Recently a music zine proposed eight written questions to composer and performer PATRICK GRANT about his latest album “A SEQUENCE OF WAVES.” Grant sent in written responses and received this reply from the editor:
“Your answers are wonderful but they are extremely long… typically these are one-sentence answers… (the) internet is a short attention span thing. People scan, look for a link or something to watch and then move on. They do not linger like with a newspaper article. Thanks!”
Grant obliged them and resent completely different answers, all of them one-sentence long.
Published here on The MMiXdown are his original replies. The music zine’s questions have been replaced by distilling down their essence to one word each.
I once read something about The Beatles’ “Revolver” that went something like this: “It could be argued that every track on the album went on to create its own sub-genre in rock music.” I can see that point and I’m sure there have been many who have attempted to create a multiverse of song lineages out of it. Doing that’s not for me, but I like the point: every track has its own distinct personality and yet they all fit together and compliment each other like the colors of the spectrum. They are not a pastiche of songs. At their core they share the same DNA. There have been albums like that since, and I’m sure we could thoroughly debate what they are, but it’s that level of diversity and coherence that I was aiming for when I was putting together “A Sequence of Waves” because I truly like all kinds of music. That’s why different reviewers have been coming at it from different angles: rock, classical, jazz, world, you name it. I like that. I’d say that is 40% intentional on my part and 60% that’s-just-who-I-am.
It’s also understood that not everyone listens to albums like they used to (from beginning to end), but for those who do and for those who admire the architecture of an album, there’s an overall structure that holds these 13 tracks together. At the center is track 7, “Seven Years at Sea.” It’s also the only piece with vocals on the album and even then they were recorded in the first half of the last century, but not by me. Ha! Moving outward, track 6 mirrors track 8, track 5 mirrors track 9, and so on until track 1 mirrors track 13. What do I mean by mirror? I mean there’s there some aspect in which the tracks are related, either by style, instrumentation, tempo, or harmonic scheme. Sometimes it’s a couple of these elements combined. If you notice it, that’s great. If you don’t, I would bet that by the album’s end, you’d subconsciously get a feeling of coherence through the chaos.
Being an instrumental album, many things were needed to keep it not only interesting, but to keep interesting to me. This was a good exercise for me in “killing one’s darlings,” I was cutting measures here, whole sections there. Even listening now, I could lose a few notes. And add a few too! Maybe these things are never truly finished, are they? It’s been said that they just get abandoned so we can move on. But I require some sense of artistic completion before doing so that there’s firmer ground from which we push off our little metaphorical boat into uncharted waters again.
Sorry, that sounds pretentious. Still, it’s not too far off. It seems that the most worthy things that we can endeavor to do are a manifestation of a search for meaning. My hope is that if I can keep honest and sincere in my work, that it will resonate in some universal way to those who are drawn to the work and care to listen.
When I was a student, I was struck by something Igor Stravinsky said, “I consider that music is, by its very nature, essentially powerless to express anything at all, whether a feeling, an attitude of mind, or psychological mood, a phenomenon of nature, etc…. Expression has never been an inherent property of music.” That’s just a snippet of a longer quote. Uncle Igor had a lot more to say than just that. People should look it up and read the rest if they’re interested.
So, wow, I felt sort of depressed when I read that because it challenged everything that I, as a young man, had thought about music. Then I gradually was able to let go of preconceptions and understood what he was saying. I still am.
Remember now, he was speaking of pure music, instrumental music because, yes, if there are words, the music (now being considered a song) will mean what those words are saying. But, in a pure sense like are minor chords “sad” and major chords “happy?” No, they are not. When you listen to a piece of music, you are listening with your own culture and personal history. You are always listening to music in relation to every piece of music you’ve listened to before that moment. It’s the same with visual art. It’s the same with so many things.
