Exploring Gracie and Rachel’s Cathartic Synthesis

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Above image from Gracie and Rachel’s Facebook Page

Synthesis: Combining two separate things to create a new thing

The above definition of synthesis is a loose paraphrase of the dictionary definition, but it captures the essence. It carries the idea of bringing together two different things toward the end of creating something new. Depending on the ingredients and the outcome, the synthesis process can create something good, meaningful, even healing.

All art is an expression of some kind of synthesis. The artist combines intangibles such as inspiration, imagination, and experience with skill and craftsmanship. They then leverage those things together in combination with their brush, their movement, their pen, their keys, their strings, their computer… and at the end of the process, there is something new.

In late 2017, I became aware of such an artistic synthesis in the music of New York-based duo of Gracie and Rachel. Early in the year, I was exposed to their Tiptoe EP and later, I indulged in their self-titled full-length album. In this album, in virtually every song, I hear this synthesis occurring and it is unique, special.

This synthesis facilitates a palpable tension throughout the record. It is inescapable…

Gracie and Rachel are a study in duality: light and dark, classical training with a pop sensibility, Californians in New York. Their music pits anxiety and tension against an almost serene self-assurance…(from their website)

On the surface, this duality rests in Gracie’s piano and Rachel’s violin, but it goes so much deeper. According to them, that intense, almost conflicted feel “comes from the world we live in as a duo in the bustle of New York, living together in our music every step of the way, working together in the same household, breathing the music we create. It’s full of tension, but it’s also full of release.”

Release… yes. That’s it. That word captures something of the end result of Gracie and Rachel’s synthesis. But, there may be a better word. When I asked them which of their songs seemed to impact them the most, their response was telling:

The song “Go” is one that always feels like a meditation for us when we play it live. It sits on this rhythmic pattern that sort of propels us forward and yet keeps us grounded throughout. Lyrically, the song works as a note-to-self, to celebrate anxiety as opposed to suppressing it – if we can do this, we can find peace.

We can find peace… Again, a powerful thought. Peace. Shalom. True well-being. It’s the longing of every human heart, no matter what the mouth might say. Finding peace through embracing anxiety, even celebrating it, is a powerful thought in itself. There is something to be said for facing directly into pain, fear, anxiety, traumatic memories, and the like. It takes courage, but there is healing there.

Their duality or tension has been shaped by a variety of stimuli, not the least of which are their artistic influences. In their words…

Gracie’s greatest influences include the author Carlos Castañeda, for his questioning mind, the composer Erik Satie for his patient piano lines, and Agnes Obel for her thoughtful fusing of strings and keys, her effortless tension and release. Rachel’s are endless and so instead of listing a bunch, she’ll give it to a female choral composer of the 16th century, Hildegard von Bingen, for her unique treatment of counterpoint.

Tension and release… counterpoint… There is a theme here. These ideas speak to Gracie and Rachel’s synthesis. But, what is the end product? Is it release? Is it healing?

Catharsis: purification or purgation of the emotions (such as pity and fear) primarily through art

The synthesis of their experience, their passion, their instruments, their creativity, all of it… it all comes together as a cathartic experience. It seems that way from the artists’ perspective. And it certainly feels cathartic from this listener’s perspective. There is a universal truth to the themes running through Gracie and Rachel. From their site…

The nine orchestral-pop songs on Gracie and Rachel tell a story that’s rooted in the truth —their truth — but retain an enigmatic air that makes them relatable to anyone who has ever found their heart racing with doubt and pushed forward regardless, or triumphed in subverting expectations imposed from without.

Struggle and tension is a universal experience. We have all experienced “racing doubt” and “subverting expressions.” We have all been hurt… abused… neglected…oppressed… suppressed in some way. We have all gone through emotional and relational strife. At times, more than we’d like to admit, we all need catharsis. We need to get it out. To purge. To purify. Gracie and Rachel captures this incredible dynamic in their record.

This dynamic duo is getting noticed. Bob Boilen included them in a couple of his 2017 “Best” lists, as well as hosting them for a Tiny Desk Concert. They have toured with San Fermin and are in the midst of touring with the indomitable Ani DiFranco. Big things are coming. It is the hope of this particular listener that, as their influence grows, more and more people will feel invited into the cathartic synthesis underlying every song emanating from Gracie and Rachel.

 

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