Patrick Grant is a composer based in New York City. He founded the musical group, Tilted Axes , and has worked with with John Cage , Robert Fripp and the Orchestra of Crafty Guitarists, Billy Joel, and Quincy Jones. I met Patrick in Mexico while I attended the Guitar Circle introductory course. He was attending the Ochestra of Crafty Guitarists preparation course.
I love this interview and Patrick offers so much wisdom and insight. Lots of great stuff in here, so make sure you read/listen/watch the whole thing.
Thanks to Steve Ball for pushing me in Patrick’s direction!
Interview Audio (Podcast)
(NOTE: hitting the “play” button requires a hefty download of the entire audio file!).
Or, download an mp3 .
AG: Hi, this is Anthony with MakeWeirdMusic.com and we have a special guest with us from New York City. His name’s Patrick Grant and he’s a composer. Thank you for joining us, Patrick.
PG: Thank you for having me.
AG: Yeah, no problem. It’s my privilege to have you on here and I really appreciate you taking the time this early morning to chat.
PG: We’ll see how you feel about that a little later…
AG: [Laughs] So, I know you’ve been working in music for 30 years now and you’ve got a lot going on now. A lot of momentum in your career. Can you talk about some of the projects you’ve got going on right now and some of the highlights that you care to share with us?
PG: Sure! I was born in Detroit . I was making music there. No child prodigy by any means. I was always interested in visual art, but I made this shift to music when I was around 11 years old because it just seemed to be another way of creating universes within which to dwell, which is probably a good way for a first-born child to go when you have no other playmates. You just create these universes. But anyway, I’ll be jumping ahead many years here.
I moved to New York in 1985 to continue schooling at the Juilliard School to finish there as well as to play in bands because I was also interested in rock and pop music, which is a real Detroit thing to have a foot in both worlds. I continued to have a foot in both worlds ever since. If I had three feet, I’d be sticking that in a third world, too. It seems that every five years or so, I take my work into a different direction, but it’s all part of the same thing.
One of the things that really got me going here in New York City was the opportunity to work with theater companies. They always need composers. Avant garde theater companies were creating original work as well as having an opportunity to put on concerts and perform in art galleries because that always attracted me as an idea. I still produce a lot of shows myself, so I’ve always had that Little Rascals , “Hey guys, let’s put on a show” kind of feel.
I like the fact that a lot of the composers I admired–John Cage , Philip Glass –at the time in the 1980s, they drew a lot of inspiration and resource from the art world here in New York City. So, that was a way for me to go.
Along the way, I found myself creating music for theater and dance, working with gamelan , writing a lot of electronic music. For a while, I was known mostly as being a keyboardist, but when I decided to try out with Robert Fripp ’s Guitar Circle and get back into my guitar playing, I created this project, Tilted Axes: Music for Mobile Electric Guitars that has most people now thinking of me as a guitarist or working with electric guitars more than anything else.
Generally, I feel that when people feel a little too comfortable in terms of what I am, it’s time to shake things up. Maybe that’s what lies ahead for me in 2017. Time to shake things up again.
AG: That’s great. That’s how you and I met–we were at the Guitar Circle course in Mexico. You were in the Orchestra of Crafty Guitarists Preparation course and I was in the Introduction course. That’s how I found out about you, just playing guitar. Obviously, you’ve done much more than guitar. I absolutely love on the Tilted Axes CD how much you blend a lot of the Guitar Circle-oriented material, or just some of the kind of thematic concepts from that style of music, into a kind of a rock-oriented context or groove-oriented. I really appreciate that about your album.
PG: Yeah, well, I would say that one of the things that drew me to the Guitar Circle was I was working with large–I had just started re-examining large ensembles a year or two prior to joining the Guitar Circle or even really knowing about the Guitar Circle and created the Tilted Axes project. What drew me so much to the group was its similarity to my work with the Indonesian gamelan and creating music in circles and how working within a circle inspires music that’s created by geometric and visual patterns, which I’d done a lot of before.
