The ancient Chinese spiritual text the Tao Te Ching emphasises that “benefit may be derived from something, but it is in nothing that we find usefulness”. The book uses examples of clay pots and wheel spokes to get its point across, these are material things where the space created by craftsmanship does offer some use. In music however, empty space offers another sort of usefulness – it lets a musical moment suspend in space, emphasizing the point of the composition.
When I was a band geek in high school, a friend of mine was an aficionado of the saxophone. He would go on to Humber College on scholarship, and still to this day he is one of the most impressive players I’ve ever heard. He dedicated hours to his craft, whizzing up and down scales and improvising during spare block in the darkened school auditorium. One day I told my band teacher how much I admired his playing. My teacher looked at me, a little amused through his glasses and said to me, “there’s more to being a great musician than playing fast.”
Liz Harris, the voice and mind behind her solo project Grouper understands the function of emptiness and simplicity in music. Her album Ruins, recorded on a four track recorder while during an artistic residency in Portugal, is sparse and lovingly homemade. At one point during the song “Labyrinth” the long cacophonous beep of a microwave can be heard in the background.
Ruins is a dense album that sounds light. Ambient tracks support melodic piano ballads sung with hushed vocals. Liz Harris wrote that she hoped the album bears resemblance to the place where it was written, but the album does more than that. It gives emphasis to a feeling. The hushed piano gives an image of an empty house, old paths and a dense forest. From the name of the album to the haunting sparseness of the music, Ruins is an exercise in what it means to be solitary.
“Call Across Rooms” and “Labyrinth” are the outstanding melodic tracks on this album. They sound like a more intimate Soap & Skin, but this album isn’t meant to be dissected track by track. Doing that would only weaken the experience. This album, more than any other album I’ve listened to since Radiohead’s King of Limbs, calls for it to be listened to from start to finish. The ambient songs on this album like “Made of Metal” and “Made of Air” lend a softness to the piano tracks, and the piano tracks lend a density to the ambient tracks.
In nothing we find usefulness, so says the Tao Te Ching. In nothing there is space, an emptiness, but this does not mean it is devoid of meaning. In fact the emptiness gives meaning. Great works of art can use nothing to great advantage. The sparse musical language in Ruins gives a concrete feel to the vibe of the album. It is wonderful, haunting and beautiful. Ruins is not an album that can be easily categorized or deconstructed in a rational way. It has to be felt.