Though we have seen some excellent solo piano records over the years, it still feels like something of a rarity outside of traditional classical circles. Most musicians bury themselves in excessive tracks, often doing disservice to the composition by giving into the temptation of modern digital recording. Therefore, to write a work for solo piano is somewhat interesting just as a concept in itself.
Rachel Grimes is best known as the pianist of Louisville’s Rachel’s, one of the earliest, and best, groups under the post-rock umbrella to integrate classical elements and chamber instrumentation into its music. The Louisville scene was surprisingly vibrant at the end of the last decade, with excellent bands ranging from Will Oldham to Elliott, whose Song in the Air featured strings from Rachel’s. Though their music deserves to be taken seriously, the aesthetic of the DIY rock scene is somehow implied by their work. Grimes’ solo album has a very different tone then her previous group, as one would expect from the stripped down instrumentation, however her style is still recognizably her own. If listeners are hoping for another Rachel’s record, then they are looking in the wrong place. However, Grimes compositions are just as capable of invoking the same emotional complexity and range. Book of Leaves is certainly situated in the classical tradition, influenced by minimalists like the oft cited Michael Nyman. Despite this, and perhaps only because I am aware of the context of the album, the dynamism of Grimes’ playing and the overall aesthetic of the work distinguishes Book of Leaves from its peers.
Each of the fourteen songs fall between one and five minutes, most in the two to three minute range. The tracks flow smoothly into one another, but each economically develops a minimalist-inspired progression. These pieces do not repeat endlessly, build to long crescendos, or climax. Grimes’ compositions do not develop slowly the way Reich or Glass pieces do, building hypnotic waves of sound that shift with one’s own perception. Rather, her pieces maintain their energy, which is apparent in her playing but also in the rhythm of the pieces themselves. Like Max Richter, she applies a pop economy to classical composition without sacrificing the integrity of the work.
Each of the fourteen short tracks on Book of Leaves conjures one distinct expression; an idea or concept is introduced and executed without wasting time. Slower, more ambient tracks, such as “Far Light,” separate more lively compositions, such as “My Dear Companion,” giving the album a sense of direction without dragging out any particular song. The tremolo plush of the high notes in “Mossgrove” create an organic backdrop against which the melody subtly expands against, leaving enough space for overtones to emerge and add an ephemeral sheen over the downpour of notes. Crickets can be heard throughout “She Was Here,” and the woodland sounds of birds and chirping insects animates the background of “Every Morning, Birds” as well. On these two occasions, Grimes’ piano is accompanied by field recordings, however, they fit the tone of the piece and augment the piano in a way that doesn’t distract from the progression of the record.
With just a solo piano, Grimes allows her compositions to stand on their own. It is a sign of her maturity and versatility as a composer that Book of Leaves is able to cohere while conjuring such different expressions from song to song. The album is also available as sheet music, confirming the emphasis on composition over recording. I can imagine that the ideal performer of these works might add more repetitions based on his mood to expand upon the vignettes provided here. This is not to be critical, as the album functions sufficiently as a whole on its own terms. Book of Leaves is not exactly innovative, but should legitimate Grimes as a composer to be taken seriously.