Text: Paul Parreira
The overlap between classical and electronic music has been in orbit for quite some time. Brian Eno was open about his love for Satie and his passion for Varèse when he launched Ambient music in the mid-seventies. Wendy Carlos merged the two into an avant-garde soup on the brilliant soundtrack for Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange, “ as did Vangelis with his groundbreaking progressive synth rock around the same time. The exploratory music of Harold Budd has always hinted at reflections of Bach, Debussy and Chopin. Aphex Twin famously teamed up with Philip Glass and asked him to score “Icct Hedral” for the Donkey Rhubarb EP. But in the last few years we’ve seen a real integration of classical music sensibilities into the ambient electronic music community. Eluvium, Nils Frahm, Ólafur Arnalds, and Max Richter are just a few of the artists working classical music themes and techniques into their sound.
Piano player and composer Rachel Grimes is a pioneer in the recent resurgence of this culture. Though her first group, Rachel’s, leaned much more towards traditional chamber music, it did operate in the indie rock world and existed on indie rock labels in the 1990s and ’00s–complete with touring schedules of small clubs and minimalist, ambiguous album covers. After the breakup of Rachel’s, she released Book of Leaves in 2009, a beautiful exercise in minimalist piano music owing much to the melodic playing of Harold Budd and Ryuichi Sakamoto, but layered with neoclassical atmospheres that form and shape her sound.
Growing up in Louisville, Kentucky, Grimes spent time outdoors, observing the beauty of her surroundings and capturing it in the music she was writing. I can’t help but assume that these visual elements deeply affect her writing. “We bought a place out in the country and yes, it’s had an exploratory influence on me and that’s what Book of Leaves is really influenced by—from the images on the cover and also the titles of the songs are derived from the seasonal rhythm of nature,” she said to me recently via a Skype call from her home in Kentucky. When I ask about the bird sounds on one of the tracks from Book of Leaves, “She Was Here,” Grimes points out that nature is always on her mind. “I’m looking out the window at a Phoebe, which is a little bird that hasn’t been here in months. And just this morning I could hear him and now I can see him.” The visual imagery that her music sets is one of the many reasons her songs hold so much weight; there’s a spatial, cinematic impression that is felt and heard on most of her songs. The moods shift: her music can swing between somber and joyous within a few tracks—sometimes within a song—capturing shapes, colors, and angles on the way. “Someone emailed me about synesthesia and I read a bit more about it and it’s not just about associating colors with pitch ranges and key centers; it is about having physical, architectural, spatial components in mind when I’m writing music,” she says.
I’m looking out the window at a Phoebe, which is a little bird that hasn’t been here in months. And just this morning I could hear him and now I can see him.
On her new album, The Clearing (due out May 26), there’s an exploratory urgency that at times pushes the atmosphere towards conventional songwriting, pop, or even jazz, but still retains the mood and feeling of a musician searching for a new platform of expression. A composer who is assertive and confident is a composer pushing the envelope. And that’s just what Rachel Grimes does on The Clearing, an album full of energy, with an ebb and flow so varied in style that it can seem daunting at times. But that intimidation wears off pretty quickly. I suggest to her that by exploring and taking risks, she is asking us to tag along on her journey. “I love that it is risky. And I definitely have a little bit of difficulty believing in the way it all sits together. But I’ve got to get people to buy into it. It didn’t really begin as ‘hey, I want to build a record with a variety of ensembles and I want it totally to be different than my last record.’ No, the idea wasn’t that well formed.”
The opening track on The Clearing, “The Air,” shares a constructive commonality with four other “Airs” on the album that knot the sequence together, ultimately binding the pieces as one unified expression. She explains, “the [album] needed some glue that would weave it all together to help a listener, and help me. And that’s the origin of the ‘Airs.’ It’s a suite. They’re built on the same simple musical idea and scale, and that is literally the space, the air and the sky as the unifying factor for the music. So I wrote for strings and piano in hope of modifying the sound to have some kind of quality in it that would resemble the air.” And sometimes the songs will shift, push and adapt to these spatial elements. For example, “In the Vapor with the Air Underneath,” Grimes builds the song into a frenzy, solo on the piano, but a reverberation of an ethereal ambient tone takes hold midway and gently nudges the sound into a soundscape that drifts and fades into silence. “It was a strange coincidence that I met Scott Morgan of Loscil,” she says, explaining the subtle, but key electronic touches that run through the record. “I started a conversation with him via email and I asked ‘what do you think of this idea?’ I have these pieces that are really short with string and piano textures and I would just love the Loscil effect on them. Please Loscilize these for me!’ He said yes. So he processed them in his studio in his usual mysterious and excellent way.”
This spirited approach to collaboration extends not only into her musical partnerships in small ensembles, but also with theater, acting and movement. “Transverse Plane Vertical” and “Transverse Plane Horizontal” were written specifically for the NYC-based theater group SITI Company, a traveling troupe of actors that set up shop at theater festivals, universities and summer programs for plays, to help actors with projecting and moving live on stage. “These actor exercises were created by the co-founder, Tadashi Suzuki.” She says as she describes the intense workout that the actors must experience during the exercises while her music guides the movement. “They derive from Japanese culture and martial arts. It’s a way to get the person to become familiar with the weaknesses in their body and to strengthen them to be ready at all times to speak on stage. The first half of it is just stomping around, feet to the floor. Then in the middle section everyone drops on a musical cue, and you have to remain perfectly still until one person has begun to rise off of the floor. This can be 12 to 40 actors. They rise to the front of the stage and have to be in tune with each to form a single line. And you wouldn’t believe how taxing these exercises can be. I’ve done them. A lot of people have trouble maintaining concentration. It’s a really profound thing to watch. And that’s what the music is for.”
I explain to her how these sharp peaks and deep lows have the effect of listening to music on shuffle. At one point I while listening to The Clearing I thought that John Coltrane’s masterpiece A Love Supreme had come on the speakers but no, it was still her album. Whether solo or ensemble, Grimes’ songs are like a thread of communication carrying a transmission of sorts to your mind carving out visuals and setting a mood. “Yes. And I’m learning more everyday how visual my aesthetic sphere is. I’m a musician, so I seemingly express most of my experiences through sound. But there is a lot of visual woven into what I play,” she says. The best example of this on the album has to be “The Herald,” a behemoth of a song that traverses musical forms, contains a killer sax solo, and sets the template for her new musical direction. The title track, “The Clearing,” combines the sublime playing style on Book of Leaves with her creative use of an ensemble performance. “I felt like it really does ask a lot of listeners to go there right away. It means you’re in the journey and once you’ve gone through that piece anything can happen. I didn’t have that piece right at the top of the record originally and now I think it was a great idea. I used to have ‘Further Foundation’ closer to the beginning. More of like ‘hey, welcome to this world.’ But actually it functions better like a recollection.”