Musicians and museums have a cozy relationship in New York, and it seems to get cozier every year. Whether it’s legendary acts like Kraftwerk holding an eight-night residency at the MoMA or a relative newcomer like Nicolas Jaar hosting a multidisciplinary performance at the MoMA PS1, the line between the music world and the art world gets blurrier every day, and it’s easy to understand why: Musicians enjoy the honor and prestige of playing in such respected venues, while museum owners must love the attendance bump of attracting patrons who only know Gerhard Richter as the German dude who did the Daydream Nation cover. These events create an interesting, sometimes tension-filled, dynamic between the performer and the space, and that dynamic was fully explored by both Julianna Barwick and Grouper on Friday night at the Guggenheim.
Kicking off a three-part concert series called Divine Ricochet—the second and third parts will feature Cold Cave and Zola Jesus—the evening was a showcase for two performers who both create what could be called ethereal or celestial music, but who approach it from very different perspectives. It was fitting that the concert was presented in conjunction with a retrospective of American sculptor John Chamberlain’s work titled “Choices” because both performers illustrated how choice is essential to experimental music. While it’s tempting to look at the occasionally ambient and repetitive music of artists like Barwick and Grouper as being based around chaos, even the most multi-layered and seemingly random compositions are built from a series of choices. This point is articulated in a video about Chamberlain on the Guggenheim’s website where senior curator Susan Davidson discusses Chamberlain’s works, many of which had a junk aesthetic achieved by using discarded automobile parts. “Choice is very much a part of Chamberlain’s working process,” she says in the video. “He chose the materials that he worked with, and he chose how they fit together.”
Julianna Barwick’s primary material is her beautiful, mysterious voice. The singer quietly took the low-to-the-ground, cushion-like stage set up in the lobby of the museum, and she quickly silenced the chattering crowd with her gentle, almost New Age vocal stylings. The Louisiana-born, Brooklyn-based composer has a powerful voice, but what makes her music so enchanting is how she manages to twist and manipulate that voice, looping stray fragments over each other and slowly creating a cascading wave of sound. While her album, The Magic Place, is an impressive and soothing work, there’s an additional layer of urgency and intensity to her live performance. How will she make these sounds? What if she loops the wrong effect? What if it all comes crashing down?
Holding her microphone with an upward tilt, the way an MC might, Barwick was a striking figure, her face contorted in an expression that simultaneously suggested prayer and pain, like a type of religious ecstasy. At one point she created a thunderous beat to one of the songs by simply striking the top of her microphone and looping the sound, filling the cavernous rotunda of the Guggenheim with pulsating noise. She spent most of the performance perched in front of a small projection of woods and sunlight, but the strongest moments of the night came when the projection flipped off or had to restart, and Barwick was left standing alone in the darkness, her music dwarfing the immense structure around her. In a building often considered a symbolic totem to modernist art and urban life, she brought a touch of the wilderness to the museum’s stark contours.
If Juliana Barwick was some mercurial, woodland creature, Grouper, the alias of artist Liz Harris, was other-wordly, like something out of an X-Files episode, and not one of the funny or silly episodes. After setting up her pile of gear, Grouper’s set began before many in the audience even knew the house music was off. Sitting down on the stage and never acknowledging the crowd, who sat cross-legged throughout the lobby, like kindergarden students or pupils at a meditation center, Harris’s piece began with soft ambient tones, but it grew in intensity toward the end as she introduced more noise-like elements. Unlike her earlier song-oriented work, like 2008’s haunting Dragging A Dead Deer Up A Hill, Harris has transitioned into a more abstract realm typified by an emphasis on tape-loops, ripples of static and field recordings.
But even in this more chaotic, unsettling and unpredictable work, it’s possible to hear the choices being made, even though at times they may seem confusing or buried in an impenetrable internal logic knowable only to Harris herself. Playing one long piece, Harris never sang but was hard at work throughout the show, scurrying around the stage to make adjustments and manipulate the equipment surrounding her. Bathed in a small circular projection, she turned the museum into a giant pair of headphones, like a spiral directly into her mind. At the end of her set she quietly walked off the stage, but after exiting I saw her looking up at the ceiling, perhaps surprised her music could reach such great heights.