How minimal can minimalist music be and still cohere as music? That was the question that came to me as I listened to, and very much enjoyed, the new album under review here. Along the way, I was reminded how the pleasure we take in music often comes most from the tiniest things — if we listen closely enough to notice them.
“Ruins” is the eighth album by Grouper, the solo project of Oregon-based musician and visual artist Liz Harris. Grouper’s previous music, consisting primarily of fuzzily recorded layers of multi-tracked (and haphazardly tuned) guitars and voice, has mostly failed to convince me that there’s enough of a there there to merit prolonged attention. While I would stop short of questioning the artist’s sincerity, I didn’t hear enough skill or effort to take her music seriously. There’s minimal, and there’s perilously close to non-existent. Up til now, Gr0uper has struck me as the latter.
Grouper’s new album, however, has me in her thrall. What has changed? For one thing, Ms. Harris has put down her guitar and moved to the piano. True, her keyboard technique is, to put it gently, rudimentary. But she plays well enough to express herself coherently. And the switch to piano seems to have brought out her inner Erik Satie, referring to the French composer (and acknowledged great-grandfather of minimalism) best known for such profoundly simple piano works as the “Gymnopédies” and the “Gnossiennes.”
Consisting of both songs and solo piano pieces, the music of “Ruins” is, if anything, even simpler than Grouper’s earlier stuff. Yet it coheres, with memorable melodies and discernible shapes. Mind you, very close listening is required to tease out what’s happening, including vocals so soft as to verge on inaudibility. But pay attention, and you notice subtle shifts of phrase lengths, or pleasing melodic arcs, or the spine-tingling moment on the song called “Holding” when the overdubbed voices diverge from unison and blossom into harmony. Tiny things, to be sure, but even in more complex and sophisticated music, it’s often the tiniest things that mean the most. Even when Grouper goes conceptual and experimental on us, developing electronically transformed piano textures on a track called “Made of Air,” the music coheres as music, and quite absorbing music at that.
I wouldn’t quite call “Ruins” a masterpiece, and have not yet anointed Grouper as a Great Musical Artist. Yet using the simplest, homeliest musical ingredients, Grouper has created something unique and quietly lovely. Sometimes, that’s all I want or need. Please check it out for yourself when you have the time and the space to listen closely.