Rachel’s takes string experiment on the road
November 8, 2005
The job of soundman for a punk-rock band on the club circuit would seem to be a fairly simple matter of making sure the amplifiers are turned up to ear-shattering. But the members of Rachel’s, a band that claims influences from such punk groups as Fugazi and the ’80s Chicago outfit Big Black, give their sound guy – they actually refer to him as a sound engineer – more credit than that. Rachel’s sound is somewhat trickier than the standard guitar/bass/drums lineup.The group is a musical quintet of viola, cello, bass, piano and drum set; the performance ensemble is rounded out by a film artist. Rachel’s, whose membership is spread out from New York to Kentucky to California, plays only a few shows in concert halls; most of their performances are in rock clubs. When they make their Aspen debut tonight, it will be not at Harris Hall, but at the Belly Up, with Invert opening.”It’s been a definite process to figure out how to have live string instruments with a live rock drum kit,” said co-founder Christian Frederickson, who plays viola and also some sampled effects from a laptop computer. “We figured out how to make it operate as a rock band, which involves compromises on everyone’s part. It has to be louder, of course.” Making things louder means miking the string instruments, and using electric piano.
Rachel’s never expected to be touring in the manner of a typical rock combo. Frederickson met Jason Noble, who plays bass as well as guitar, drums and keyboards, and cellist Eve Miller, in 1990, when all three were students at Baltimore’s Peabody Conservatory of Music. The three formed Rachel’s out of twin desires: to experiment with the outer limits of possibilities for their instruments, using inspirations like contemporary composers Philip Glass and Arvo Pärt and avant-rock band Radiohead; and to avoid taking the standard career track of orchestra positions. The three sensed there might be some positive voodoo to the ensemble when Noble spent some time in his hometown of Louisville, Ky., and began collaborating with an actual Rachel – pianist Rachel Grimes, who became a member of the previously named group. Rachel’s was rounded out with drummer Edward Grimes.”It was a fun project to experiment with. We never imagined we’d be a band that sold records and went on tours,” said the 33-year-old Frederickson, who lives in Brooklyn. “We started with the instruments, and thinking what we could do with them. It wasn’t calculated: ‘Oh, wouldn’t it be cool to make punk rock-style music – except with piano and strings?’ It was getting together with these other musicians and seeing what might develop.”The first things that came out of Rachel’s were suitelike recordings tied to a theme or story, and usually performed in collaboration with theater or dance companies. “Music for Egon Schiele,” from 1996, was recorded as the music for a theater piece about the Austrian expressionist painter; “The Sea and the Bells,” also from 1996, was tied to a story about a maritime tragedy.
But early on, Rachel’s also thought about giving touring a try. And since a three-week tour of the Midwest in 1995, on the heels of their debut CD “Handwriting,” they have been hearing that the music comes off surprisingly well in a rock venue.”People tell us all the time it’s more exciting live. Because it’s louder, and a more immediate experience,” said Frederickson. Apart from the venues where they play, Rachel’s has in common with rock bands that they like to jam – or, at least, the string ensemble version of jamming. “We like to mix things up a bit. Certain sections are freely improvised; we create segues between songs that don’t happen on the record. I don’t like to go to a concert and hear exactly what’s on a record. I can do that at home. I like to see what the band is bringing to the table that night.”The group’s most recent CD, 2003’s “Systems/Layers,” marked a new point for Rachel’s. The group employed numerous string and horn players and vocalists for what Frederickson calls the band’s most complex recording to date. It is either the most avant-garde classical music imaginable, or the most textured punk music ever made. “Systems/Layers” was composed to be performed in collaboration with the New York theater company SITI; it is an abstract story about a young woman who comes to the United States and struggles to integrate herself into American urban life.
Rachel’s tours just once or twice a year, and its members fill in the time in between with all kinds of work. Some members are waiter/musicians, or record store clerk/musicians. Frederickson takes a variety of classical music gigs and plays on the New York subways. It adds up to an artistically satisfying existence.”I haven’t reached a point yet where I want to settle down and do one thing all the time,” he said. “An orchestra contract is something I haven’t been able to bring myself to do yet.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org