Interview: Rachel Grimes

Rachel Grimes - Photo by Jessie Kreich-Higdon

In conversation with Rachel Grimes...

Arranger, composer and pianist Rachel Grimes arrives on our shores this week for a couple of dates in Ireland with Dublin-based cellist Mary Barnecutt and former 3epkano guitarist Matthew Nolan to present People on Sunday, a new, original live score to this cinematic paean to the last days of Weimar Germany. Ahead of the live dates at The National Gallery (Thursday 26th September) and Triskel (Saturday 28th September) and the upcoming release of folk-opera The Way Forth in November, the former Rachel's pianist speaks to The G-Man.

The G-Man: Where in the world are you right now and how are you feeling?
Rachel Grimes: I’m sitting at my dining room table in Locust, Kentucky. The sun is shining, still hot...we really need rain. The crickets are making a small, steady soundscape outside. I’m feeling deeply concerned about humanity’s refusal to work together to address the urgency of climate change. The current occupant of the White House continues to rollback rules to reduce greenhouse gases - our supposed Environmental Protection Agency is anything but!

With so much turbulence in the world right now I'm always intrigued as to how other folk are feeling.
Honestly, I am very worried and nearly always anxious about the turbulence in our world. There is a great change happening, but it will come at a cost and that is terrifying.

What is the current feeling or mood of people in Kentucky at the moment?
Well, every corner of Kentucky has a different vibe, different accent, and different opinion - so I cannot possibly speak for our complicated state. I will say that our dictatorial, hateful governor is about to be voted out of office and everyone will be better off for it.

In what way do you feel Kentucky itself plays a role in your creative output?
I have always had a very deep sense of place, perhaps because so many generations of both sides of my family have lived here since those colonial beginnings. Something about the rolling green fields, the trees, the seasons, the stone walls, the complicated and contradictory people - it is just so familiar. So, the culture and the place seem to always work their way in, whether I set out to do it or not.

What can you tell us about 'People on Sunday' and what attracted you to the film?
The Dublin-based guitar player, composer, and film connoisseur Matthew Nolan brought the idea to me of creating a new score for this experimental film. Filmed in 1930 with an all amateur cast, it follows four young people through their Sunday outing to the beach. Along the way, the film shows extraordinary footage of the people and structures of Berlin, just on the cusp of Nazi takeover. The team that created the film included screenwriter Billy Wilder, who left shortly thereafter, to move to the US. It is beautifully shot and has so many poignant and unusual moments - it is a joy to be with this film over and over.

The New Yorker describes it as "the first mumblecore film, seventy-five years ahead of its time". What else makes People on Sunday so fitting for our times?
Seeing everyday Berlin, the streets, the ways of life, tender moments, the people in all their busy day to day activities, things look and feel fairly normal. But right beneath the surface, and in some of the more abstract scenes showing patriarchal statuary of lions and men with military formations in the background, the viewer can detect a growing tension at this critical turning point for Germany. There is a distinct and visible aggression in some of the behaviours, especially from the men towards the women, and the young boys to each other. While in other scenes, there is such tenderness with the families frolicking in the water, playing games, and having their photos taken. Watching these citizens of Berlin in glistening detail, you begin to realize that life and the world around them is about to change very drastically. The tremendous loss of life and liberty during World War II altered and darkened our human story forever. What if the Nazi party had not risen to power? This question comes to mind often in this film as viewed from our present place in time.

How did you first get involved in playing live scores to films?
I believe the first film score I worked on was another silent film made by local filmmakers, one that I recorded for a short created for an AIDS fundraiser back in the early 1990s. Since 2001, I have worked on many more soundtracks and installations with a local company called Donna Lawrence Productions that creates work for museums all over the world.

During Rachel’s shows back in the late 1990s, Greg King would project Super 8 film live alongside our shows. Having the films was a defining element of our live concerts. My newest work, The Way Forth, also includes a live-operated film that I have created with filmmaker Catharine Axley.

Matthew and I have performed this score for “People on Sunday” twice before: at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D. C. and at the Film Society of Lincoln Centre. So looking forward to playing the score again.

What are your favourite elements of being involved in such projects?
Collaborating with the other artists to find an emotional parallel or response to the scenes and atmosphere of the film. I also like the flow of the live show - once the film starts, you just are on the ride with the characters and scenes.

What audience dynamics are changed as a result of an audio-visual concert compared to a traditional gig?
Having a visual component for the audience pulls people in and gives them an additional plane to float around in. Sometimes I think the audience actually gets so involved in the visual journey that they stop thinking about the live performers right in front of them. But the immediacy of the music creates a palpable sense of the vibration, the sound coming at them, and that combo really makes people happy.