Yeah, I definitely have absorbed some of the techniques from the Circle, but I also say at the same time, I’ve also admired how the Circle has absorbed other techniques from the gamelan itself, which doesn’t seem surprising because when I look at a lot of their work–or, I’m happy to say “our work” in the Circle over those number of years–there’s just a lot of parallels there in terms of how music can be made in circulations, in terms of breaking up music made in a circle into different patterns of 2s, 3s, 4s, 5s, 6s, even 9s and have it all work out equally well in terms of 360-degree music.
So, I definitely have incorporated or synthesized a lot of stuff. That’s probably something I got from working with The Living Theatre . The Living Theatre is–if one doesn’t know, they should definitely look it up because one of the things that attracted me to working with them is they have a long history, but they’re also the venue upon which composers like John Cage and Lou Harrison were able to peruse their first concerts in the 1950s and 1960s and they would always give a lot of trust to their composers to really create.
Being a composer for them also meant that I had a space to work within. So, there was a parallel there in terms of working with and synthesizing a lot of different elements. In fact, Living Theatre is probably most known for and have been credited with being synthesists in that whatever’s going on in their environment, not just as individuals, but in the zeitgeist , finding a way of pulling everything together under a larger umbrella and showing the bigger picture. The Tilted Axes picture was definitely a part of that.
There’s a lot of different kinds of music I was working with that appeared on that album as well as a lot of guitar stuff that, as you said, yeah I did. In terms of becoming “groovified” in terms of the greater good come together in what I hope is a cohesive album.
AG: I think it’s a fantastic record. The Kneadle Variations and the Coda… I laughed for minutes, not because there was anything comical but just because I love what you did. It brought such joy to my heart hearing those pieces reinterpreted in that style. It was great.
PG: Yeah, those were two themes. One’s a very famous Guitar Craft theme, Eye of the Needle, by Robert Fripp. This other one was just a riff, a way of breaking up rhythm that had a lot of resonance with what Bartok does in terms of what he gets from folk music that I just put a blues scale into. Then with Eye of the Needle, I was playing that–at least its core riff being the same fingering, but played in standard tuning as opposed to the New Standard Tuning –which, in one position, it’s all whole tones. In another position it’s all pentatonic. And then writing melodies that pulled it all together. Robert was very generous in saying, “Go for it,” because I think he knew it wasn’t a goof but it was really a sincere experiment.
AG: Right! It’s great!
PG: Thanks! I was definitely very happy to have his support of that with a bit of a wink and a nudge, but I think he’s glad how it turned out as well.
AG: That’s cool. Can you tell us about some of your other musical releases that might be available for purchase or listening online or outside of a theater?
PG: Sure. I have been self-releasing and they’re available–four other albums. One shows a period of time about, jeez, in the late 1990s when I was doing a lot of work combining my love of gamelan with chamber ensembles, so I was playing a lot of keyboards that might have been tuned according to the gamelan. Or, I’d be using pure just intonation tunings mixed in with violas and guitars and–I think there’s one piece on there.
A lot of music for film. I did music for a horror film that, for a while, was the essence of what was called the Patrick Grant Group . It was 13 musicians and that in itself was a mini-orchestra using three keyboardists as its foundation.
That I got from PDQ Bach when I was a kid. He wrote this opera, Hansel and Gretel and Ted and Alice: An Opera in One Unnatural Act . I was impressed because they had a piano, they had a harpsichord, and they had a calliope and the sound of those three keyboards was a perfect mini-orchestra. So, I’ve always used three keyboards in my ensemble augmented with violin, cello, trombone, electric guitar, flute, clarinet, and two percussion. So, a lot of work in that time period. You’ll find that work out there .
Then the work for gamelan proper, some of the scores that I’ve written for theatrical visionary, Robert Wilson , most famous for his creation Einstein on the Beach with Philip Glass. For me, that was a huge influence in terms of what could be done on the stage and in terms of how music could be used and the creation of non-narrative narrative, which was fantastic. Bob Wilson said to me, “Patrick, everybody always asks me: *What is Einstein on the Beach about?” I’d just tell him, “Themes and variations . Themes and variations.”
