Peauxdunque Album Highlight
In this recurring feature, Emily Choate considers the life of an album that’s gone overlooked.
Thirteen Ways of Listening to a Rachel’s Album
By Emily Choate, Peauxdunque Review Fiction Editor/Music Editor
It is impossible for me to hear the indie chamber ensemble Rachel’s album Music for Egon Schiele without picturing low-lit apartments in the attics of old houses. Or bare feet on creaky wooden floorboards.
I first heard this music during the fraught, confusing weeks following 9/11, my final year of college. I spent those weeks bonding fast, too fast, with a man I had just begun dating. I would marry him in less than a year. His family was from Kentucky, and he carried a moody romanticism that, all these years later, I still associate with Louisville and its surrounding landscapes. He was the one who brought me Rachel’s albums, seeking to connect, to communicate something essential during a time when words were failing everywhere.
But I wasn’t seeking to connect to another person. I was building an inner room. Every artist has one—an inviolable sanctuary where she invites only the truest, richest elements from which to create her world.
You’d be hard-pressed to find an album more suited for the inner room than Music for Egon Schiele. Its trio of piano, viola, and cello enclose us within its haunting intimacy and melodic vibrancy, almost furtive in its tenderness.
Egon Schiele was originally composed by Rachel Grimes as music for a dance-driven theater piece performed—as far as I can find—as a one-time production, by the Itinerant Theater Guild at University of Illinois, Chicago, in 1995. It’s not difficult to understand the pull of Schiele’s work for choreographers and visually-oriented theater directors. The figures inhabiting Schiele’s portraits contort, lurch, squat, sprawl, and stretch. Their fingers extend beyond what seems humanly possible, discolored and mesmeric.
In Egon Schiele, Grimes’ compositions find the perfect partner in her subject. Sometimes these pieces move with graceful melodic swells. Other times, they progress through a series of minimal piano gestures, spare and precise. Within such gestures, I visualize those long Schiele fingers arching across the paintings. I see dancers’ limbs extend and retract. In the album tracks themselves, I cannot hear the sounds of dancers’ feet padding across the boards of the stage, but my mind comes close to inventing them.
The performance itself proved ephemeral, an experiment that earned a couple of mixed reviews and fell away. But when I listen now, the dance that I imagine is good enough for the ages.
Rachel’s was born from the thriving, experiment-rich music scene in Louisville during the 1990s. A fluid lineup of musicians joined their playful instrumentation, including skillful use of found sound elements. The resulting sound was so unlike any genre that they’ve managed to be categorized as both “post-rock” and “post-classical.”
Egon Schiele himself knew what it meant to be on the vanguard of genre transformation. He painted during the early days of Expressionism, sorting and slashing through the legacies of Impressionists, as well as the influence of his own Viennese mentors, like Gustav Klimt. Beyond his own work, too, the world he lived in was undergoing a transformative gauntlet. Everywhere, the old expectations of impervious empire and tradition showed signs they were about to crack.
Egon Schiele opens with “Family Portrait,” which builds with melodic tenderness restrained by a plaintive edge. This tone defines the album’s sonic environment. Its hushed concentration pulls you into its own pace. Like any sanctuary, it resets you so that you can enter its world.
Most track titles refer to significant figures in Schiele’s life, the people he sketched and painted, over and over. His beloved sister Gertie, his provocative friend Mime Van Osen, his longtime lover Wally, and the bride for whom he abruptly left her, Edith. In her music, Grimes evokes the intense, complex bonds—and often heartbreak—that Schiele shared with each of them.
Among these pieces are also three tracks titled as “Self-Portrait Series.” The first piece bounds forward in a tense, ethereal repetitive piano line running throughout, the undercurrent supporting an emotional viola line played by Rachel’s founding member Christian Fredrickson.
The second “Self-Portrait” revisits this piano foundation, but with darker momentum and mood. Strings layered above the piano carry their own drive and repetition, heading somewhere more perilous. The luminous third “Self-Portrait” is reminiscent of the others but lighter in tone, comprised of hopeful strings.
Even without the particulars of Schiele’s biography, Grimes’ music evokes a gallery of portraits—alongside the vision and skill required to capture figures in forms that transcend the finiteness of any artist’s life.
I am scrolling through a social media feed filled with panicked confusion over shelter-in-place orders, debates over whether masks do any good, and reminders that, if I’m worth my salt, I should be using all this time at home to crank out masterworks.
I scroll faster now, until my eye catches sight of a painting I know. A self-portrait by Egon Schiele. His hand, darkened in color as if burned, pulls down the skin on his pink cheek. Below him, the post’s caption reminds me (if I ever knew) that Schiele died in the 1918 influenza pandemic, three days after his wife Edith had also succumbed, six months pregnant with their child.