So, if my music, or this album in particular, has any meaning, it’s what it means to each listener. Like many composers, I am amazed and get a kick out of what people hear in my music. Some of these things are fantastic, some are just plain ol’ wrong, and some reveal a part of me that I’ve been hiding from myself. Shazam! That can be powerful stuff.
Now that I have a body of work to look back upon, it’s as if it’s all about a search for meaning. I look for patterns that repeat in my own work and notice, no matter if it’s rock, classical, or something else, there are patterns there, patterns that are a language unique to myself. Even music discovers this. But what does it mean? That’s to be explored in the music-yet-to-be-created.
While it is true that the human voice is the first musical instrument, I would say that the history of music, of all music, has shown that words are not always necessary. Think of all the classical music and music from other cultures that don’t have voices. On a small scale, any music with voice would most likely be what we’d consider a song. I’m particular like that: don’t call a piece of music a “song” if there isn’t any singing. It can be a jam, a tune, an invention, a scherzo, a waltz, a groove, dope beatz, whatever, but without singing it is not a song. I’ve found that just getting casual listeners to call music by a better, more correct name like that, automatically gets them thinking about music differently and, better yet, they begin listening with more depth.
Many people will hear the surface of the music first, the voice, the tune, whatever is most prominent in the mix. It’s likely that it’s intentional on the part of the producer to get you the hear that surface through how it has been mixed. Those who are trained, or who are naturally able to, hear the deeper layers in the music, will get more out of it and may have a better understanding of all kinds of things.
Believe me, I love songs. I listen to them, I sing them, and I write them. However, my most recent album, “A Sequence of Waves,” and the one before, “Tilted Axes: Music for Mobile Electric Guitars,” are purposeful explorations in instrumental music. That’s for a couple of reasons. One is a desire to make my music as universal as possible. If there are no words, most people will superimpose their own narrative onto a performance or recording. Plus, there is no language barrier. As a result, my recent music has had a very international audience.
Another reason is that I like the challenge of creating stories with no words. A byproduct of this is that the music gets used in combination with visual media like video, film, and anything that’s staged. I have a background in avant-garde theater, so many times I will have definite pictures in my head when I create, even if they’re personal and not really meant to be shared. In this sense I favor music that is evocative, meaning that I want you to come up with your own visuals in your own head.
In terms of long time collaborators, my first nod for “A Sequence of Waves” would go to my engineer and mixing co-captain Garry Rindfuss. My first album proper was “Fields Amaze.” It was recorded at composer Philip Glass’s Looking Glass Studios on Broadway around Bleecker. He co-owned it with the Finn brothers from Split Enz and Crowed House. I met Garry through a common friend from the Knitting Factory and Lounge Lizards scene. He’s worked with many recording field greats from engineers and producers like Bob Clearmountain, Steve Lillywhite, and James Farber, to recording artists like Bruce Springsteen, The Rolling Stones, Queen, etc. I wanted to get contemporary classical music recorded with rock and pop techniques. That’s my sound.
The studio, since closed, was hopping then. Bang on a Can was recording their version of Brian Eno’s “Music for Airports” at the same time as us while David Bowie was putting the finishing touches on his album “Earthling” down the hall in Mark Plati’s room. Being my first album, it was all a bit overwhelming, but Garry’s good humor and cool demeanor got me through it. He’s been my engineer ever since.
The other long-term collaborator on “Sequence” is drummer John Ferrari. I met him two years after I met Garry and under very different circumstances. After I released the “Fields Amaze” album, I put together the Patrick Grant Group. It was an ensemble dedicated to my music consisting of a core of piano, organ, synthesizer, and drums with flute, clarinet, trombone, viola, cello, electric guitar, electric bass, and percussion. It was a little orchestra. Sometimes we’d even add a gamelan, the metal orchestra of Indonesia, for pieces that were inspired by my studies in Bali.
