Before New Amsterdam Records, before The National’s Bryce Dessner regularly churned out symphonic poems, before every string quartet insisted on being called a band, and before indie classical was even a thing to be argued about, there was Rachel’s. Formed in 1991 and part of the Louisville branch of the American indie underground, Rachel’s existed primarily as a trio of guitar, viola, and piano, though frequently expanded into a large ensemble. For more than a decade, the band played beautifully wrought, postminimalist music that sprouted out of written scores into rapturous improvisations. In many ways, the band presaged the rise of the scene as we know it today, where chamber music and indie rock interact on a daily basis.
Though Rachel’s no longer exists—founding guitarist Jason Noble died of cancer in 2012—its spirit lives on in The Clearing, the latest album by pianist and composer Rachel Grimes. Grimes was a core member of Rachel’s, though its name was chosen before she joined. In 2009, the Kentucky-based Grimes released Book of Leaves, a suite of solo piano music, and she has since issued several EPs on her Bandcamp page. The Clearing is the next step, a gathering of shorter works developed over several years that cohere powerfully as an album, harnessing the minimalist language of Rachel’s, a carefully selected group of collaborators, and Grimes’s judicious compositional voice.
“The Clearing is a collection of pieces I developed over several years,” Grimes wrote in a recent email interview. “The title derives from the principal 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. Quite abstractly, several pieces on the album take on a personal, somewhat autobiographical viewpoint simply as a result of what I was experiencing in my life at that time.”
Following a luminous prelude, The Clearing begins with its titular track: unadorned clockwork, a single note on the piano repeatedly intoned. As Grimes begins to embellish the repetitions with little filigree phrases, strings enter and surround the simple piano part with brooding utterances. The repetitions become more insistent as the piano thickens into full-bodied chords, and the strings take up a winding melody and fervent solos. Halfway through the eight minutes of “The Clearing,” the ensemble unassumingly peaks and the music slowly recedes, brightening as it fades into the distance. The sonic arc is haunting, lingering through the rest of the album.
Book of Leaves grew out of Grimes’ solo improvisations. She began by secluding herself in a monastery retreat in Kentucky in 2005, and the work gradually coalesced into written vignettes reminiscent of Erik Satie’s lackadaisical miniatures or William Duckworth’s Time Curve Preludes. Though The Clearing is written for a varied ensemble of strings, winds, and percussion, it also builds on Grimes’ improvisations; her compositional process typically begins at the piano, and she progressively adds concepts for other instruments. The album originated as a group of chamber works written in 2009 and 2010 that remained inactive for several years while Grimes pursued other projects. “Eventually a collection of pieces for an album was evident to me,” she wrote. “And then it was a question of finalizing the scores, getting the recordings, and finding a pleasing sequence. For me, this process is not always apparent and I have to force myself to be patient.”
As Grimes collected the individual compositions into an album, she realized that The Clearing needed something to hold the sequence together between larger-scale tracks. Thus the “Airs,” five movements interspersed through the album, act as a narrative bridge. “The ‘Airs’ were written with this idea in mind—a simple harmonic mode and melody using violin, string section, and piano,” Grimes wrote. “The air and sky are so central to my everyday life. I live in the countryside in Kentucky and I just always am in awe of the beauty and momentary shapes and drama in our atmosphere. I think of the Airs as less of a theme and more of a setting, a connective tissue bringing all of the other pieces into a related context.”
But they also function on their own as effective miniatures. Only a minute long, “The Air of Place” has gorgeous little violin interjections, a swaying piano line, and ethereal strings hovering in the backdrop. “The Air in Time” features little solos tapped out against a thick groove. And by the end of the album, it is clear that the “Airs” are not only sequencing gestures but also an emotional core of the album. In “The Air at Night,” the final track of The Clearing, Grimes’s piano enters in the backdrop of a shimmering drone, plinking out chords that evoke an old church chorale. It emerges into the foreground and the harmonies richen—Chopin meets the Baptist hymnal—in a radiant conclusion.
Grimes’ work is aided by her collaborators, including electronics from Scott Morgan/LOSCIL, a string trio from the Amsterdam Sinfonietta, and two longtime friends from Rachel’s—percussionist Kyle Crabtree and violist Christian Frederickson (who appear on the intriguing twinned tracks “Transverse Plane Vertical” and “Transverse Plane Horizontal”). The album’s team effort emerges cogently in “The Herald,” the most outwardly improvisatory track, as saxophonist Jacob Duncan unfurls ecstatic lines reminiscent of A Love Supreme-era Coltrane, and Grimes fills in McCoy Tyner-esque harmonies. Despite evoking the sonic world of modal jazz, “The Herald” flows seamlessly from the rest of The Clearing, with Grimes’ musing repetitions acting as a unifying force. “I love improvisation, that sense that something has happened, and passed, and is now gone,” Grimes said. “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 remake the work and try something anew. 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.”