Beauty in Repetition

Rachel Grimes

“…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.”

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.

Rachel Grimes

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.”

Rachel Grimes

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.”

Do You Feel Me?

Holly Herndon by Bennet Perezphoto by Bennet Perez

“The question was to collect concrete sounds, wherever they came from, and to abstract the musical values they were potentially containing,” said Pierre Schaeffer, describing his development of musique concrète. From the 1940s beginnings of this early form of electronic music, Schaeffer attempted to extract the sounds of the outside world, and then abstract them from their origins to create fully-realized soundscapes, transforming the noises of train engines into unrecognizable forms that referenced nothing but themselves.

Composer, sound artist, and vocalist Holly Herndon has picked up several intriguing strands where musique concrète left off and brought them fully into our digital century on Platform—her second full-length, out now on 4AD and RVNG Intl. For “Chorus,” one of Platform’s central tracks, she draws on Schaeffer-esque “net-concrete,” an electronic patch—developed by artist and Herndon collaborator Mat Dryhurst—that samples audio content from web browsing. The result is an array of heterogeneous sounds, a sonic approximation of the relentless but unified swirl of activity that comprises how we use the Internet today. The actual chorus of “Chorus” seems to deconstruct the very concept of a refrain, mashing together differently pitched vocal samples into a single musical line; it is anthemic but composite, fractured but resolute.

Herndon balances her touring career with work toward a doctorate at Stanford’s Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics. She speaks frequently about how she draws equally from the twin, oft-intertwined worlds of electronic music: that of the club and the laboratory, the techno and the experimental. Developed on her 2012 debut album, Movement, these streams are more strongly felt on Platform, which frequently creates danceable beats only to discard them in favor of disconnected masses. On “Interference,” Herndon’s echoing voice snakes through a web of dance-floor rhythms—but both suddenly cut out at the song’s conclusion, ending with a striking assortment of strange noises.

Unlike Schaeffer, Herndon doesn’t want to fully sever her variegated sounds from their meanings in our world—she instead dangles them in front of the listener, infusing abstract beats with political implications. The thickly roaring “An Exit,” on which Herndon chants “There is nothing to gain / and there is nothing to lose,” is steeped in the aesthetic theory of Suhail Malik, who has proposed an exit to the ethically contaminated social structures of art. And while “Chorus” is an act of sousveillance, or self-surveillance—as Herndon remixes her own browser history—the song “Home” turns the gaze outward in a bitter indictment of the NSA. Beats at first land alongside the metered precision of Herndon’s vocals, before unspooling into skipping fragments as she sings, “I know you know me / Better than I know me.”

Across the broad purview of the album, Herndon’s compositional voice remains omnipresent. Though she often describes a desire to disappear among her collaborators, there is a recognizable Herndon stamp throughout. It’s a result not only of Herndon’s mastery of experimental practices, but also because her actual voice—airily intoning, alternately wistful and dangerous—is embedded in her music, either guiding it or gliding atop it.

That personal touch is audible on “Unequal,” which most tangibly demonstrates Herndon’s craft in writing for other voices. (For more of that, seek out 195, her MFA thesis at Mills College, which juxtaposes six live singers with electronic processes.) Colin Self’s thin, quivering singing evokes plainchant heard in a Tudor cathedral. Herndon runs this in counterpoint against what sound like hiccuping deconstructions of the same voice: an assimilation of early music style and digital technique. The effect is not unlike Nico Muhly’s Wonders, an electronic explosion of the English Renaissance. Halfway through, Herndon’s wordless vocals appear as a background chorus, a casual but powerful reminder of her commanding presence.

Holly Herndon by Stan Musilek
photo by Stan Musilek

Herdon’s most intriguing assemblage of sounds might come in “Lonely At the Top,” which functions as musical product and, for a select community of listeners, corporeal stimulant. A collage of clicks—typing, water pouring, papers rustling—the track features the soothing whisper of Claire Tolan, a prominent artist in the ASMR community. ASMR, or autonomous sensory meridian response, is a physical sensation of pleasurable tingling induced by particular audio or visuals. For Herndon, ASMR represents the closeness paradoxically fostered through anonymous online interactions, as thousands of strangers tune in to YouTube videos to experience the same intimate sensations. “Lonely At the Top” also has a satiric bent, as Tolan speaks platitudes drolly aimed at the Davos crowd (“From what you’ve told me, so many people depend on you / and it’s not just because you’re good at what you do”).

But in the context of the album as a whole, Herndon’s use of ASMR also represents a clever artistic device, a kind of Brechtian defamiliarization effect. More than any single avant-garde moment found among Herndon’s stuttering beats, the track throws the listener out of the zone, forcing us to reconsider the significance of what we’ve already heard: were those strangely juxtaposed sounds supposed to make me actually, physically feel something? Herndon has spoken in various interviews about how the laptop has become the center of our emotional lives—why, for her, the NSA revelations represented a particularly personal betrayal. “Lonely At the Top” reminds listeners of the same—that our phones, our iPods, our computers and listening devices are buzzing with things that just might, perhaps involuntarily, make us shiver with a real-world sensation. The seamless transition to the album’s next track imbues the rest of Platform with a kind of tactile effect, or at least an awareness of its possibilities.

