Multi-instrumentalist Brian Grimm’s recently released piece is a varied meditation on grief.
Brian Grimm’s piece They’re Still Here, composed as the Madison musician dealt with the deaths of several family members and close friends over the past few years, treats the grieving process as the endless, flowing thing that it is. The half-hour composition, which Grimm recently released as as single track under his BC Grimm solo moniker, is choppy, disorienting, sometimes insidious, and sometimes unnervingly beautiful. In other words, it’s very true to loss itself, a profoundly universal experience that no two people ever seem to process in quite the same way. There’s no normal, no one defined path for channeling it all, there’s no disentangling it from the mundanities of daily life, and notions of “closure” or “resolution” quickly evaporate.
They’re Still Here combines many of the different elements of music Grimm has explored over the years—including his work with stringed instruments from the cello to viola da gamba to Chinese stringed instruments like the gaohu fiddle and guqin zither (as heard in bands including Lovely Socialite and Brennan Connors & Stray Passage), laptop-driven hip-hop production under the name Brain Grimmer, scores for theater productions in Madison and beyond, and highly specific electro-acoustic experiments like 2014’s The Ideating Knell and 2016’s Orbis Obscura—in 12 distinct but interconnected “scenes” that honor the memories of people he has lost and reflect on his own struggles to come to terms with his grief. It begins with the sounds of opening doors, footsteps, and jangling keys. Later in the piece, we hear blenders and kitchen knives, and the voices of kids at recess in the schoolyard across the street from Grimm’s house.
Grimm has often found himself getting those dreaded phone calls about a friend or loved one’s death while getting ready for a busy day of teaching and performing, and composing the piece was one way for him to give himself space to simply reflect on the losses.
“I get the news, and then I’m literally on my way out the door, and I gotta go work three jobs today, and I’m not gonna have a chance to process this until after I get home, really,” Grimm says. “Sometimes it felt like I was also dealing with that—’Oh, I didn’t think I would feel this way, or I expected to feel one way and it feels another way.’ Sometimes it feels like the harder you grab at it, the more it escapes you. You have to really take some time with it and sit with it for maybe longer than you would want to. You hope for a quick understanding, but it takes a little longer than that to figure it out.”
Grimm debuted the piece as a live performance in August 2018 at Robinia Courtyard as part of the Madison New Music Festival, playing the “lead” instrument of each section and cueing up recorded elements with a laptop and controller. The audience included family members of each person whose death inspired the piece, which Grimm says “made it almost like another memorial service,” and Grimm gave a short talk before the performance so other folks in attendance would have context for it. Even people with no personal connection to Grimm or those he’s lost ended up viscerally relating to the piece.
“I did have at least one person come up to me after the performance who had also recently lost a mother or something like that, and were crying,” Grimm says. “We got to talk about having the same experiences, and I felt that because it felt like I didn’t have the permission to grieve in public spaces or while teaching kids or interacting with coworkers—it’s like, ‘Hey, how you doing?’ Do I tell them how I’m really doing? There’s all of that stuff to navigate—that I hadn’t given myself permission to really just let it happen.
“It’s just like, how many people in your everyday experience are just quietly dealing with intense grief, or all the other things that it could be—maybe a broken home situation or something else—but just this one particular part of the human experience, where people are going around quietly in their daily lives not being able to connect,” he adds. “If you just say it, maybe that opens the door for the other person to be like, ‘Oh yeah, I’m having that too right now,’ and maybe you can help each other out a little bit better that way or something. That seemed to be part of the discussion of actually just making this piece and doing it.”
Because the performance took place outdoors, ambient sounds of birds and traffic ended up seeping in, interacting with the field recordings and samples Grimm had already incorporated into the piece. “There’s already another layer of the life that was happening in that moment on top of the foley and field recordings of the life that had been happening during another one of those days when I’d been processing the grief or dealing with the emotion of that in the real world,” he says.
A month after that performance, Grimm lost one of his grandmothers. This past summer, his other grandmother died. The release of the recorded version of They’re Still Here is dedicated to both of them. “It really drilled it home at that point that it’s just kind of ongoing,” Grimm says.
It was also important to Grimm to inject humor into the piece—because, yes, laughter is part of the grieving process too. One early section, “News Cycle On Fire: Rbt. Mueller’s Lonely Russia Probe,” uses samples of radio broadcasts from the 1940s. These broadcasts, filled with geopolitical turbulence and mentions of “democratic socialism,” underscore just how much we tend to repeat history. They also capture how world events queasily co-exist with the struggles of our internal lives, colliding as they do with a vertiginous harmonic overload of flutes, strings, and singing bowls. But Grimm also selected the broadcast samples as a nod to his friend Patrick Kelly, who died in 2018.
“In high school we would just geek out about old broadcasts and old films,” Grimm says. “We were in musicals together, and half the time they’re from that same era, the ’30s, ’40s, ’50s. We would have a blast kind of imitating the Transatlantic accent. Just how people sounded was so interesting to both of us, and the different slang or mannerisms or cadences of the voice were so special. That was a big part of our friendship.”
Like most sections of They’re Still Here, “News Cycle On Fire…” doesn’t let the listener sit in one explicitly defined emotional space. Throughout the piece, Grimm deploys melodic themes with the dissonance of electric hums and episodic washes of field recordings. It’s an onrush of a lot of different sounds and emotions, and it’s up to the individual listener to filter it all through their own ever-morphing experiences of grief and figure out just how this piece is supposed to feel. Grimm also respects the grieving process enough not to place it in a private vacuum. Those kids in the neighboring schoolyard, he says, have served as a constant reminder that life can keep on flourishing, and they exert a playful influence on some of the music here.
“The sounds of 100 children screaming, the sounds of absolute terror and pure joy are indistinguishable, and makes it difficult to record at home,” Grimm says. “But there was one day where I was just getting home and it started to snow, and it was maybe April or early May, and the kids just started freaking out and I loved it. They were screaming so hard and the bell kept ringing but the kids were going nuts and running all over the the place because they couldn’t believe it was snowing, so I quickly went back outside with a recorder to capture some audio.”
Grimm doesn’t feel the need to perform They’re Still Here again, but he continues to be as busy as ever, and creating the piece has him excited to do more theater scores, which involve a similar creative process for him. Brennan Connors & Stray Passage plays September 27 at Mother Fool’s, Grimm holds down a Tuesday gig playing bass with the Five Points Jazz Collective at the Mason Lounge, Lovely Socialite recently recorded a new album, and he is working on a new Brain Grimmer record that will involve collaborating with a different producer on each track.