to repeat listens."
Sam Brumbaugh, a special events coordinator at the Guggenheim and the producer of the "Divine Ricochet" series, said that he'd worked with the curatorial side to find musicians who match with the artists on display. In years previous those bands have been Animal Collective and Beirut; for Chamberlain's exhibition, something more austere was called for.
"There’s a harshness of process that becomes beautiful, almost against his will," Brumbaugh said.
Julianna Barwick (pictured at left) took to the hangnail of a stage nestled into the Guggenheim’s stairway promptly at ten, and it became immediately clear that the jumbled set-up (a microphone, some monitors, a slew of casssette tapes and tape players, myriad cables, and mixers) actually facilitated simplicity. Standing behind a modest-sized desk, Barwick used a microphone, mixer, and sampler to loop a series of her own vocals to build enormous sonic structures. The effect was otherworldly. She rendered a handful of songs from The Magic Place as video footage of a walk through woods looped behind her. The effect was a strong marriage of sight and sound, and Barwick’s songs felt structural yet transitory—like cloud castles.
The sound in the cavernous space was surprisingly good. Brumbaugh had earlier noted that when the rotunda fills with people (as it was for this show), they create a damper to prevent the sound from scattering too wildly.
There was a brief lacuna between sets, and attendees ordered wine and beer at the makeshift bar. The tone was polite, though one patron broke urbane character to lament "I went to the bathroom and it smelled like straight dank!"
Grouper, when she began her set, bade the audience sit on the rotunda floor to allow her projection—of a globular, shifting, black-and-white moon-shaped image reminiscent of hippie overhead projections—to be seen clearly. Grouper’s performance solved the minor mystery of what the cassette tapes scattered across the stage were for. They were tapes of field recordings, ambient sounds, and loops, which she triggered through a few cassette players and then manipulated through a sizable mixer on the stage.
Her set was devoted to renditions of songs from the Violet Replacement album—really a two-track C.D.-R released to support her latest tour, its songs focused on repeating drones and washes of static.
Grouper's set developed slowly, her drones and samples evolving by small measures over time. Yet the audience was, for the most part, solemn, patient, and gratified, some swaying slightly with eyes closed. Like the metal sculptures the music was meant to complement, time seemed, ultimately, to be the impetus, grinding raw materials into savage yet graceful forms.