As a musician, that’s all I needed to hear. I thought, “That’s the story.” And that’s how we can create a lot of narratives. Themes and variations. So, I decided to try something different this year and I put together the Tilted Axes: Music for Mobile Electric Guitars album and it did better than I expected. I was happy that the public and the press really responded to it. There’s all kinds of music blogs out there I never knew existed who wrote some nice things about it, but also larger organizations like the Boston Globe, Wall Street Journal , Prog in the UK, the Huffington Post … They really were able to see what I was doing, I felt, in terms of “it’s not a rock album, it’s not a classical album.”
If you look beyond the veneer of, “Hey, electric guitars,” there’s actually composition elements happening there that I’m happy people were listening to. So, now the trick is, how do I follow that up? The good news is: there is a plan and that plan is that I have a number of tracks that I’m finishing now and a number of tracks that have just been sitting around for the last year waiting for a reason that showcase the other kinds of music that I do that I’m working on.
I would say, compositionally, whether you like it or not, it sounds like me or it sounds like what I was influenced by or working with that week. I’d say it’s mostly, for a lack of a better word, “chamber music .” A lot of music for ensembles. There will be some electric guitar, percussion, and bass, but also violins, and cellos, and wind instruments, and some singing. One of the “hits” is this one piece that uses this very, very old public domain recording of one of those Smithsonian Folkways recordings that were made down in Louisiana that I added elements to.
So, I figured that, while I have people’s ears, let’s put out some other stuff to balance that out because on its heels, the album after that is the next Tilted Axes music, which is gonna be a little bit more thorny and convoluted than the first album. The first album dealt with themes and variations of different kinds of genres that one would associate with electric guitar. The punk ones, the blues ones, bass ones, even some that border on jazz to some level or another.
I would say that I’m trying to showcase what I can do in a contemporary classical way with the next album, and the Tilted album that we’re already working on, is going to be a sort of mix of the two in that the composition forms might be a little bit–I wouldn’t say “longer,” but I’d say “broader” or “more convoluted” because one of the reasons why the Tilted Axes album was so long was there was a big body of material, but I wanted to put it out on one album, so it’s 75 minutes long, but it’s almost a one-act theater piece in itself from beginning to end.
Still, the pieces are more or less, with a few exceptions, sort of based in 4/4 and the reason of that is because, since this began as procession music, when Tilted Axes began 5 years ago for an event called Make Music Winter as a public parade–I like to call them “processions” because, as it’s written in the album note, “What is the difference between a parade and a procession? Intention.” It’s amazing how just putting it that way into the minds of the players, everyone all of a sudden shapes up a little bit, stands up a little bit straighter, and projects a different kind of vibe.
A lot of that music had to be in 4/4 because that is the tradition of being a biped and playing music that is mobile, going back to all kinds of marching bands, processions, going back a lot further than that… I have found out that, while it’s possible to play in 7/4 or 13/4 when we’re moving around, it is more challenging. This album’s not going to be concentrating on that as much as I want to create music that might not be as mobile, but can be used in a fashion–I like to say I’m concentrating on music for planetariums because for me, that’s sort of the dream gig because most museums have planetariums.
We have had a number of Tilted Axes events where we were mobile inside of a museum. There’s plenty of room to move, you can be inspired by the art, and for me, as a producer, I don’t have to worry about the weather. That was always a huge concern because, when you go through all this effort and it’s a one-day or two-day event and if you have the weather go bad on you–but I never have to worry about this inside of big museums. And most big museums do have planetariums.
I have written a number of theater works and chamber works that are based upon elements from science, whether it’s the human genome (CD Baby )–I actually had a piece called Big Bang before the hugely popular CBS sitcom came on the air and pretty much killed that title for anybody else. That was actually created, like a lot of this work, in collaboration with scientists. That’s very important for me, too.
Whether it seems that these pieces are whimsical, because I’m doing my poetic interpretation of these scientific things, still as it’s presented, the science has to be correct and accurate. That’s very important to me. You can bust me on a whole number of things: “Why did you use that chord?” “Why did you decide to use that rhythm?” But you can’t bust me on the science.
And I’ve found a lot of inspiration in my gamelan works and other pieces in structural models found in science. That was another phase I went through. I was finding structures and forms in chaos theory . Music that is self-similar and self-described, where it may be finding one measure of the music, in a way, becomes the DNA for a larger piece. It’s just a matter of scaling it to different discrete levels, moving at different speeds. But that kind of stuff really interests me and is the stuff that gets me motivated. But, first and foremost, if you’re just a casual listener or a deep listener, it’d be nice that there’s a level or layer there that you could find worthwhile.
