A musical journey of loss, grief and hope
By Brett McCutcheon
A young local composer and a 2023 instructor for Luminari’s Music Makers! camp, Brett McCutcheon, unveiled his deeply moving project, “The Ocean – five years” on September 30, 2023. It is a unique collection of pop songs with symphonic orchestration that takes listeners on an emotional journey through the stages of grief, offering solace and understanding to those navigating the complexities of loss. The story behind the music is the inspiration and centerpiece of a documentary short film set to release in early 2024.
On the night of September 30, 2017, Brett McCutcheon’s life changed forever. His older brother Ryan was tragically killed in a car accident. Just teenagers, the brothers shared an irreplaceable bond. Brett only spoke of his loss with a few close friends, but knew he needed to connect with his feelings. Instead of silently suffering, he began composing with his friend, June Bracken. “The Ocean” was born. Three songs analogous with the depths, tumult and complexity of the sea, The Ocean spoke of the loss, grief and loneliness that engulfed his life. The music was released. Brett finished high school and went off to college. His grief never far from his view, his brother always present in the shadows.
Five years later, Brett, no longer a teenager, but a senior in college realizes his journey mirrors that of millions of kids who have experienced great loss. The Ocean – Five Years is that story. Built around the revised composition of the original release, it explores deeper meaning and understanding. Still centered around June Bracken’s vocal performance, the new music now includes symphonic performances by musicians of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and also features NBC’s -The Voice Finalist, Chris Jamison. The Album moves through the crippling dependency of living through loss, to finding life among those that grieve, to knowing everything was always going to be okay.
“The Ocean – five years” is more than just an album. It is a testament to the universal nature of grief and the need for greater understanding and support. By sharing his personal story through music, Brett hopes to ignite a compassionate dialogue that fosters empathy and assistance for young individuals navigating the tumultuous seas of loss.
“The Intro” starts with his present self, looking back at the ocean from the shoreline. The hopeful orchestration contrasts with the lyrics from five years ago. The new piano theme, combined with June Bracken’s vocal harmonies, symbolizes the idea that everything was going to be okay. However, even as time has passed, we find ourselves continuing to struggle with grief. The digitally reversed orchestra transitions us back into old memories as we rewind the clock.
“Sinking (feat. Chris Jamison)” explores the initial stage of grief: denial. It begins with the sound of waves crashing and the initial piano theme, accompanied by vocals from Chris Jamison, both symbolizing the person who has been lost. June’s vocals express a plea to do anything to regain the memories they shared, represented by the metaphor of clock sounds for lost time. The combination of sorrowful vocals and joyful orchestration creates a sense of disbelief. The song concludes with the first realization of loss, marked by sudden low notes from the piano and deep strings.
Loneliness and depression give “The Bottom” its dark and eerie ambiance through the orchestra. The seemingly unending cycle of negative thoughts inspires repetitive lyrics from June. Now, at the ocean’s lowest depths, we can gaze upward to witness society continuing its journey through the passing waves without us. The notion of swimming upward seems futile as we plunge deeper into darkness and despair. The overwhelming power of the entire orchestra delivers a resounding declaration of no return.
Hope emerges in “Floating.” June’s vocals embrace grief and set forth on a journey to honor the lost. There’s an acknowledgment that nothing will remain the same, but this doesn’t imply that life halts for all those affected. In fact, those we lose never truly depart; Chris Jamison’s vocals and clock sounds reappear in the final chorus. As the final chorus concludes, we revisit the original piano theme from “Sinking” to symbolize the departed person, while the song closes with the waves crashing on the shore where it all commenced.
“The Shore” portrays the perspective five years later by posing two questions: “What now?” and “Did I make him proud?” We swiftly recognize that the process of grief has never followed a linear path. One day you may feel on top of the world, and the next, you might feel submerged in the depths of the ocean. While reflecting, memories and themes from the past resurface, shifting the mindset from not striving to make the lost person proud, but rather realizing they were proud all along. The music builds and fades into Chris Jamison’s first featured lyrics: “At what point do you become the older sibling?” This climactic build marks a significant coming-of-age moment for our character, combining the essence of “The Intro” and “Sinking.” We move beyond relying on living through the lost and truly begin living our lives alongside those we grieve. Everything was always destined to be okay.
This project is intended to raise awareness and support for The Ryan McCutcheon Rhythm19 Fund at The Pittsburgh Foundation. In addition, Brett has partnered with The Highmark Caring Place to use the music and the documentary as inspiration, content and support to children and young adults facing their own grief journey.
Documentary Trailer Video
About the Artists: Brett McCutcheon is a young up-and-coming composer and musician. A North Allegheny High School graduate and now music major at Slippery Rock University, his passion for music has led him to pursue a career in music education while also continuing to pursue in his own artistic projects. A best friend, brother and son, this college senior lost his brother in 2017. Surrounded by good friends and a tremendous work ethic, Brett harnesses his pain to bring hope into the world and to raise awareness about the unique nature of child grief.
Brett’s writing partner and friend, June Bracken, is a grad student and vocalist. She was the first-person Brett texted when he found out his brother had passed. June’s sweet spirit and truthful nature has helped Brett express his deep emotions while bringing laughter and light into the McCutcheon’s life.