Dialogue of the Universe: Rachel Grimes’s “The Clearing”
Pianist Rachel Grimes has been redefining minimalist and post-rock music for a long time now. As a member of Rachel’s, the chamber music group formed in 1991, she crafted haunting, atmospheric pieces that created sensual aural landscapes that shift effortlessly between sound and silence, the serene and the chaotic, and the concrete and the ineffable. Their music was featured in soundtracks and theatrical productions, and has provided inspiration to artists across media.
Since the dissolution of Rachel’s, Rachel Grimes has embarked on an impressive solo career, releasing her own music and collaborating on other projects. At the end of the month, her newest solo release, The Clearing, will be released on the Temporary Residence imprint. Perhaps the most beautiful album of the year so far, The Clearing evokes the spectrum of human emotion and explores our link to the surrounding world.
The Clearing is a transportative album. And maybe it’s just because of the title, but for me it invokes the sense of being outdoors in a very specific landscape. The album’s ability to call up deep feelings of beauty and nostalgia makes listening to it a powerful experience that transcends individual songs themselves, instead knitting together a rich tapestry woven from memory, experience, and dream.
The album begins with “The Air” (and titles that include this phrase appear several times), a piece that opens with a swell of strings. Sounds move like waves, flowing in and out of one another and creating an immersive experience. The song fades out quickly on a more melancholic note, and it has an unfinished quality that leaves you straining to hear more. The second track, “The Clearing,” opens with the note that “The Air” ends on (this time on the piano), providing a continuity between the pieces that is a theme of the entire album. “The Clearing” shifts the tone from the sweeping expansiveness of “The Air” into a more measured and thoughtful mood. If “The Air” moves you into the level of atmosphere, giving you an expansive view of a particular landscape, “The Clearing” is like being on the ground and navigating through the same space. The gentle undulations of the first song are here contrasted with a repeated quarter note that links the music to time and to the movement of individuals across the earth. There’s a melancholy aspect to this, as well, as violins evoke a sense of longing and mournfulness that eventually opens into a transcendent arc of sound.
The album continues to evoke these varied moodstates as it moves through each song. The tracks seem to explore the place of the sky relative to the earth and vice versa, as well as the relationship of the individual to the surrounding landscape. The alternation between the expansiveness of some pieces and the more grounded tone of others makes this an exploration of equilibrium, a constant, reverent shifting between musical and natural elements. “The Air in Time” is one example of a song that shifts between the flowing openness of chords and the details of a single note—it feels like an expression of humanity’s drive to understand the unending openness of the natural world through something like the scientific detail, to get to the infinite through the minute. Grimes shows that this movement is, indeed, possible. Other songs are more dramatic. “Transverse Plane Vertical,” composed for a training exercise for actors of New York’s CITI Company, is one of these, and its placement, approximately at the halfway point of the album, adds an intensity that balances the softly meditative quality of some of the other tracks. The album ends with a union between elements. Ground seems to meet sky and the sense of new possibility looms like the dawning of a new day. There’s a sense that we exist as separate but connected elements within the networked web of nature itself.
Although the songs feel deeply personal and contemplative, Grimes isn’t alone here. The Amsterdam Sinfonietta accompanies her on “The Clearing” (a recording and collaboration done at a distance). “The Airs” bring in violinist Scott Moore. Other featured collaborators are Scott Morgan (Loscil), Kyle Crabtree (Shipping News), Jacob Duncan (Liberation Prophecy), Helen Money, and Rachel’s member Christian Frederickson.
I spoke with Grimes after March’s Big Ears Festival in Knoxville to talk about the album, her collaborations with other artists, and the relationship between written, visual, and musical arts (among other things)
Ali: How was your experience at this year’s Big Ears? Which other acts were you most excited to see?
Rachel Grimes: Big Ears is a fantastic festival. The audience and the artists are treated so warmly and given the best of environments to listen to and absorb such an intensely amazing quantity of diverse music. I had such a wonderful time racing all about with my husband, trying to catch as much music as we possibly could. One of the things I love is that the programming creates so many surprise adventures, like Tanya Tagaq singing three tones at once, or Sam Amidon playing with Shazad Ismaily and Bill Frisell – whaaa? I was SO excited to finally get to hear Loscil live, and A Winged Victory for the Sullen, the chamber works of Max Richter with the beautiful ACME ensemble, Laurie Anderson with Kronos Quartet playing Landfall, Bill Frisell group playing with a Bill Morrision film “The Great Flood” — sooooo many more…
Ali: The Clearing is a beautiful album, and it seems to me to possess a meditative narrative that’s equal parts exploration, play, reverie, and silence. Is there a story or a concept behind it? How did you pick the album title?
Rachel Grimes: The Clearing was the title that just fell into place for a piece I had begun while on tour several years ago. The idea of a repeating quarter note, as a pathway through the whole piece, which explores the idea of a personal journey, being on a path, not sure where it is headed. There are difficulties along the way, enclosing a moment of clarity – a light in the forest – then back again to the path forward.