AG: You’ve mentioned gamelan music quite a bit and, for people that are unfamiliar, I thought it might be helpful for you to define what that is. Part of our mission is to educate people and to expand their horizons with music, but also you’ve mentioned in other interviews that music is such a social event and in this day and age where you’ve got people like me who sit in a bedroom recording interviews and guitar things on my own…
PG: Am I in your bedroom?
AG: Not MY bedroom, but a bedroom in my house. [Laughs] It’s just interesting to me that I grew up just playing an instrument not thinking of it as such a social thing, but music to you is clearly very social and almost all of your work is for a group, mostly large groups it sounds like. At least, large compared to normal band sizes of 3-5 pieces. So could you talk about gamelan and your concept of music as a social event?
PG: First of all, I’ve been talking about gamelan. “Gamelan” is the Indonesian word for “orchestra.” If you’re saying “gamelan,” you might as well be saying “the Indonesian ensemble.” Their indigenous ensemble, whether it’s Java or Bali , is made up of a series of metallophones , or as I tell people, “Like xylophones, except all the keys are made of bronze.” It has a really nice metallic ring and shimmer to it.
These are all arranged from tiny little ones that play in very high octaves of 5-note scales. There are some with 7, but that’s getting a little too “inside baseball.” Pretty much one octave per instrument. So as you go down in octaves, the instruments get progressively bigger and bigger until you get to the very lowest octaves and you have, maybe, huge slabs of bronze that are playing these low notes and then the foundation that holds it all together are huge, button-faced gongs that–not to be confused with the Chinese tam tam that you see at the beginning of old movies. These are gongs that are tuned to specific pitches.
A lot of the music centers around some kind of a tonal center. So they have all these instruments. Sometimes 30-40 players playing these and they’re held together by two drummers playing something that I guess would look like congas held across the lap on the side. What makes this ensemble sound musically interesting to me is that all the instruments are played in pairs. The reason for that is that if they have two little ones, then two next size, two of those… the players playing in pairs are able to produce very blindingly fast passages by–I guess the western word is hocketing where they each divide up a melody, so if they want to play something that’s 16th notes, one player might be [playing one pattern and the other filling in the gaps].
When you put the two together, it becomes a great thing to listen to having two ears because you hear this melody broken up. To complicate matters even more is that these two guys also have another two guys playing their same parts. They are tuned a couple of cents, depending on the village. Some villages like a large number of cents apart. Some a smaller number of cents. But when you have those two bars that hit at the same time, the same pitch, and they’re off a number of cents, there will be a vibrato that happens between the two. So instead of just having a dull ringing tone, they’ll actually produce a shimmer.
A lot of gamelan aficianados feel that–well, some villages feel like, “Oh, we’re more rock and roll than you because we like a wider vibrato, so we tune ours 15 cents apart.” Other people say, “Oh no, that’s too brutal.” There’s all kinds of different styles, like any other kind of music. There’s many different uses for it, but one of the things that I found attractive and lent my ear to listen to it was it was one of the–along with West African drumming, which similarly concentrates on patterns that fit together in a hocketing kind of fashion–that attracted composer Steve Reich …
He was attracted to Indonesian gamelan, too, because a lot of the rhythms can only be described as very bebop sounding when you go to the island of Bali, which is interesting in that they’ve had this long tradition of creating the music in Java. But then in the 1920s when the Dutch–and a lot of Dutch artists have taken advantage of it being a colony and hanging out there for inspiration–but a lot of the Balinese gamelan music was really a 20th century creation.
They actually, in the way that people used to chop old cars and turn them into hot rods, they pretty much melted down the Javanese gamelan and rebuilt it for speed. At the same time that some people were having a problem in the western world that classical musical instruments were being bastardized by being used to play jazz in the 1920s, and those rhythms were “barbaric” and “not for lofty purposes…”
The exact same thing was happening in Indonesian in terms of the beautiful court instruments of the Javanese gamelan were being melted down and were now being played by those “barbaric” Balinese as a kind of “moron music.” That’s what jazz was being derided as in the 1920s. But to pull that whole thing together and to put an umbrella over it all is that this music doesn’t exist in an abstract fashion in these societies.
