Neoclassical composer Rachel Grimes pokes holes in the mold rather than snapping it in half.
On Rachel Grimes's album The Clearing, six of the 11 songs have the word "Air" in the title. It's misleading to say that the music "soars", but it also doesn't spend a lot of its time on the ground either. Being a member of the chamber pop group Rachel's (fans of the band have told me that they did not pick that name because of Grimes), pianist Rachel Grimes belongs to a niche of composers who are working to further the neoclassical style within the indie pop world. The Clearing is a very quiet album, but you can't exactly call it relaxed. It doesn't aim for the stars, but it does end up levitating as it plays. At first play, it seems too polite and reverential to the average listener's sense of harmony. Eventually, The Clearing will grow slightly more unique with each listen. The Kronos Quartet covering Alban Berg it is not, but it does have its advantages.
The Clearing is mostly a chamber string ensemble album with Grimes playing piano on all but one song. Loscil/Scott Morgan is credited with processing and Grimes brings along her Rachel's colleague Christian Frederickson for viola duties. Depending on the track, there may be as little as one stringed instrument or as many as five. The personnel are rounded out by musicians from Shipping News, Liberation Prophecy, the Amsterdam Sinfonietta Trio, and cellist/composer Helen Money (Alison Chesley). Jacob Duncan's saxophone behaves more like the violins and cellos, keeping the skronking and wailing under tight wraps. It suits the approach, guaranteeing that Duncan's saxophone doesn't steal any more attention than Lisa Spurlock Gilmore's harp or Jennifer Potochnic's oboe.
Most of the time, the strings are the thing that drive the actual sound. A very distinct ostinato, with a perfectly placed emphasis, is the figure that gives "The Air in Time" its identity. At other times, the pulse tends to go rubato on you (which is impressive considering no one gets conducting credit -- and if they did, then I missed it). Grimes's piano comes across as ornamental with the exception of a passive-aggressive breakdown in "In the Vapor with the Air Underneath". Even here, Grimes's sense of drama is tamed.
If you listen to The Clearing at a low volume on your work computer while you delete your emails, you might miss the one song designed to stand out from it all, "Transverse Plane Vertical". The way Duncan and Gilmore team up on the melody could almost make it pass for something out of a New Orleans parade. In reality, "Transverse Plane Vertical" is just as serious as the rest of the album, despite Kyle Crabtree's upbeat drumming. Clocking in at only 2:53, this little moment in deviation is over before you know it. The Clearing may not be a slam-dunk for the neoclassical movement, but it serves out positive little tidbits of what the subgenre has to offer. It's a testament the composers who spend their time poking tiny holes in the mold rather than breaking it.