It’s been a while since your correspondent has actually written about music here, but this month there’s been so much goodness to see that it’d be remiss not to share some of it. Take, for instance, the night of 13 April, which amongst other things will go down in history as the night that Hole reunited at tiny Brooklyn venue Public Assembly. NY Conversation wasn’t in attendance at that particular show — I’m not particularly upset by this, however, because I was at the Guggenheim instead, watching Julianna Barwick and Grouper play one of the most genuinely entrancing shows I’ve seen all year. Result.
They’re playing as part of a something called Divine Ricochet, which is a regular series of musical events at the gallery throughout April — apart from this show, there are performances scheduled by Zola Jesus and Cold Cave later in the month. The Guggenheim turns out to be a pretty wonderful place to see a show, and not only because the $25 ticket also gets you into the museum itself to see whatever’s on (doors open at 8pm, and the bands aren’t on stage until 10.30pm or so.) The exhibition that’s on at the moment is a retrospective of the work of one John Chamberlain, a local sculptor who made abstract brutalist works from old car parts.
Apparently, the music is meant to reflect the art on display, which makes Barwick’s work a strange choice — her airy vocal textures are as far from twisted metal and savage form as you could possibly imagine. Frankly, though, it doesn’t really matter, because it’s a privilege to see her live in such a gorgeous setting, conceptual continuity be damned. It’s remarkable to see how she builds up her songs layer by layer — she uses the same simple loop pedal idea that a million other artists have used over the last few years, but by pretty much completely eschewing any sort of percussion or rhythmic structure, she creates music that sounds like no-one else at all.
Grouper’s work is perhaps more fitting for the emotions evoked by Chamberlain’s work — her work is just as abstract as Barwick’s, but whereas the latter’s sound is all air and light, Grouper’s music comes from a place that’s far less pretty and far more intense. She takes a seat on the stage and invites everyone else to sit down too, which is probably just as well as a) the marble floor is kinda brutal on your back after a couple of hours of standing and b) the set she proceeds to play is far better suited to sitting and spacing out than it is to standing and actually watching, because it consists of one note. For an hour.
It’s interesting to watch the reactions that Grouper’s music attracts from the audience, which appears to consist at least as much of art lovin’ types as it does of fans of either artist performing. Some look bewildered, and a few start to filter out about 15 minutes in, when it starts to become clear that this really is all that’s going to be happening for the next hour or so. A couple of people behind us just talk through the music until someone finally tells them to shut up. But most attendees seem pleasingly well-disposed toward the idea of sitting through an hour-long drone set.
In a way, this is the most minimalist approach to music you could possibly imagine: an exploration of the infinite possibilities of a single tone. To my ears, at least, it’s not boring in the slightest — for all that the pitch of the note doesn’t change, the timbre and texture of it most certainly do, with subtle variations drifting in and out of the sound as the minutes tick by.
The result is almost meditative — you close your eyes and just drift away, and all of a sudden five or ten minutes have passed while you’ve been somewhere else completely. It functions as a kind of sonic tabula rasa for your emotions — the music is so blank that it invites you to invest it with your own meaning. As a friend observes afterwards, “Julianna Barwick’s music represents an unattainable emotional ideal: life isn’t really that beautiful… [while] Grouper’s performance released everything I try to hold back, filling in the space of what she wasn’t saying.” Indeed. And all in the setting of perhaps the most spectacular art gallery in the world. I’ll take that over Courtney Love any day, thanks.