Whether it’s the courts of Java or the more ceremonial use in Bali, they’re always for a specific purpose and they’re still not, like a lot of West African music, they’re still not divided from the dance. There’s not “the dance,” there’s not “the music.” They’re one and the same thing. That division has not been made yet. If it was the afternoon ceremony doing an offering for the gods, there’s a specific song and dance for that. If there’s a special ceremony for the full moon–which full moon? Well, we’ve got a ceremony and a dance for that.
And there’s more social ceremonies that would always have their village gamelan and their dancers dance for weddings and feasts and all these other things that every society has used to mark their calendar. So, that’s the one thing that interests me very music was that the music had a purpose in every society.
When I first went to Bali–I’ve been there three times to study the work–was that as you pass through the different villages, you can hear each village having its own gamelan perform its evening music or taking part in some kind of ceremony. It’s for real and that’s why I liked it.
And they have their own tuning system, which I found very interesting, too. They’re using 5-note scales, but they’re not at all tuned like the 5 black keys on our piano. They may be technically pentatonic scales, because they use five notes, but they break up the octave very differently. So when you do hear it, all of a sudden, there’s no such thing as “harmony.” A lot of it is “horizontal” movement.
Anyways, this obviously was hugely impactful upon what I wanted to do. When I studied those rhythms and studied how those things were put together, I did join Gamelan Son of Lion , a new music gamelan that’s been around since the 1970s here in New York City and it gave a chance for young composers to write for these ensembles and experiment, but I was also interested in using those kinds of rhythms and non-standard tunings with my electronic keyboard ensemble because I felt like I owned that more.
I didn’t want to be grabbing someone’s music, but I was happy to learn about how the rhythms could interact and apply that to a lot of the other music I’d been using. A lot of that still carries forth when needed in everything I do today. A lot of that can be heard on this last Tilted Axes album. Here and there, it’s there.
AG: As Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians is one of my favorite albums of all time, you’ve also mentioned it in a couple of places…
PG: Yeah, a friend gave that to me when I was 14 and that’s maybe too young.
AG: But, I would imagine these kinds of ensembles that have had such an impact on you have greatly informed your composition style. In going to Juilliard, did you study orchestration or something or write pieces for larger ensembles or is that just something that you felt personally inclined to do?
PG: I always say, “I went to Juilliard,” but I never claimed to have finished Juilliard. So anyone who says I’m a Juilliard graduate is putting out a fiction that I never put out. But, I did go to Juilliard for two years but I never finished because I had to work here and I did that by working for a classical music publisher, C F Peters , who also published John Cage’s work.
So that’s how I was able to meet with the people who were working with John Cage and work within that circle, but I was taking private composition lessons when I was 15 because that’s all I was doing. I was just trying to–even if I didn’t know what I was doing, I still had a facility for writing music and I thought I was drawing pictures sometimes. The patterns were there.
But, how orchestration really came about for me–not having an orchestra–was having electronic keyboards and synthesizers. It seems that the way our ears work and the way physics works that you can find any possible sound-making device and you can pigeonhole it into, “Well, is it string-like? Is it percussion? Is it brass? Or is it a woodwind sound?” That pretty much covers the spectrum of how sound is made. But, working a lot with orchestral scores and working a lot with composer composers contributed a lot to just understanding orchestration and how it works.
One of the things that was useful was moving to New York City and just knowing a lot of people really doing it. It’s like, “Read this book because everybody here read it and that’s how we’re doing it.” That becomes a whole little culture in itself, but a lot of that… I did grow up playing violin and viola and playing in an orchestra, so I had a pretty good idea for how these instruments work and I was writing for these instruments since I was a kid, so–it didn’t happen overnight, but that was definitely part of it.
But getting back to what you’re saying, I’ve always liked the idea of music for ceremony. Working with The Living Theatre who was influenced by Artaud Theater as ritual, John Cage himself would say that every performance is a form of theater. I take it as seriously as that. So, I’ve been able to apply that and of course my love of Indonesian music. It’s not just a gig for me. It is a kind of a ceremony.
