Part 1

Name: Rachel Grimes

Nationality: US

Occupation: Musician and composer

Current Release: The Way Forth on Temporary Residence
Recommendation: Book of Sounds by Hans Otte, a transcendental work of profound beauty and meditation. His recording is a realm I return to over and over, for its textures, colors, tonalities, and the mastery of the technical ideas and its overall form.

Website/Contact: Visit Rachel's website at www.rachelgrimespiano.com to hear music and find out about tours and projects.

When did you start composing and what or who were your early passions and influences?

I started improvising early on, around age 7. I had been playing by ear for several years, learning tunes by sitting next to my father or grandmother on the piano bench, watching them and playing along. I have always loved all kinds of music. My early record and 8-track collection included a compilation called “Super Girls”, all Motown girl groups like the Ronettes and Shirelles, as well as Mozart’s “Eine Kleine Nachmusik”, and soundtracks of “The Muppet Movie” and “The Wiz” and Billy Joel’s “The Stranger”. I have always loved ragtime and early stride-jazz, and the nocturnes of Chopin. Later on, I discovered the piano music of Debussy, gorgeous ideas and techniques.

For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice? What is the relationship between copying, learning and your own creativity?

I was following along with my father and grandmother, sitting on the treble end of the piano, trying to figure out their left-hand stride style of rhythm, bass and chords. I learned a lot of turn of the 20th century popular tunes, rags, and early jazz standards this way. Because I also listened to the radio, and loved film soundtracks, and was taking lessons learning classical pieces, I had a sampler platter of songs in my ear from very early on. So, I think that a broad array of genre styles has always been a central tool for me, and has helped me to create music that layers multiple styles, and can change from project to project. I learned a lot of tunes by ear, and then invariably created my own variation of that song. It can be fun to try to imitate something note by note, or the tone color. I have a deep drive to interpret what I am doing from a personal place, with my own style and color. My college teacher Doris Keyes really encouraged me to use my innate expression and to be loyal to that musicality.

What were some of the most important creative challenges when starting out as a composer and how have they changed over time?

Playing and improvising ideas has always come first, then I use repetition to try to memorize them. When I was a kid I used a portable tape cassette player to record ideas and listen back. I tried to write things down, but it was very difficult, discerning rhythms especially. I really did not write on paper very often until I was in college. It was a slow process for me to learn how to get the idea down accurately, and that is still a challenge for me.

Tell us about your studio/work space, please. What were criteria when setting it up and how does this environment influence the creative process? How important, relatively speaking, are factors like mood, ergonomics, haptics and technology for you?

My studio has a concrete floor with a large rug, old wood-panelled walls, and metal barn roofing on the ceiling, which is vaulted. It is a very live sound but without too much resonance. I have lots of natural light with windows which look out into the fields and across to the tree-covered hillside. I have a sink and kettle for making tea, and a bathroom with a sauna - which I really love all through the cool season. My husband and I designed and finished out this space, and we lived in it with our dogs for a year and a half while we were working on our house across the driveway. Once we moved into the house, I could set up the ideal studio and finally get a grand piano - dream come true! My desk with iMac and speakers and midi keyboard is five feet from my piano bench and I move back and forth a lot between the two when I am writing. I found a used Herman Miller desk chair, which is really comfortable for long days working in Sibelius.

Could you take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work? Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?

I get up around 6:30 and make breakfast, then take the dog for a walk, then most days do a yoga/floor exercise routine. I check email pretty early but try to get to practicing the piano before lunch, though many days I don’t get to play because of deadlines or other projects that soak up all the time. If I am composing a piece, I will spend time at the piano and desk working through the afternoon. If I am working on my scores, that is at my desk usually afternoons into evening. Most days I quit around six and go make dinner and listen to the news. I like to cook, because it feels creative and satisfying and a good change from the rest of the day. Music is always in my head, and so I don’t listen to a lot of music unless I am driving or cooking. I rarely use headphones unless I want to completely immerse in that album. I am happy to have quiet, and the natural sounds - the less noise the better. I like having a separate studio and try to keep a regular routine, but if I am rehearsing with an ensemble, mixing in the studio, or traveling, everything changes. 

There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?

A quiet space with natural light is ideal for focus. I love being at the piano and improvising for letting ideas just flow. If there seems to be something worth keeping, I repeat it and work on it. It is essential for me to have a quiet space and to not be in a hurry about anything else. It can be difficult to defend this scenario with all of life’s other responsibilities. Routine helps.

Could you take me through the process of composing on the basis of one of your pieces that's particularly dear to you, please? Where did the ideas come from, how were they transformed in your mind, what did you start with and how do you refine these beginnings into the finished work of art? 

I have many musical elements in my new folk opera “The Way Forth”, and so I would usually begin a song with a central idea, then work out each instrument group separately before entering the music in Sibelius. I use playback a lot to check string groups, choir, and ensemble. For the song “End of Dominion”, I created an eight-bar ground bass and chord progression, that would be varied throughout the eleven-minute song. For the initial sections I wanted it to feel somewhat like Baroque music in style, with strings non-vibrato and a clean texture. As the song goes on, the progression changes style several times to a very delicate, glassy sound, to pizzicato, to heavy and dark and then high-romantic with lots of vibrato. I worked out all these sections and a central break, which is more legato. Once I had these sections mostly in place, then I edited the narration to fit, and added in other brief narrated passages, and the choir and other sound elements. I comb over the score a lot, and make small changes as I go. Nothing like a fresh morning to hear and see things anew and make more changes. It is a very gradual process.

How do you make use of technology? In terms of the feedback mechanism between technology and creativity, what do humans excel at, what do machines excel at?

I alternate between my internal musical voice, playing ideas through the mechanics of the piano, sketching with pencil and paper, recording voice memos, and entering instrument lines into Sibelius on my computer. Sometimes I enter the musical line with a midi keyboard, sometimes just manually entered with a mouse and key shortcuts. Humans excel at emotional expression and unique combinations of pleasing ideas. Machines excel at stable containment of those ideas and for use in recording and editing. Composing is a continual dance between all of the elements.

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