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WITH THEIR SUBTLE, quiet orchestrations of somber yet beautiful chamber music, the Louisville ensemble Rachel's is slowly redefining alternative in a musical climate grown accustomed to everything from lip-synching disco dominatrixes to pinstripe-suited b-boys who seem immobile from the waist down. Formed as a one-shot experiment by Juilliard graduate Christian Frederickson and ex-Rodan guitarist Jason Noble in 1991, then later joined by coincidental namesake Rachel Grimes, the group put a new spin on the concept of the indie-rock supergroup with its 1995 full-length debut, Handwriting. A total of 16 players appeared on the album, with underground figures like the Coctails' John Upchurch and Shellac's Bob Weston trading in their distortion pedals for acoustic instruments to accompany the ensemble.
One of the few "classical" acts on Chicago's edgily independent Touch and Go/Quarterstick label, Rachel's have found themselves paired on tour with bands ranging from June of 44 to PJ Harvey. "We very rarely tour with bands that are anything like us," says Frederickson. "Generally, we just figure that we'll be the 'alternative' band for the evening."
Not that Rachel's can afford to hit the road frequently as an orchestral act. When they came through town in 1996, more than ten people were in their ensemble, an arrangement that took its toll both economically and psychologically. "When you take ten people on tour," says Frederickson, "one bad night can really make the tour a bummer for everybody involved. When you're touring as a trio, however, if people don't come out to see you play at every single venue you perform in, it's not the end of the world."
And it is as a trio that Rachel's are currently touring, with Grimes on piano, Frederickson on viola, and Wendy Doyle on cello. They'll be belatedly performing material from their 1996 release, Music for Egon Schiele, compositions that were originally commissioned by the University of Chicago to accompany a dance-theater production about the life of the Austrian painter. At the beginning of the last century, Schiele was imprisoned as a pornographer because of his frank depictions of human sexuality, but he was released after less than a month in jail.
Composed entirely by pianist Rachel Grimes, Egon Schiele was not originally intended to become part of the band's repertoire, but after seeing the stage performance, Touch and Go asked the band to record the material to be released as a Rachel's album. The score for the production is distressingly beautiful and sparse, with the tandem stringed instruments circling the periphery of Grimes's delicate piano, growing more melancholy and dissonant as the production--and Schiele's life--progresses.
Their upcoming Women's Club of Minneapolis performance is a change of pace for the ensemble. "It's a much more classical venue than a lot of the places we've played," explains Frederickson. "I think we're moving more towards playing venues like that, though, because they have larger stages, and the sound's usually better in places actually designed for acoustic acts."
But that doesn't mean Rachel's are seeking a label that's actually designed for classical acts. "Classical labels, they're too...too...too something. I don't know," laughs Frederickson. "I'm somewhat political about this. I am, at heart, a classical musician, but I think that there's a lot of things that classical music is doing wrong. I think we're better off where we are, where we can do what we like."
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