The album is an assemblage of different chamber pieces I was writing over about four years. Quite abstractly, several pieces take on a personal somewhat autobiographical viewpoint simply as a result of what I was experiencing in my life at that time.
Ali: The song titles on the album are so poetic and provocative. How did you come up with these titles?
Rachel Grimes: I try as best as I can manage to turn off the inner critic and just name a piece for the way I feel about it or what has shaped it in the making.
Ali: Is there a relationship between the 6 of 11 pieces that are titled with “The Air” (“The Air,” “The Air of Place,” “The Air, Her Heart,” etc)?
Rachel Grimes: Last spring I created “The Airs” as a thematic connective tissue to weave in and out of the larger works and create a setting. Inspired by the wind and sky, “The Airs” explore the ideas of open space, time, a sense of place, what is it like to fly, what is going on in our hearts, that overwhelming feeling of the vast open sky at night…. And then a very magical thing happened, I got an email from Scott Morgan of LOSCIL, one of my favorite artists. I asked him if he would consider working on this set of pieces to help make them identify as a group and add a deep and vast “loscilised” sound quality to the strings and piano. I am so grateful he said yes – it was a really enjoyable collaboration.
Ali: There’s an element of the natural world in the songs and the titles, but there’s also an element of measurement, of human engagement with nature. I feel that the music balances the organic and the measured, the natural and the carefully constructed. Can you speak about this element of the work?
Rachel Grimes: This balance of the organic and the human-structured is so fundamental for me in how I approach and re-approach any piece of music. It is not so far from the eternal chaos/order dialogue of the universe I guess. It seems for me to be a question of how to find something very natural and then capture it, almost like with a photograph, so that it can be repeated and studied and appreciated. I love improvisation, that sense that something has happened, and passed, and is now gone. And I also love the sense that with written music you can have a skeleton from which to depart, and then each time it is another chance to re-make the work and try something anew.
The natural world, its elements, creatures, spaces, and the feelings of co-existence and beauty are my deepest inspiration. I will never get around to all the ideas that flow past me everyday for how to respond to or paint a sound picture of some fleeting moment presented by our astounding planet. What a pleasure…
Ali: I think of much of the music you have made (both solo and with Rachel’s) as inspiring–and being inspired by–art and expression across media. The works often seem to have a highly visual component in particular. You recently worked on a soundtrack for a silent film, and you’ve even worked on albums inspired by artists (Music for Egon Schiele comes to mind). Can you speak about the place and the importance of the visual arts in your work? How often are you inspired by something visual when you compose a new work?
Rachel Grimes: I recently learned that there is a form of associative synesthesia called spatial sequence synesthesia, which on reading of the description kind of gave me goosebumps. I think that I have always seen patterns, structures, and images in my imagination while listening to music. I love the idea that music is a language giving voice to our inner landscapes and this is frequently my reason for sitting down at the piano. My great-grandmother “played for the pictures” as it was called when someone played the organ during the silent movies. I am pretty sure I have inherited a small serving of her excitement at that idea. It can be overbearing and boring to always write about my own experience or perspective, and so I love the chance to repond to someone else’s work, like when my artist friend Peter Liversidge asked me and cellist Julia Kent to create a new set of music to accompany his exhibit Doppelganger. It was so exhilarating for us to imagine the journey of this man’s heart and this woman’s symbolic glove.
Ali: Related to the previous question: How often do particular places and landscapes inspire your compositions? Any in particular for this album?
Rachel Grimes: When I begin an improvisation or a new piece of music, I just try to conjure the image of a place and how it feels to be there. I have often referenced my home in a rural valley in Kentucky — it is filled with dramatic light, shifting winds and clouds, and creatures are always busy at work on something entirely their own.
Ali: Are there any artists in particular that you’re finding inspiration in now (visual artists, writers, other musicians, etc)?
Rachel Grimes: I have not managed to begin/finish a novel in some time, but I do hope that Lorrie Moore has a new one soon. And maybe I will get to that newer Murakami sometime.
Ali: The new album features collaborations with several artists (Loscil, Christian Frederickson, Scott Moore, Jacob Duncan, etc). How do you go about crafting a piece with another artist?
Rachel Grimes: Collaborations are all different. Sometimes they begin because there is an invitation or an impetus, and sometimes because I realize that there is a sound that a particular person I know can bring, like with the beautiful expression and phrasing I knew Christian would bring to a viola solo in Transverse Plane Horizontal. There are always great rewards and surprises. The challenges are to remain centered about what I was searching for in the first place and keep aiming for it as well as adapt to shifts.
Ali: What’s next for you? Will you be touring? Do you have any projects on the horizon?
Rachel Grimes: I will be playing shows on tour with a small ensemble for this album here in the US in June and some in the fall in Europe and Asia. I am working on next steps for collaborations with the Julia Kent project, and with Chris Wells for RC Radio Hour, a musical theater piece centered around his memoir. As well, I will be busy developing orchestrations of Book of Leaves.
You can stream The Clearing on Soundcloud via Temporary Residence Ltd. The album goes on sale on May 26th.