While this was going strong, I also took a job as composer-in-residence at The Ross School in East Hampton. It was the time of the dotcom boom and they wanted to do an international musical composition project with students in NY, Sweden, and China (and I even got to go there). I was spearheading the compositional element of the project with other instructors from abroad, but the kicker is that my mentors were Billy Joel and Quincy Jones. It all sounded great, the student musicians were great, but the project was overrun with too many adults with their own corporate and educational agendas. I’ll leave it at that.
One of them, a Swedish businessman, kept throwing trendy jargon-of-the-day at us as if that would make things more musical. He’d say to me, “Patrick, we have to start thinking outside of the box,” and I’d reply, “You’re telling me? I am the very definition of outside-of the-box! That’s why you hired me!” So, when I felt this million-dollar project was falling apart, on the good advice of Billy Joel, I resigned and went back to the city. As I suspected, the project never lived up to its potential and was never presented to the world as originally proposed. I got out just in time.
Why is this important? It’s because that’s where and when I met John Ferrari. My personal growth aside, he was the best part of that whole experience. He was hired as a percussion instructor and he eventually started working with me in showing everybody how to create music through live performance and electronics. He became the drummer for all future incarnations of the Patrick Grant Group and we’ve been making music every since.
I only point out these stories and their circumstances because it’s these kind of events that have bonded me to, not only these two artists, but to many other collaborators to which I have been blessed. It doesn’t happen every time, but when a trial-by-fire forges life-long friendships, among other things, it will always good for the music.
I’ve been asked this question a number of times and my answer has not varied much. Let’s see if I can put an original twist on it. I mean, we’re all, everybody, changing constantly. I’ve changed my mind over time, but one can always draw a line that connects it all. I mean, it’s always evolving.
My favorite kind of music, for lack of a better word, is music that suggests ceremony. Now, that sounds heavy and religious and a bit of a drag, but hear me out. By “ceremony” I just mean an event that is bigger than any one of us individually. Sometimes we’re too close to the trees to see the forest (as the saying goes), but much of our lives are based on rituals of all kinds, large and small, public and private, in a time or over a time. I’m sure anthropologists see it clearly. I mean, it’s easy for us to see in other societies, but perhaps harder to see it in ourselves.
Okay, I’m going down a rabbit hole here, so let me backtrack and clarify with examples. I grew up loving and playing the music of Bach. Yes, I did. I could read music easily at an early-ish age so I studied many of his scores when I was young. I liked the idea that much of his music was created with a specific purpose or event in mind, sacred or secular. This is music that has extra-musical purpose attached to it. Examples of this could be movements in a suite (dance) or a cantata (worship). It becomes forms that listeners come to recognize and respond to.
Jumping ahead a couple of hundred years, think of how much a rock concert has become, through trial and error, a form of ritual, all the way down to people holding up lit cigarette lighters for the encore. To someone from another planet that ritual might appear very similar to being in a cathedral during high mass.
So, for me, it’s not so much about genre or geography, it’s about music that suggests things that are bigger than us. It can have words or not. In the end, it’s about the music’s intention, its ability to convey that intention musically, and its ability to pull in as many listeners as possible without compromising its truth.
Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t all about being lofty and putting on airs. I’d be just as down with a Voodoo wedding or a Punk Rock divorce just as long as it was musically sincere.
Last year I accepted a position as a professor at the NYU Film School for two days a week teaching, what is essentially, a sound design course for freshmen. It’s a required class to expose all students to the power of narrative in sound. Because sound is invisible, it is too often taken for granted. It’s also interesting to me because these students come from all over and with different kinds of backgrounds and widely differing skill sets. Whether they go on to screenplays, video editing, cinematography, or directing (everybody wants to direct, right?), they learn how powerful sound and music can be together and how to use them.
One of their first assignments is the Interview Assignment. It is to teach them how to make a good field recording, to learn microphone technique, etc. They find someone to interview and make a 2-3 minute edited audio piece. Many times students will interview each other because that’s logistically simpler than running around the city to far-flung places.