Even the smallest performance should be taken that way. I think that whether it’s expressed to the public or not that this is the reason behind the performance, it comes through. Even David Byrne of the Talking Heads wrote a book called How Music Works and it’s got some good sections. The one section that I think he writes near the beginning reinforces what I’m saying is that he’s coming out of playing CBGB ’s in the late 1970s, but any music that ever seems to work has to come out of some kind of a scene. If there’s no scene, the music doesn’t go very far.
So maybe his work has come out of a scene, but I think that’s a form of a ceremony. You look at something like CBGB’s in the 1970s, it was like a church in a way. It was a ritual. People knew how to dress for it. People knew how to act for it. There was a whole code that went along with those serious performances. That had its code as well as performances in Indonesia as well as at a rave in Amsterdam has its code.
So, yeah, whether you want to call it ceremonies or scenes, it’s important and that’s one of the things I like about producing the shows is: you are creating a scene. If you’re going to do that, it’s good to know what all your forbears did before you. Not just in terms of their successes, but a lot of times in terms of their failures, too, because you don’t want to fail when you don’t have to.
But if you don’t try, you’ll never know. You can’t be afraid to fail because I can’t say that everything I’ve done has worked, but you can dust yourself off and learn something from that and move on. I’m happy to say it seems like there’s been enough things that we’ve done that when we synthesize and pull things together, it’s been having a decent impact on a large number of people. So, despite 2016 being such a year of extremes, there has been good parts.
AG: Absolutely. And to wrap things up, can you tell us where to find your music and where to find more information about you and your projects?
PG: Yeah. I’ll take this as an opportunity to tell you that as a result of my interest in chaos theory and such, the name of my production company has been Strange Music. So, you’ve got the “weird music,” I’ve got the “strange music.” I used to put on concerts and say, “Strange Music Presents.” When I was with BMI , Strange Music was the name of my publishing company. Now it’s Peppergreen Media with ASCAP .
But still, my larger company, the one I file with Uncle Sam every year, that’s Strange Music, Inc. The reason why is because I was finding–a number of reasons! First of all, the word “strange” contains my last name, “Grant.” Also, I was thinking of the strange attractors that were found in chaos theory in terms of patterns that are created out of seemingly random events.
Also influenced very much by a Samuel Butler quote that John Cage was particularly influenced by, and that is, “The only things that we truly hate are the unfamiliar things.” Especially when you apply that towards music, a lot of people–they want to be pacified. They don’t want to be challenged, you know? I remember that even albums like Steve Reich’s 18 Musicians…
I mean, I was 14 years old and I can’t say that I liked it the first time I heard it, but like most things I really end up liking, I get challenged, I don’t like it at first, but you keep on coming back like, “Oh, let me listen to it again to be sure that it really sucks.” As it turns out, it grows on you because it ends up changing your mind. It’s that laziness that a lot of people are battling with when they’re challenged.
So, anyways, that’s the name of my company. All websites lead to Rome. Or, at least, all websites lead to the same place, so if you go to strangemusic.com , that’s the same as patrickgrant.com , which is the same as tiltedaxes.com . So, that’s one way of centralizing things because I find that after a 30-year career, people stumble upon my work or are looking to get from my work different things. So, there’s different ways of putting it out there. So, that’s pretty much information central for me.
If you go there, you’ll see that we have our own podcast called the Strings and Things podcast and that we have Facebook fan pages and all the usual stuff you’d expect to find. But, it needs a revamping, but all the information is current. And I have to say, speaking of such, you really do a fantastic job at Make Weird Music. Your stuff looks great.
AG: Oh, thanks a lot! I appreciate that. It’s really nice.
PG: I notice those things.
AG: Thank you, Patrick. There is so much more I want to talk to you about, so if you wouldn’t mind, I’d like to have a follow-up conversation with you in a while.
AG: Plenty to think about from this and plenty of places to diverge.
PG: Oh, absolutely. But, thanks for letting me spout off. I hope I was helpful. One thing I did have to say, being thorough, but not too thorough.
AG: Oh, it’s perfect. Thank you so much.
PG: Thank you!