It can be amusing to witness the various signifiers that announce the presence of a rock-and-roll band on stage, even in a dimly lit, unspectacular venue: the exaggerated spread-legged stance (even more horrific if clad in leather pants), the expressions of excruciating pain as the guitarist plucks out his solo, the seemingly uncontrollable urge to thrust an instrument in front of its amp for invasive (but apparently much-needed) feedback, the passionately sung political manifesto — you get the picture. While some musicians may adopt a less conspicuous posture, the point is that there is almost always a decisive measure of action taken to establish a distance between the performer and the audience.
Not so with Rachel’s, an instrumental group of four (five or six, if performing live) who simply shared space with us at Northsix in Williamsburg recently. Subdued and unassuming, Rachel’s offers not so much a show as a contribution to discourse — by means of cello, piano, viola, guitar, percussion, and sampler — with the participants who watch them. Without messages dictated by a lead singer, they offer a kind of communication from which people can invent their own stories. In the words of Christian Frederickson, the band’s viola player and one of its founding members, “Sometimes when you have a singer who uses words in a particular way, you’re already getting the story — it’s kind of hard to make up your own fantasies.” The structure of Rachel’s music permits the listener to be an active participant. According to Frederickson, “Music is just communication, it’s just a way to say things that you can’t say. We’re just looking for ways to move and delight and give something novel to people...It changes, what exactly we’re going for, from sound to sound and record to record, but for the most part we’re just trying to get a little part of us to other people.”
When performing live, to accompany the story that each song may produce for the individual, the group projects images alternating between concrete and abstract subjects; these provide a loose narrative while still leaving the audience, as both viewers and listeners, room for interpretation. They’re a way to communicate things that “you can’t say.” Wide, deep-focus shots of carefully selected places in New York, like the Queensborough Bridge, or more personal perspectives, from city sidewalks of an animated downtown Manhattan to footage of a Budweiser billboard, can evoke responses that are otherwise difficult to articulate. The interplay between Rachel’s music and the projected images is subtle but carefully worked out. The more abstract the images from the projector, the more vivid and detailed the tempo, sampling, and instrumentation of the band. A still shot in slowed time from inside a room shows the silhouettes of pedestrians from the waist down, walking on the other side of rather surrealistically illuminated mini-blinds. As the music varies in mood and cadence, so do the silhouettes. A silhouette of a large framed man swinging an umbrella with a hooked handle can become very menacing amid sounds of dissonant, minor-key strings and deep percussion, while a quickened tempo and staccato notes add to the lighter portrayal of a silhouetted backpacker.
Rachel’s music is as malleable as the accompanying stories their listeners might invent. The group’s Northsix set opened in a somber minor key, led primarily by viola and cello, with pianist Rachel Grimes, upstage, sitting immobile. Accompanying the music was film footage that visually paralleled the reflective and sometimes tragic timbres of the strings. Midway through, the set accrued looped sampling and warmly animated guitar riffs and single sustained notes, while Grimes turned out distant, dissonant jazz chords. Several song endings were so tightly abrupt that the audience sat startled for a few seconds before applauding. In contrast, some of the group’s transitions — from somber and melodic to dynamic and energetic, or off-time and discordant to structured and classical — were so smoothly executed that the set formed a kind of story of its own. Though this type of visually-oriented musical performance is not new, Rachel’s concerts are very much a collective experience — something that distinguishes them from opera or modern dramatic performances. As an audience member, one is inclined to feel included in the narrative, as a part of the atmosphere, not isolated or separate from the elevation of the band. Rachel’s closes the gap between performer and audience.
Recording for an independent label (Quarterstick) makes it easier for Rachel’s to operate as a collective with no obvious “leader.” It also helps the band avoid some of the noxious trappings of more sales-obsessed groups, like superficial marketing and ticket prices that practically require a lease. “Staying independent is sort of a goal in itself,” said Frederickson, when asked about the band’s ideology. “I don’t want to make a grand sweeping statement, but what we’re talking about sort of starts with the music industry and extends into the world. There’s a really disappointing tendency to go out there to just to make a buck, and to make as many bucks as possible, off a lot of people who can’t afford to pay those bucks. It’s a culture of desire that gets created, and that makes people forget that they worked really hard for that money. The music industry at certain levels is just really ill. They’re throwing money after really objectionable things and for music that is ultimately empty. I don’t feel sour grapes, like, ‘Nobody offered me a million dollars.’ I don’t think that most of those frills are necessary for life. A lot of times the more you get paid, the more you have to promise to do for someone else. There’s never anything for free, and we have to be wary of that kind of thing and maintain our ability to make the kind of music we want, and try not to charge an arm and a leg to do it.”