When I was listening to some of these interviews, a “Profile of Student X” let’s say, they were reciting a laundry list of their likes passing as an interview. For example: “I really like this kind of music, I like this kind of food, I really like this comedy director, I like books by this author from the 1970s…” etc., etc., etc. A number of these interviews were like this, a list of their likes. I thought that maybe this is how things are done these days. I don’t remember. Maybe that’s what I did at that age, too.
Yes, they were defining themselves by declaring a list of their likes, possibly because many are too young to have done anything yet of their own or, through Facebook, we are living in a “like” culture now? That’s just a theory, a gut feeling. Sounds good on the surface, it’s probably wrong.
I often wish that I heard more good music than I have. There is so much of out if you look and if you have the time to listen. Most of my time is spent putting together music that’s based upon the many things that have inspired me, and these things are not necessarily music either.
So, when I get asked “what musicians do I most admire and why?” I’m careful not to give a list. More than that, if I did, it would be hard to list musicians only. For me, people that have influenced me extend beyond musicians. There are visual artists, writers, playwrights, filmmakers, scientists, philosophers, architects, activists, and the list just goes on. It’s also an entangled and intertwined list because the history of all music, art, and science has always relied upon each other for inspiration. It’s a conversation between all of these things. It’s polyphony. It’s a cosmic clock.
Here’s something I noticed: the one quality that they all have in common, these things that I “like,” is the ability of the creators to communicate their personal experiences in such a way that it becomes universal to all those who hear it, see it, feel it.
This is always a difficult question, not only for me, but for many of the other musicians that get asked. I know that some, like Robert Fripp from King Crimson, will famously (and humorously) discourage young people from what gets described as “ a miserable life” and that becoming a plumber or some such trade would be a much better contribution to society. Recently the producer Brian Eno’s advice fell along the lines of “don’t get a day job” and was met with wild misunderstanding and criticism. Laurie Anderson suggest that we, “Keep it loose, be flexible…make it vague,” while Patti Smith offers up a straight forward “just keep doing your work.”
While all of their advice is good, it’s clear that there isn’t any single path to the life of an artist. Somebody once asked me, “Why does it seem like every famous musician received a lucky break at some point in their career?” I replied, “Easy. Because you never hear about the unlucky ones!” There could be some truth to that, but it’s also never a bad idea to live in a way that increases your chances of being in the right place at the right time in a way that makes sense to you. Even if fame and success are elusive, it’s a good way to live.
Falling into clichés when giving advice like this is a potential danger, it’s a trap. The truth seems to be that everyone who is determined will find a way. I feel like I’m still trying to find mine. You be surprise how many successful people still feel that they’re not there yet, that they’re not worthy giving out such advice. I can only speak of my own life and what has worked for me, things that I have observed in the work habits of others, and list some things that I have found inspiring.
In no particular order:
Until you make it, move to a city where some form of the industry exists. I know that cyberspace is supposed to level the geographic playing field, but there’s nothing like finding out where all the big shots are gathered and go there physically. This could be an art opening, a diner, even a small club. So, for all of the emails these people must be getting from other young hopefuls, there you are, in person.
Never stop learning, especially science as it relates to your craft. You know all of those names at the end of the movie in the credits? Those are jobs. Real jobs. Not only can you perfect your craft while you’re there, you’ll meet real people doing real things that could point you in the right direction if your aim needs clarification.
How can I get one of these jobs? Again, move to a city where some form of the industry exists. After you’ve made it, then you can get that house in the country. They’ll all be coming to you at that point.
If you haven’t done so already, expand your appreciation of the arts beyond music alone.
Read a book once in a while (technical manuals do not count!).
Go to a museum. Any kind.
Watch every “Dramatic Demonstrations in Physics” video that Julius Sumner Miller ever made. They’re uncommon and enchanting! Everything is music when you know physics.
Draw some pictures. Even if you suck at it, if you have good ideas, a real graphics person can show you how to flesh it out. We all made drawings when we were kids. Why do most people stop?