This is not your first professional output with Matthew Nolan. How did that friendship and partnership begin and blossom?
I met Matthew when he booked me to perform at the Kilkenny Arts Festival a few years back. We got together in the summer of 2016 to begin working on this score to present in D. C. at that time. Immediately felt in the groove. He is a terrific guitarist and creator, with a natural sensibility towards the underpinning of film.

What projects have you worked on together so far and what shared experiences have been the highlights?
Collaborating on this new score for “People on Sunday” has been a very satisfying dialogue. We really resonate similarly on the themes within the film and the emotional landscape that it creates for making sound. It has been so fun to make a distinct soundscape for this film with a very enmeshed guitar and piano texture, with some other layers of sound design. Looking forward to folding cellist Mary Barnecutt in with us for these shows.

What can you tell me about the origins of 'The Way Forth'?
The music came in response to a process of trying to organize and understand a treasure-trove of family documents, photos, and letters spanning several generations of several branches of my family. My brother and I were helping both of my parents, who had been divorced for years, to transition to more nursing care. So, we were dealing with moving and downsizing their things. My mother was way more organized with her stuff. My dad had accumulated way too much stuff, and also had tubs of old letters, photos, and whatnot from his parents and their parents and so on. I was fascinated by the search to figure out what to keep and who was who, and eventually it felt like something was just taking shape, and the music and words began to form. Once I decided to make a piece out of this pile of inspiration, it was a question of structure and instrumentation. The process was a very zigzag one, over many months.

I was most interested in following the women of the family and wanted to take a look at their lives from their point of view. Eventually other people were also included, folks not related to us, but whose story related in some way to the threads and themes. The songs weave back in time through a postcard, a personal account of a long life on a farm, traces of folk tunes, names, places, and rivers, all woven into an emotional fabric of yearning, nostalgia, grief, and the rich intimacies of everyday life.

The piece is a folk opera and film and can be performed live with a chamber ensemble and small chorus, or full orchestra and choir. There is live-operated film for the performance, and soon will be a feature length film version which has documentary style interludes giving some backstory to some of the characters and historical topics. There are solo voices of women, narrators, a choir, strings, harp, percussion, guitar, banjo, clarinet, and piano with quotations and arrangements of traditional church music and popular tunes. The lyrics reflect on a place battered by greed, civil war, bigotry, and the exploitation of natural resources.

This work is deeply connected to home. The more you began to dig, at any point were you concerned that the work was - literally - too close to home?
Yes, and I am still concerned about that, especially since there are so many words! But I just made the leap anyway…

Is there a particular story uncovered during the work that you particularly like to recount and pass on?
The most compelling story that I uncovered involved a lot of research, because I was not initially aware of her - and that is the story of a woman named Dolly who was enslaved to my ancestors. She was brought on a 1775 expedition led by Daniel Boone into central Kentucky to establish what was intended to be the 14th colony. She was raped along that journey, presumably by her master Col. Richard Callaway, and she later gave birth to the first child born in that fort. Her son Frederick was sold to family friends of Callaway’s. Frederick Hart served alongside his master in the War of 1812 and was manumitted in the early 1840s. He was able then in the 1850s to purchase his wife and children in order to move to Ohio where they begin a life in freedom. His son Henry became a violinist and composer and wrote many published tunes, one of which I incorporated in a medley of popular songs called “Fontaine Ferry”. Dolly lived into her late 80’s and as far as I have been able to tell was never freed.

Reading a recent interview with you, it seems like Kentucky itself is a place with a lot of unanswered questions from history to 'a theme of women being observers, witnesses and participants, but not recorders.'? Do you feel the community - be it artistic or not - are now asking such questions?
I think that investigating the untold details amidst the critical chapters of history is something that many Americans are doing right now because our society and government is in severe turmoil. Once you understand the origins of the violent and patriarchal systems that have governed our law and land, you begin to see the damage done to so many. I don’t think that these issues are only being looked at in the USA either - worldwide there is a refugee crisis, and so much discord among nations and former allies. One reason for this churning is that these old systems are breaking us all down, ruining the earth and creating desperation.

What was it like working with Catharine Axley and in what ways do you feel Axley's visuals best complement your score?
Working with Catharine has been and continues to be an immense pleasure. We work in a very intuitive and collaborative flow where we lose track of time and just get lost in making and doing. She has incredible technical skills, and a very creative eye and style for capturing the most compelling moments. I usually bring us to a location, with some general and sometimes very specific intention, and then things unfold. We are right now editing the feature film - she edits, and I direct and comment is more like it.

It's great to have you coming back to Ireland to play. What do you most look forward to when visiting?
I love visiting with the warm and welcoming people of Ireland. There is an immediate and sincere connection with the audiences. And of course, that delicious pint when we have a hang after the show. See you soon!

Rachel Grimes, Matthew Nolan and Mary Barnecutt present People On Sunday 

For more on Rachel Grimes visit:

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