And thus, the tapping noises that conclude “New Ways To Love,” the album’s haunting final track, register palpably as more than just sounds. Perhaps they represent Herndon’s footsteps, as she leaves the studio. Let’s hope she returns soon.

 

Soaring Through Space

The Holydrug Couple

“It’s like thinking about a whole ocean, traveling in it at 1000 miles per hour. The album could be an escape, but not an escape from something bad.”—Ives Sepúlveda

Although their name may suggest that the Chilean duo Holydrug Couple gobble mind-altering substances breakfast, noon, and night, the drug at the center of Moonlust, their third and strongest album, is travel. Over the past three years, bandmates Ives Sepúlveda and Manu Parra have toured the world, and uprooted themselves from the vibrant scene of their hometown, Santiago, in the process. While Chile is still their base, Moonlust crystalizes a deeper understanding of what it means to be unanchored in a shifting, mysterious world.

The essayist Pico Iyer said that first we travel to lose ourselves, and then we travel to find ourselves. Moonlust is the sound of the latter; if not necessarily an explicit account of the band’s travels, it captures the sense of being neither here nor there—of being in transit. “It’s like thinking about a whole ocean, traveling in it at 1000 miles per hour,” Ives says. “The album could be an escape, but not an escape from something bad. It’s more a ride through things.” While much of the group’s previous work is gloriously messy, sprawling jungles of jangling guitars, syrupy synths, and loose drums, Moonlust is bright and sharp. Each skeletal drum machine and bass line stands out in stark relief. There aren’t many flourishes here; Moonlust plays like one long track, stretching in all directions like a night sky full of stars.

The Holydrug Couple

Holydrug Couple began in 2009 when Manu bought a drum set and asked his old friend, Ives, to jam with him. Manu lived in a house below a studio called BYM in the heart of Santiago; Holydrug Couple was born into a thriving bohemian hub of parties, people coming and going, and a growing psych-rock scene. Ives used to play keyboards and guitar for Föllakzoid, who are also signed to Sacred Bones Records, and Holydrug Couple’s first show was as their opening act. Beyond Santiago, the vast and varied Chilean geography became a huge inspiration for Ives and Manu; churning, psychedelic songs like “Mountaintop” and “Long Rain” were direct references to the land they love. “In one day you can be on an enormous mountain with snow and in the afternoon you can be swimming at a beautiful beach with a forest behind,” Ives points out. The duo began touring, often with Föllakzoid, playing across North America and Europe. “My horizon got wider than ever,” Ives says. But by the end of the tour cycle, he realized that he was “tired of rock music.”

Ives turned instead to movie soundtracks. Through his love of Serge Gainsbourg, he says he “discovered a new world of records with artists making a lot of music—really mysterious, suggestive and sexy,” like Air’s Virgin Suicides soundtrack and the French composer Francis Lai. Moonlust shares that mystery. A bit removed from reality, it seems perpetually ready to float away into the ether. Recorded in the dead of winter in a rented studio down the street from Manu’s house and BYM Studios, Moonlust is full of big sounds magnified by silence, and of lights shining on snowy streets.

Ives immediately pulls us into his inner world with the arpeggiated keyboards and motoric drum machine of “Atlantic Postcard.” The shifts throughout the song are subtle, with minute curves, twinkling high notes, and melodic counterpoints that enter without fanfare. While “Atlantic Postcard” feels nuanced, almost fragile, the whole album isn’t quite so understated. For every moment of reflection, there are huge swaths of sound. On “I Don’t Feel Like It,” cymbals crash with the bombast of the Northern Lights, and the guitars in “Submarine Gold” explode like shrapnel.

Ives doesn’t sing on every song, but when he does, the effect is magical. His shimmering voice, soaked in reverb, rarely becomes a focal point; it’s simply another instrument flying through space. Ives describes Moonlust as “a good melancholy, [trying] to connect with yourself and your entire universe,” and his voice reveals both an effortlessness and a burning intensity as he makes that connection. On standout track “Baby, I’m Going Away,” Ives warps the age-old trope of leaving a lover into a peculiar, ambivalent statement that leaves you unsure of whether he’s eager to be traveling, heartbroken, or both. The background vocals float around like fireflies, set against the album’s crunching drums. The effect, like the album’s cover art, is elusive—sad and clouded, yet not without hope.

He takes the opposite approach on “If I Could Find You (Eternity),” scraping away the layers of glimmering sound and leaving himself utterly exposed. He sounds weary, at wit’s end. But such is travel. Moonlust captures the feeling of leaving your home for the unknown. Ives doesn’t have all the answers, but on this album he has found that no matter where he travels, home also lies within himself.