There’s a moment during “Promenade,” the album’s longest track, when the quiet sounds of a train pass through the background of the sonic landscape. Train sounds rattle through other songs in the Rachel’s catalogue, too, as in their debut album Handwriting’s ambitious, 14-minute “Full on Night” and throughout Selenography’s “The Mysterious Disappearance of Louis LePrince,” which invokes the 19th Century inventor who apparently vanished from a train somewhere between Dijon and Paris. Rachel’s is a train-haunted band.
Egon Schiele, too, was train-haunted. His father was the stationmaster in his hometown, Tulln, Lower Austria. He was close to his father, who died when Schiele was a teenager, and the love of trains never left him. Art critic Arthur Roessler, who knew Schiele, captured a startling image in his memoir: “[In] the middle of the room sat Schiele, on the bare floor, with a very pretty clockwork toy train racing around him in circles … Much as I was taken aback by the sight of this young man earnestly occupied with a child’s toy, I was still more taken aback by his uncanny virtuosity with which he produced the many and varied sounds of hissing steam, the railman’s whistle, wheels in motion, rail joins, creaking axles and squeaking suspension, bursts of steam when a train was starting and the squeal of steam when it was braking.” Roessler was stunned by Schiele’s mimicry. “He could have gone on a varieté stage any time.”
But by most accounts, Schiele wasn’t an eager performer. Most often, his focus was turned inward, and his childlike wonder fueled something else, something private that passed through him, seeking its full voice on canvas.
Critics have suggested that his landscapes and townscapes depict the perspective of the view from a train window. I don’t know if Schiele saw them that way, but now I can’t see them otherwise. They appear swept by us somehow, moments captured amid the bustling rhythmic patterns of modernity’s forward motion.
Egon Schiele is a distillation of the band’s sound and compositional style, but Rachel’s made a string of other fascinating albums over the course of a decade, starting with their pleasing debut, Handwriting. The Sea and the Bells draws from Pablo Neruda’s poetry collection by the same name. Its elegance and grandeur show Rachel’s at their most expansive. Significant Others offers a spirited blend of experiments and familiar sounds. Critics have sometimes viewed their final album, 2003’s Systems/Layers, as the moment when Rachel’s had polished their methods to their glossiest finish.
But I hold special affection for 1999’s Selenography. Gathering mythological and historical reference, found sounds, and thoughtful instrumentation for a big lineup of players, this album brings them all under the spell of Kentucky’s landscape and links it directly to the landscapes of the moon. “Selenography” is the study of the moon’s surface, which ties this lovely notion to the album’s closer-to-home titles: “Kentucky Nocturne,” “Old Road 60,” and “Honeysuckle Suite.”
Rachel Grimes—founding member of Rachel’s, gifted pianist, and the sole composer of Music for Egon Schiele—is a Kentucky native. During her tenure with Rachel’s and her formidable career since then, Grimes has remained devoted to her place of origin, drawing on its history and environment but integrating connective tissue that spans mythology, international literature, and visual artists with piquant bodies of work and personal lives.
Her most recent major project, 2017’s The Way Forth, combines opera and film to confront the darker complexities of Kentucky’s history, challenging received narratives and rejecting nostalgia, while honoring its musical legacy at the same time. Her work exemplifies the interconnectivity between artist and environment and the necessity of interrogating our relationship to our sources and muses, risking discomfort in order to banish complacency.
I am researching the post-rock, post-classical chamber ensemble Rachel’s. I am Googling, expecting to find more than I do. But I have been resisting YouTube. I don’t want streaming panel discussion. I don’t want live performance on grainy videotape, shot in some long-defunct basement club of indie legend.
Usually, I feel the opposite impulse toward the artists and performers whose work I’ve loved a long time. Show me the years, I think as I scroll the video search results—show me the obscure live dates, the retrospective interview, the newly graying hair and reading glasses. I want to see a body of work in motion. Show me a life of artistic endurance. Show me more.
But Rachel’s is different. I don’t want to watch this music played. I don’t want to watch time pass, knowing that during the years I was happily re-listening to their albums—never thinking to penetrate my experience with search engines—key members of this band I loved have died. Founding member, guitarist Jason Noble, in 2012. And Grimes’ younger brother, drummer Edward Grimes, in 2017. I am reading everything I can find about them, so that I can write this piece, but I don’t want to see them in action. I want my memories, my imaginings, intact. A part of me must believe that I can keep a particular kind of mystery intact—the longtime listener’s mysteries. Rachel’s was a band who left space, always, open for mystery.
One of Schiele’s most passionate paintings, “The Embrace,” graces the center pages of the album’s liner notes booklet. I’ve owned a print of “The Embrace,” rolled up and secured with the same hair tie, for 20 years. I bought this print after spending time with the original, over several visits to Vienna’s Belvedere Museum throughout the autumn of 1999, when the Belvedere’s stuffy galleries were always overheated and visitors’ footsteps echoed in the 18th Century halls.
