Liz Harris’ Nivhek Project Is an Exercise in the Ineffable Nature of Grief

Grouper's Liz Harris offers a meditation on the sublime in a way that is itself sublimely beautiful on After its own death / Walking in a spiral towards the house.

After its own death / Walking in a spiral towards the house
Superior Viaduct
8 February 2019

This new piece from Liz Harris was originally issued digitally in the winter, and subsequent other formats have been released in something of a staggered manner. It was probably not the intention that such a process would say anything about the work itself but one cannot help thinking that, even if only accidentally, this series of releases of the same music in different forms does also seem to be somewhat symbolic of the work’s own oscillation between emergence and then retreat and the re-emergence. It’s as if the music is constantly announcing itself, withdrawing into silence, and then speaking again, circling around its subject matter with a doleful restlessness.

To the extent that Liz Harris is a known entity at all, she is primarily known for her work under the name of Grouper, but it has almost always been difficult to claim that one could know her music in any categorical fashion. It is easy to bandy about terms and say that Harris is working in a pastoral ambient mode with a fluctuation between acoustic and electronic instrumentation and arrangement, but that collection of words simultaneously feels like an encoding of what the experience of listening to her work is actually like. In this respect, the difficulty in articulating what Liz Harris is doing is almost an enactment of the sublime itself, and that she is making music that is a response to what cannot be articulated, and so we find it impossible to describe in anything but unsatisfactory terms.

But if one thinks laterally about this listening experience, as it tends to encourage us to do, then there may be some points of reference that could help to situate it and for the listener to situate herself with respect to it. First, there seems to be a certain (not to say significant) spiritual dimension to much of Harris’ work, at the same time that there is deeply meditational aspect to it. There are plenty of people, not be glib about anyone’s inner life, who describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious”. This population has grown over recent years as the combined practices of mindfulness and yoga have enabled seekers and spiritual strivers to find peaceful spaces for themselves, and indeed actually communities of other practitioners, outside the physical and administrative structures of churches and temples and other formal religious contexts. The music of Liz Harris seems to dovetail almost completely with these modes of being.

Harris forces us to think about what it means to be present or absent in a given moment. Should we pay extra attention to this music to track its every movement, or should we let it wash over us as our minds go their own way? Perhaps, in other words, one should ask whether this is foreground or background music? You could listen to almost any given piece of Harris’ work and come away from it completely transformed or completely unchanged, depending on your disposition going into it. Because, much in the way that meditation works, you have to be open to it for it to work on you. But also in the same way that meditation works, you also kind of need a certain level of pre-existing present-mindedness to pay attention to the things that you need to for the exercise to be successful. If there is an excessive amount of noise in your head, the activity will be more noise than signal, although you will certainly have a lot to “notice”. Because meditation isn’t necessarily about emptying yourself and achieving calm and quiet so much as it is about observing the way that your attention span works.

And so what, then, does all of that have to do with After its own death / Walking in a spiral toward the house? Well, there is indeed something about this particular experience that encourages the listener to exhale, to cease from the fight, to desist from striving, to stop resisting, just for this time, to regroup and to replenish, to reconnect with the world precisely by disconnecting from it temporarily. This is a deeply spiritual, if not religious, experience. And it seems, somewhat inevitably, to have a certain preoccupation with mortality in many of the ways that grief functions as recurring pain, always present, but never the same twice. After its own death / Walking in a spiral toward the house might reasonably be heard as a meditation on such human difficulty and enactment of how that kind of pain can feel. Harris has said that “there’s so much death related to this album”, and as one starts to take apart the pieces of this project and put them back together again, that feeling resonates more and more acutely.

Ostensibly consisting of two tracks which are themselves then broken up into two “sides,” these pieces also consist of more granular components. The opening “song” of After its own death is named “Cloudmouth”, which lasts almost eight minutes and resembles rather eerily some of the Taize chants issued by the French ecumenical monastic community. It is as if we are being encouraged in these opening moments to consult the Book of Psalms, to be still and know the presence of a God in whom we may well not believe, and whom we most certainly cannot claim to know or understand. This spiritual affinity that also exists in the context of a deep and alienating isolation is confirmed about four-and-a-half minutes into this serene experience when a sinister electronic pulse starts to wrench the chanting in a much darker direction, until we get the returning ethereal interlude of “Blue Moon”, followed by the chiming beauty of “Night-Walking”, which makes its first appearance here. We round out After its own death‘s Side A with the first iteration of “Funeral Song”.

You will notice that we are making reference to first appearances and iterations of songs, and this is because the two parts of the album are in fact versions of each other, with songs and themes being debuted and rehearsed, revisited and re-contextualized as if After its own death were an almost –simulacrum of its counterpart Walking in a spiral toward the house. It is as if this album, you start to realize, is being staged in a kind of bardo, a Buddhist condition that is a form of limbo between death and reincarnation. One might go further and surmise that there comes a time when one feels that this listening experience is almost akin to a psychotropic near-death/post-death/pre(re)-birth experience.

For example, After its own death side B starts with a “version” of “Thirteen” that is precisely located in that place where one is feeling joy and sadness simultaneously, and the plucked sounds and swelling chords of this section seem to circle the drain of a beautiful grief with perfect grace and poise. Sounds are, then, not repeated so much as themes and motifs are reprised, and this is in some ways how grief works. It never goes away, but it may retreat and return, but when it returns, it may do so in a different form. In this sense grief is a shapeshifter, and thus does Nivhek’s perambulation around its edges and to its heart proceed. Indeed, “Crying Jar”, which follows the first version of “Thirteen”, begins in near silence and then transitions glacially into a distant and gorgeous vocal incantation, perhaps the single most beautiful passage of the album. This temporary melancholy serenity is followed immediately by the rather terrifying engine roar of “Entry” that lasts for about two minutes.

Walking in a spiral toward the house begins with a reprise of “Night-walking” from the earlier part of After its own death with a chiming sound that opens up into something glittery like fireflies or tea lights. Likewise, “Night-walking” is followed on Walking in a spiral toward the house by “Funeral Song” and “Thirteen”, as was the sequence on After its own death. All of this is a simply beautiful conceit that is both calming and unsettling at the same time, and it becomes apparent that we have indeed been walking in an aural spiral throughout, both still and in motion, turning over the fragments of meaning in our hands to make sense of what cannot be comprehended. And yet there is nothing unseemly about any of this – there is no wailing or gnashing of teeth, but much more dignity and stateliness, qualities that characterize almost all of Harris’ great body of work. It is as if these pieces set to music some lines from Emily Dickinson’s poem “After great pain, a formal feeling comes”: “This is the Hour of Lead -/Remembered, if outlived/As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow – /First – Chill – then Stupor – then the letting go.”

RATING 9 / 10