Taming the Beat

EMEFE by Sasha ArutyunovaPhoto by Sasha Arutyunova

“In the end, what we’re searching for is the most accurate and truest version of a song. It’s kind of a self-sacrificial process for me as a drummer.”—Miles Arntzen

In the winter of 2012, Miles Arntzen, the gangly, mussy-haired drummer and bandleader of the Afrobeat ensemble EMEFE, travelled from New York City to Ghana as part of a program called ThisWorldMusic. There, he took dance classes and learned to play the boba, a drum about the size of a conga, with his teacher Elike. Yet the biggest lesson he learned in Ghana was far less concrete than any particular rhythm or dance move: it was about speaking through music. Arntzen, who felt caught up in “a lot of insecurities that come up about how good you are,” experienced something new in Ghana. Watching his teachers play at community celebrations and funerals, he “saw musical expression in its genuine form. Can you talk like I’m talking to you through music? That’s what’s most important, but it’s crowded by all this other stuff here [in the United States].” Arntzen’s heightened appreciation of musical expression greatly informed EMEFE’s debut album, Good Future, released later that year. It sparkled and radiated crackling energy throughout; it sounded like the band had downed a case of Red Bull, bolted into the studio, recorded each song in one take, and jumped back in their van to go play a gig.

But now, with their self-titled second LP, EMEFE is shooting for something far riskier. Under Arntzen’s direction, the group has taken a step back from the pulverizing brand of Afrobeat they’ve honed in their live shows and in the studio and created an immaculate, refined, and well-pruned record. For the first time, they are incorporating elements of pop music into the mix, and digitally modifying the sound—most noticeably, Arnzten’s drums. At the heart of EMEFE is a question: can you reign in a joyride, prune it and edit it, without losing the thrill along the way?

EMEFE by Sasha ArutyunovaPhoto by Sasha Arutyunova

Since its inception in 2009, EMEFE has maintained a fight “through the static” of life. The group described their first EP as “a call to arms, a call for everybody to stand up and march against the negative,” and the word EMEFE itself is a loose acronym for “music frees all.” Yet until EMEFE, the album, Arntzen conveyed that message through horn stabs and punching bass parts; rarely through lyrics or vocal melodies. While Good Future sneaks in a few shouted choruses here and a call and response there, the vocals are percussive and rhythmic, not focal points. “Although I’ve always loved pop music, it exited my scope for a little while in those years EMEFE grew,” says Arntzen, who also drums for the Afrobeat ensemble Antibalas and Arcade Fire’s Will Butler. The turning point came when he wrote a song called “Dream Your Life Away,” with a central character who “sheds all this baggage” and finds inner peace that cuts through the malaise of modern living. Arntzen explains, “It’s the first song I wrote where I said, ‘There is a style here to be explored.’” As he wrote more songs in the same vein, he brought them to the band. “They took to it,” he says excitedly. “Now everybody in the band sings and it turns out it was a passion that all of us have.”

Moments of unabashed pop course throughout EMEFE. On “Come Back To Me,” the horn section takes a back seat to Arntzen’s vocals, and becomes more of an accompaniment than the main event. The song’s subsequent reprise reveals the original arrangement, which would have sounded right at home on Good Future. Later, the call-and-response vocals on “Same Thing” present Arntzen as an impeccable David Byrne, yelping in staccato; and the final version of “Dream Your Life Away” finds him crooning with all the earnestness of a classic Disney tune.

While the addition of singing marks EMEFE’s entrance into pop territory, the other pivotal change on EMEFE is Arntzen’s drumming. Even though, as he points out, “a drummer is heavily responsible for the arc of the song,” during the production of EMEFE he tore his drum parts to shreds, paring them down and warping them. “The drums [flood] the landscape a little bit, I went through a process of editing where we’d…literally [cut] them up in a way that created more audio space for the other instruments.” From the colossal, digitally wrangled thud that opens “The One,” more akin to the avant-garde producer Arca than Afrobeat, EMEFE immediately pulls you into a place where the lines between genres blur, and opportunities to experiment lie in every snare crack, in every riff. On “Sun Spat,” Arntzen’s isolated toms crash like sledgehammers, turning a straight-ahead groove into something sufficiently weird. On “Same Thing,” the drums fade in and out, from muffled thuds to full-on attack, adding a sense of mystery to the otherwise euphoric, party-starting track. “In the end, what we’re searching for is the most accurate and truest version of a song. It’s kind of a self-sacrificial process for me as a drummer,” Arnzen adds with a laugh.

With their new album, EMEFE hasn’t abandoned an ounce of their explosive energy; they have simply rerouted their curiosity. The result, EMEFE, does not fit in a box marked Afrobeat. It’s a gamble, an unexpected and graceful blend of styles and inspirations, and it feels all the more alive for it.

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