I always assumed that my intention was to hang this print. But now I wonder if what I really wanted from it is how I’ve actually used it—just to unbind it once every few years and roll it open, for a minute or two. To spy on these lovers embracing in their privacy, their inner room. The way Schiele painted them, a furtive overhead perspective, means that to look at them at all is to spy.
At least twice I’ve rolled the print open to show a lover of my own, citing plans to frame and hang it, maybe above my desk. But maybe what I wanted was what happened next—watching him flinch at the painting’s lovers, at this peek into their inner room. Maybe I was looking to catch my lover in embarrassment, his unease that I might hang them in plain sight. Maybe I wanted to expose some weakness, a pretext to kick him out of my inner room. Maybe I always intended to roll the painting up again, to make those lovers wait a bit longer, or else to let them be.
In his poems, Robert Penn Warren, 20th Century literary legend and native of Guthrie, Kentucky, captured something uneasy—beautiful but fraught—about his origins as muse: “Long ago, in Kentucky, I, a boy, stood / by a dirt road, in first dark, and heard / The great geese hoot northward. // I could not see them, there being no moon / And the stars sparse. I heard them. // I did not know what was happening in my heart.”
Grimes’ work shows a particular genius for mingling clarity and mystery, precision and ambiguity, known and unknown. I’m tempted to call this quality a balance, but of course—as Schiele knew—balance isn’t always what’s called for. In our art, sometimes we must upend and unlearn, in order to hear and see our world anew. From a hinge point opening toward the modern era, Schiele faced this challenge. In art, in pandemic, in the World War he found himself conscripted into joining. He sought form for the unknown.
“Tell me a story,” Warren’s poem continues. “In this century, and moment, of mania, / Tell me a story.
“Make it a story of great distances, and starlight.
The name of the story will be Time,
But you must not pronounce its name.
Tell me a story of deep delight.”
I am snowed in, the only guest staying at a Shaker village set amid rolling Kentucky farmland. This afternoon, I drove North from Nashville, chancing iffy roads, knowing the weather would force me to extend my stay, though I cannot afford the two nights I’d already reserved.
I’ve been here before. Alongside that young, post-9/11 husband, I toured the historical halls, workshops, and barns. Together we admired the handcrafted tools and furniture. We spoke soothing words to the horses and sheep. Of course they, living here, did not need any soothing, not from us anyway. But we did, and I don’t remember that we found any.
Tonight I’m alone in the guesthouse—hours ago, I was warned that everyone else, including staff, were fleeing the village thanks to snow and single-digits cold. I nodded solemnly, though inside I thrilled.
That young marriage has been over for a year now, and I have come here to recover my own quiet. My trail of solo footprints in Kentucky snow. My bare feet across creaky floorboards once cut and lain by a Shaker working with the spirit of sacredness in motion.
Outdoors, the quiet night makes an inner room of the whole village. Indoors, I wrap my half-numb feet in tomorrow’s clothes. I try to write, but nothing comes. I hit play, and Rachel Grimes’ piano meets the quiet. I’m deep in it, the inner room, for a track or two, until a stray noise tears across the moment. I curse aloud—the disc must be scratched. But now, at the window, pressed against the sill, an enormous ginger-striped cat scrapes the glass with her claw. We stare for some minutes through the window, until I slip out into the hall, music from my room trailing me. I let the cat inside and leave her alone to roam the heated hallways.
I fall asleep to the unfolding of “Promenade,” its crisp but gentle trills and runs, potent measures of silence, the faint sweep of a passing train. And at dawn, I wake to the chiding music of the cleaning lady’s voice in the hall: “Now how did you manage that, you bad old girl? How did you manage that?”
Music for Egon Schiele ends with “Second Family Portrait,” the title of which brings to mind the last significant painting that Schiele made, 1918’s “The Family.” Set against a darker, more muted color palette than much of Schiele’s work, the family in question take up the center of the frame, squatting one in front of the other—a self-portrait of Schiele as father, a nude dark-haired woman as mother, and a small child sheltered in front beneath them both. None wear warm or comforting expressions, and each of them stares into a separate direction. Only Schiele looks our way.
“Second Family Portrait” builds toward its compelling final section, the trio of piano, viola, and cello sounding together with emphatic repetitive momentum. They are bold strokes across a canvas, sweeping toward completion—as Egon and Edith’s brief lives sweep them away, sweep them out, from the insular eccentricities of bohemian garret and into the communal swell of history, toward World War and pandemic. Riding Grimes’ music, they are pulled from their inner room, down through time, and into mine.
Emily Choate’s fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Shenandoah, The Florida Review, Tupelo Quarterly, Chapter 16, Late Night Library, Yemassee, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College and has earned several residency awards, most recently from Virginia Center for Creative Arts and The Hambidge Center. She lives in Nashville, where she’s working on a novel.