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Grouper Subdivides

Thirteen segments across a new work credited to Nivhek

The music is credited to one Nivhek, which reverts on the Bandcamp website to the account of Grouper, which is the name employed by Liz Harris when pursuing all manner of murmured and strummed folkloric musics. The Nivhek album, After its own death / Walking in a spiral towards the house, released earlier this month, is two extended suites. On the vinyl version, which has sold out, these suites are divided in half, one on each side of two LPs. On Bandcamp, the suites’ elements are divvied up to the third decimal point of their time codes, the first piece into nine subsets, the second into four:

After its own death

0 – 7:48:544 Cloudmouth
7:48:544 – 8:19:489 blue room
8:17:503 – 11:27:011 Night-walking
11:27:011 -16:41:254 Funeral song
16:41:254 – 26:00:991 Thirteen (version)
26:00:991 – 28:39:125 Crying jar
28:39:125 – 29:29:394 Entry
29:29:394 – 37:33:056 Walking in a spiral towards the house
37:30:846 – end Weightless

Walking in a spiral towards the house

0 – 3:14:509 Night-walking
3:14:509 – 8:37:153 Funeral song
8:37:153 – 12:59:510 Thirteen
12:59:510 – end Walking in a spiral towards the house

It’s helpful to listen to the second work first, as it’s more approachable. “Walking in a spiral towards the house” is tonal, even melodic, built from bell- or gong-like sounds, each tuned to a musical purpose but retaining a functional, call-to-assembly quality. They are heard individually and in rudimentary chords, sometimes triggered in near unison, but more often gathering parallel ripples of tone as they slowly fade. Often those fades are left to occur until their natural end: digital silence. At other times, the fades are curtailed, truncated, the bells re-rung before they are rung out. Toward the end of the penultimate subset, labeled “Thirteen,” which is the minute that occurs shortly after the segment ends (and also the total number of subsections between the two suites, and also the name of one of the subsets of the first piece, “After its own death”), those bells pile up in a way that bears little resemblance to what has preceded the incident. It’s an ecstatic moment in an otherwise genteel setting. It challenges the order of things, but doesn’t break the order’s spell.

“After its own death” is likewise built — at first — from a singular source, in this case choral vocals, all apparently Harris’ own, layered to dark-ecclesiastical effect. But the voice is not all that is there. Like the score to a film by Nicolas Winding Refn or Ridley Scott — or perhaps the two teamed up — the music gathers a deep, raspy bass line that is full of narrative portent. It’s the sound of a vengeful figure stalking the plains. As the first half of “After its own death” begins to close, it introduces some of the bells explored with more focus on “Walking in a spiral towards the house.” The second half opens with the familiar sound of Grouper’s trademark super slow guitar work, simple lines let to sketch something at once personal and symphonic — the intonation is singular, but the reverberations suggest a vast endeavor. And she’s just getting started. There is far more ahead: bells, coughing, what might be footsteps, and that thunderous bass, distorted as only a broken amplifier and intense feedback could accomplish. There is whispering and sudden silence. It’s a challenging piece, a collection of fragments, in brutal contrast to the linear “Walking in a spiral towards the house.”

These are two opposed parts, “Walking in a spiral towards the house” and “After its own death”: one offering welcome solace to those broken after a complex challenge, one offering a welcome challenge to those pulling themselves from solace’s anesthetized embrace.

Album available at grouper.bandcamp.com.

By Marc Weidenbaum

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  • Marc Weidenbaum founded the website Disquiet.com in 1996 at the intersection of sound, art, and technology, and since 2012 has moderated the Disquiet Junto, an active online community of weekly music/sonic projects. He has written for Nature, Boing Boing, The Wire, Pitchfork, and NewMusicBox, among other periodicals. He is the author of the 33 1⁄3 book on Aphex Twin’s classic album Selected Ambient Works Volume II. Read more about his sonic consultancy, teaching, sound art, and work in film, comics, and other media

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