Cam Deas is a modern man in search of a song. It’s a pretentious (and frankly plagiaristic of a track of his) way of saying that he’s an idiosyncratic electro wizard who doesn’t seem to conjure music as much as he bridles it. In Deas’ world, a musician is not a creator. He’s a wrangler.
His setup looks like a mid-20th century vision of a techno-futuristic picnic: a tabletop splayed with an assortment of boxes connected by cables, with bundles of them spilling over the edges. The main piece is on the right, a large red box that opens to reveal some sort of computer console, out of which even more cables pour. On the left, out of place, lies an acoustic guitar.
What follows is a 40-minute set consisting of Deas effecting noise. When he turns them on, the machines emit high-pitched electronic signals. Those signals then repeat and distend, becoming thick and elliptical. Occasionally he steps over to the guitar. Using a slide, he slaps out some rustling tones and then returns to the machines for processing. Up until this point, the shape of the sound is abstract, a going-in-all-directions mood piece with jutting textures that keep you on edge. Then it all collapses. The climax, if you can call it that, is the violent dissolution of these layers, resulting in a deep and profound trembling that shakes the room. I’m seated behind the sound guy, watching the levels spike well into the red. He doesn’t move, though. On stage, Deas is presiding over an experiment going horribly wrong, which is object of the piece. The spectacle of it is scary, penetrating, and, at times, thrilling.
When the stage is cleared, Liz Harris, who performs under the moniker Grouper, appears like an apparition in the wake of a terrible accident. Live candles have been placed at either side of her, and she sits in the middle of the stage, legs crossed. Above her, a projection screen lights up with sun-soaked images, what looks to be a home movie of a vacation on the Oregon coast.
It’s a beautiful contrast to what came before. Like a lot of ambient musicians, Harris can hide herself deep inside her work, inviting us to observe the labyrinth from a distance as she feels her way out from the middle. For the show, she limits herself to voice and electric guitar, both of which she buries low on the high reverb setting. In a way it makes her sound far away, but there’s a warmth that envelopes you and brings you closer.
Harris’ music is wash of sweet melodies that rises like a gentle tide. Her set harkens back to the sound of 2007’s Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill, where songs like “When We Fall” and “Tidal Wave” serve as the clearest sonic callbacks. It’s the steadily strummed chords that keep you from drifting in the dreamy atmospherics, directing focus toward the foreground where we find Harris, at once receding and surging, in slow motion.
Most reverential experiences are definite about their sense of place. The movie projected on the screen aims to take us to the coast, where land meets ocean, where shape loses shape. With Harris, it’s more about a sense of time. There’s something about digging into the past that can bring you to a moment of clarity in the present. Her songs are thick with the sound of thought, the turning over of memories. But she’s there. And so are we.