Watch the first 20 minutes of every “VH1: Behind the Music” episode ever. That’s how people made careers (don’t watch anything after that; it’s too depressing). Even if you don’t like the style music, anybody who has made a career in music has a story worth knowing.
Don’t think only about yourself. Be there for other musicians. Great things can happen when you give instead of take. Unexpected collaborations will come about if you make some time for other people’s ideas.
What’s the message here? Never stop learning. Learn across many fields. It’s all music if you listen.
There’s always something new from me in the social media, so I can give you those links to put on the end if you want. I’ll use this question to discuss current projects and where I hope they will go.
Right now I feel like I am creating in three parallel universes, one each that are rooted in the past, the present, or the future. 2018 marks the 20th anniversary of Strange Music, the company I founded when I incorporated. I have a number of works that have been building up that were never properly released or some that had one big performance and that was it. I feel an obligation to get this music out into the world, especially since I have an audience now. I need to do for my own legacy and I also need to do it to set the record straight in a couple of communities as to who-did-what-first. There are a number of cases where others with greater means than I took my concepts of mine and developed them on their own. Getting out these musical missing links will be a help to future writers in putting together a more complete picture of the current scene.
As worthy as these older and slightly older works may seem, there’s too much going on right now in the present to dwell too much in the past. It’s always a balancing act. The good thing is that there’s always something to do. Also, it’s easy to complete this older work because I have some “distance” on it now. I have no problem in being cutthroat in the editing process. The outcome is that we have leaner and cleaner versions of these pieces and I think they sound damn good. They sound as fresh and current as anything.
You asked earlier about meaning in my music? This is it. Drawing the line through all of these pieces to recognize and connect the elements that make them truly the result of myself. This is what is powering my present. It has become much easier for me to identify what it is that I should be doing. I have “put my ladder up against the wrong wall” a few times, only to climb it and see there was nothing I was looking for on the other side, but never again if I can help it.
What does that boil down to in reality? Projects. I am finishing tracks projects from Strange Music’s past and I am finishing two new albums for release as-soon-as-possible. Editing and mixing is in process now on one of them. I am also focusing on reconstructing the workflow of my studio. I simply need to work faster and more efficiently. I am getting work for radio and film down the road and so I prepare for that. Film has been a big inspiration in my music and I look forward to that work. This is the reason behind my creation of my production and publishing arm Peppergreen Media. That in itself is a way to frame disciplines within disciplines.
As for live performance, I’ve been very picky about excepting doing shows these days. For my bigger projects like Tilted Axes, there needs to be financing in advance. I’m currently working on two new sets of music for that group, one based on astronomy that’s meant to be performed partly in a planetarium (Imaginary Planets) and one that’s based on solar power and sustainable energy (Renewable Riffs). Science! Both projects have wonderful forms and structures that are found in physics that, when mapped into the realm of audible tone and rhythm, sound amazing.
I also have a practical need to create a small “performative” unit that can easily tour. There have been too many opportunities for this now for me to keep passing up. This unit would be comprised of me performing on guitar, keyboards, laptop and possibly vocals, with a live drummer and one or two other musicians. I have already written a lot of new material for this set-up, I just have to put it together this spring and begin summer previews for autumn performances.
In the meantime, everyone can look forward to the follow up to “A Sequence of Waves.” Right now the new album’s working title is “Velcro Variations,” but that might change. In the end, the finished album may reveal that it has a new title it has given itself. Sometimes it’s feels like it’s not up to me. I mean: I can only position the sail of the sailboat in the right direction. I am not the wind.
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Patrick Grant Web Site: http://patrickgrant.com
Tilted Axes Album: http://tiltedaxes.com/tiltedaxes.html
PG SoundCloud: https://soundcloud.com/patrick-grant-9
PG Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/patrickgrantnyc
Tilted Axes FB Fan Page: https://www.facebook.com/tiltedaxes/
A Sequence of Waves: http://www.peppergreenmedia.com/seqwav.html