It can be difficult to describe the kind of post-rock electronica music that’s made by Rachel’s. This difficulty comes from one of the trio’s most distinctive traits: They don’t have a vocalist. So do they sound pretty? Often. Brooding? Rhythmic? Lamentative? Yes, yes and yes. Poppy? Sometimes. But boring? Never. Rachel’s will perform their mesmerizing experimental chamber music tonight at 8 p.m. at the University of Michigan Museum of Art.
Although they rely on violin, cello and piano to play their music, they pepper their instruments’ strains with found sounds and ambient noise rather than choruses and vocal hooks. Rachel’s can’t be classified as a classical ensemble: The group owes as much to Sonic Youth as they do to Haydn and Beethoven: They’re innovators in experimental music, mining ideas and forms from two different spheres of the music world.
Members Jason Noble, Christian Fredericksen and Rachel Grimes have been creating music as Rachel’s since 1994. Since then, they’ve released five albums — one a collaboration with electronic outfit Matmos — created music for theater, dance and orchestral productions and contributed pieces to film music, most notably Oliver Stone’s “Any Given Sunday.” Systems/Layers was a product of one of these collaborations; Rachel’s joined SITI Company, a New York City theater group, to create the album. The work incorporated recordings of city sounds to follow characters through a day in New York.
The pieces on Systems/Layers, Rachel’s most recent release, may feel slightly unapproachable to even the most open-minded indie listeners — despite the eclectic nature of the genre, fans don’t often traffic in instrumental recordings that aren’t considered classical or jazz. But the intimate violin call on “Expect Delays” and the spooky, robotic cello ostinato and theremin-like string swoops on “even/odd” create sound stories that are intricately structured and intensely balanced enough to overwhelm listeners — you won’t notice the absence of a singer. Like a more demure Godspeed You Black Emperor!, Rachel’s reserve space in their music for recorded noise and sound clips, highlighting the urban context with compositional skill. The group sounds very GYBE!-like with the mellifluous drumbeats and moaning, synthesized drones on “Singing Bridge.”
Tracks like the solemn, string-based “Esperanza” recall a more formal, classical-derived approach, but Rachel’s also use less conventional instruments. On “Reflective Surfaces,” a rolling groove is created by layering two different beats in different time signatures; male and female voices speak simultaneously on different subjects, creating a structural parallel between rhythm and content. Rachel’s artistry is apparent, but there’s nothing classical about this piano trio.
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars