On the afternoon of March 20, the first day of spring, a procession of guitarists will take over the streets of Detroit. Outfitted with portable amplifiers, they’ll create a sonic stew while walking through the Cultural Center, Wayne State University and the Cass Corridor, before circling back up Woodward to the Detroit Institute of Arts for their finale. For those expecting it, the performance will be an opportunity to witness a spectacle from New York they’ve only heard about. And, for the unwitting, the scene will be a delightful surprise as they watch from windows, stop their cars or perhaps even drop everything to join the procession.
The project, called Tilted Axes Detroit, is the brainchild of Detroit native Patrick Grant, a New York-based guitarist and composer who has worked with some of the biggest names in avant-garde music. It will be a homecoming of sorts for him, as well as a way to honor the city that he feels has bestowed upon him its special musical sensibility.
As a native son, he’s excited to bring the pioneering, experiential avant-garde work he has staged in Manhattan back to the city of his birth, a return gift to a city that has given New York so many talented young people.
Grant is speaking with us from the cramped workspace in his Manhattan apartment, surrounded on all four sides with keyboards, audio gear and the guitar-laptop performance rig he’s practicing on. For decades, he lived in Manhattan’s East Village neighborhood, long a destination for inbound creatives seeking their niche among the bookstores, bars and cafés centering on St. Mark’s Place.
Now he lives a 10-minute walk away, at Waterside Plaza on 23rd Street, after experiencing all the changes the East Village went through over the past three decades.
“I used to live at Third and C,” the 49-year-old composer says, “And I lived in a basement, like all aspiring musicians. But with new kids coming in every year to go to NYU, it felt more and more like waking up in the middle of a frat party every day. … Now I’m in a building with concrete construction, so I can do rehearsals here without bothering my neighbors.”
Born on Winthrop Street on the west side of Detroit, he grew up in the city, son of a third generation Detroit cop. As a child, Grant remembers returning from a day at Boblo Island Amusement Park and seeing smoke rising over the city from the 1967 Detroit riot. Not long after, Grant’s father resigned the force, moved to Livonia and started working for Ford Motor Company, where Grant said he could get good pay and benefits without putting his life on the line.
Eventually, his parents split up and Grant moved with his mother, who remarried, to affluent Oakland County, allowing him to go through the Birmingham public school system.
“Thankfully,” he says, “they had a great arts department. I was always into drawing, and my mom was a theater graduate from Dennison University in Ohio, and she always had theatrical music playing. So I was always surrounded by music. At home, I had Man of La Mancha and Cabaret growing up, whereas my dad was more into Hank Williams, Johnny Cash and Scottish bagpipe music.”
But what really threw Grant over the edge and into music completely was a record that grabbed him in the sixth grade: the soundtrack to A Clockwork Orange.
“That’s when I really started doing music. I shoveled snow and saved enough money so I could buy the album for myself. I had never heard classical music played on a Moog synthesizer before. I switched straight to music from art from then on.”
From the soundtrack, he discovered the work of Wendy Carlos, the early electronic music composer who programmed a Moog for her album Switched on Bach.
“I was especially inspired by Switched on Bach. I find I often have a lot of elements of Bach in my own compositions, a sort of point-counterpoint, a lot of individual parts that interlock into a whole.”
Soon, the budding composer was writing music that he couldn’t even play yet.
“I wrote a cantata that I performed when I was 14 at Our Lady of Victory in Northville,” he says, with a modesty that implies a roll of the eyes. “I was pretty proud of that.”
“And then, about 10 years after the fact, I discovered the Beatles. I had loved classical music and pop music, but I thought pop and classical could never meet. And then I heard Sergeant Pepper, and ‘Strawberry Fields Forever,’ and it all came full circle.”
Something else was brewing in Grant’s young mind that would eventually conduct to such spectacles as Tilted Axes, and that was liturgical music.
“When I was young and discovering Bach, a lot of his work was cantatas. I really liked that idea that for a specific event you write specific music. I found a lot of music inspired by some sort of ceremony. For instance, in the Lutheran church, every Sunday has a meaning in the liturgical year. A cantata for, say, the third Sunday after Advent will have a specific theme.
“They all have a particular form. You’ll have a prelude, a large chorus, soloists, and you’ll end with a big chorus, big, noisy, fast trumpets and kettle drums. Of course, I liked those parts best, but, as I got older, I appreciated the more subtle parts. But that big, festive sound and that sense of ceremony stuck with me. And it was probably what drew me into certain aspects of new wave, the way it would combine visuals and costuming with music.”
After graduating from Ernest W. Seaholm High School in 1981, Grant started becoming more aware of the larger culture. He decided to dive in, enrolling at Wayne State University and living in an apartment on West Forest Avenue. “For my two years at Wayne State,” he says, “I was a student by day, and playing the Old Miami by night.”
He played with a new wave group called Walk Thru Walls before getting involved with Changing Bodies, a band that featured Skeeto Valdez on drums and was named Best Detroit Band of 1984 by none other than Metro Times.
“It was a good place for a composer. They’d write the songs, and I’d make them sound good by doing arrangements. They wanted to move to New York, so I put school on hiatus for one year, worked for my mom’s family’s business, and we moved to New York on Labor Day weekend, 1985.”
The band’s attempt to hit the big time didn’t last long.
“It fell apart within the year,” he says.
Grant stayed on in the city, getting a job driving for a car service. (In New York, car services are a mode of transportation one step up from a taxi but not quite a limo.)
“It gave me the opportunity to learn the whole geography of the tri-state area. I was picking up people my age who were wearing ‘lawyer collars’ and the big buzzword of the day was ‘gentrification.’”
It was his day job, and he says he was no good at it. “I was the worst car driver,” he says. “They’d give me a car and all I would do was pick up some friends and drive around and listen to WNYC. Then again, it was a horrible operation run by people doing crack. Everyone was on crack in the organization.”
Grant decided to enter the Juilliard School, specifically to explore ethnomusicology. This led to his intensive study of another soundtrack to ritual, the Balinese creation known as the gamelan — a composite “instrument” consisting of clanging gongs, banging drums, even flutes and strings. Since then, Grant has traveled to Bali three times to study the complicated percussive ensemble, creating his own music informed by gamelan in the 1990s.
For Grant, it’s the perfect soundmaking machine. “The music is created for ceremony, and, like Bach, it has lots of interlocking parts going on rhythmically. Very exciting stuff.”
Grant is also very clear that what he does is not “cultural appropriation.”
“Instead, I let those influences seep into my natural instruments: keys, synths, electric guitars and lots and lots of drum machines.”
On the occasions when he would pick up paying passengers, they’d find the front seat littered with manuscript papers of his compositions. Finally, a fare said to him, “You don’t want to be a car driver. Come to our theater! We need composers.”
And so Grant dropped out of Juilliard and became resident composer with an experimental theater nestled deep in the bowels of Manhattan’s Alphabet City neighborhood, living in the basement of the space from 1991 to 1993. For a Juilliard student steeped in the music of the gamelan, it wasn’t a huge leap to join the Living Theatre, a troupe inspired by Antonin Artaud, whose thinking about theater was influenced after he first saw Balinese dance performed in 1931. Was it pure coincidence?
“It’s both a coincidence and a continued connection,” Grant says. “I studied Balinese gamelan at Juilliard because I was influenced by Wendy Carlos’ Beauty in the Beast gamelan album, a connection that brings in A Clockwork Orange, since she did those electronic realizations of Beethoven.”
And for an aspiring composer fascinated with ceremony and event-based composing, the new role fit snugly.
“It meant that I could combine all kinds of music I liked under one umbrella. And it’s not like I was writing show tunes. I liked it too because you could really use whatever music you had at your fingertips to tell a story. In theater, I felt like a special guy, like the chaplain on the ship — there’s only one of you, and you have a whole company at your disposal to try things out.”
With the theater company, Grant went on tour for a year, visiting other places and seeing the world for the first time.
“For me, as a guy that came from Detroit, it wasn’t until I got out of Detroit that I realized what my ‘Detroitness’ was, especially when I got out of the country.”
What is that Detroitness?
“Well, definitely there’s a certain desire to keep the beat, and a lot of riff-based music. One feature is a lot of motoric patterns. In fact, I have a number of friends in New York, composers who grew up in Detroit, who share this common feature. Friends from other parts of country don’t feel as obliged to keep a beat, a pulse, in their forms of music.”
Grant credits, among Detroit other things, being exposed to avant-garde programming from CBC Stereo, with late-night shows like Nightlines and Brave New Waves in the 1980s.
He also talks about the influence of seminal Detroit DJ “The Electrifying Mojo” as “a place where black and white culture met. It was one of the only radio programs where they’d play black music right along with Devo or Kraftwerk.”
He places Detroit in the 1980s as right on the cutting edge of music. “Before the Internet, we’d hear music in Detroit clubs, imports brought across the river from Canada, weeks before that same stuff would get into New York.”
For Grant, that Detroit quality involves creating music that, on the surface, is quite simple and easy to get, but underneath has a lot going on.
“It might be alternating measures, odd-metered beats that just groove, or maybe it’s for guitar and synthesizer and drums on the surface but with a lot of stuff going on behind it. For me, that’s the kind of stuff that will bear repeated listenings.”
Grant would come across resistance from stuffier factions of the classical world, but he points out that in the past “you’d have composers like Copland or Bernstein freely incorporating elements of jazz and blues in their work. Well, I am a kid who grew up in new wave Detroit, and I find that equally valid.”
Yet Grant caught flak from older theatrical types from the 1960s. “The theater companies I was working with were these holistic types who didn’t understand that a well-programmed drum machine could groove. They really didn’t like the idea. It was an obstacle I was often presented with. Now, for kids born after the Internet, it’s not controversial at all.”
Though he was composing for several small theater companies, he was never fully in tune with many of them, ideologically. “Some things we agreed on. I do stress pacifism, but the use of the word ‘anarchy’ is too loaded. ‘People accountable for themselves,’ that’s my A in the circle.”
By 1994, after turning 30, and after four years with the company, Grant decided to move on.
He adds, with a small laugh, “One of the reasons I enjoy being a composer instead of a pop guy is I can do this past 30.”
Over the years, Grant connected with some seminal avant-garde composers, including John Cage and Philip Glass, both of whom also composed for the Living Theatre at one time or another. He ended up working indirectly for John Cage during the last couple years of that composer’s life. He has participated in Robert Fripp’s Guitar Circle projects, and collaborated with various other theaters and artists as well.
Grant is especially proud of his work with other composers. He both assists living ones and, in some cases, works through the estates of dead ones. For instance, he is working on preparing all final editions of West Side Story and Candida, a job he says is “more work than I thought it would be.”
Though he says he uses about 70 percent of his time earning money and perhaps seeking a few grants, the other 30 percent of his time he devotes to his own creative projects. In the late 1990s, he formed his own ensemble, the Patrick Grant Group, putting out an album recorded in Philip Glass’ studio.
“I realized I was tremendously under-recorded, since composers are always jumping off into the next thing. Instead, as a composer, you make money from creating music, and what happens afterward is up to the powers that be. It’s probably a good model for a guy like me to get paid up-front. And then anything that happens afterward is great.”
One place where his compositions took root and are still performed is Brazil. He had been invited down there about five years ago to compose a score for a company called Antro Exposto. In his words, the material “seemed to want lots of layers of guitar.” The show, Complexo Sistema, written and directed by Ruy Fiho, worked well, not only becoming a hit but one that is still touring today.
The experience pushed the synth-oriented composer back into a mode that would seem especially Detroit, the guitar. Grant points out that it isn’t so far-fetched, given the way the instrument has been “softwared” over the years. By plugging the instrument into a laptop and using it instead of foot pedals for modulation, and adding live looping technology — something he’ll do this week at PJ’s Lager House — he’s able to create a rich, large, full sound. He jokingly says, “I’m an OK guitarist, but I’m a great 12 guitarists.”
That big, full sound that you get with multiple guitarists, something developed by such guitarists as Robert Fripp, as well as edgier sound artists including Glenn Branca (who composed his 13th symphony for 100 electric guitars) and Rhys Chatham (who tours with a 100-guitar symphony).
“I’m aware of them,” Grant says, but adds, “whatever I do, I don’t ever want to be the guy who reinvents the wheel. And so I’ve talked to a lot of people, including older composers who’ve done similar stuff. A lot of what I do involves looping technology, falling back on a lot of gamelan technique, simple, sparse riffs, interlocking complementary riffs done layer upon layer where you keep building it up. And that driving rock beat comes in sooner or later to pull it all together.”
The impetus to put together a guitar procession was an annual event called Make Music New York. He was asked to produce something for the event when he first considered a procession of electric guitars.
Grant says, “Guitars are always tethered to amps. There had been ‘guitarmies’ of acoustic guitars before, but nobody had done moving, amplified guitars before.”
Of course, a procession of musicians has a long history in the form of marching bands, whether part of a parade or more ingenious variations. Take our city’s own Detroit Party Marching Band, for instance. Or the modernist, almost atmospheric compositions of Charles Ives, who some say was inspired by listening to the clashing sounds of marching bands performing in the town square as a child in Danbury, Conn.
While aware of such trends, Grant views his own project as a combination of classic street theater, community-based ceremony and visual accents, a sort of outdoor theatrical performance centered on and united by sound. He says it’s best described by Robert Fripp’s Orchestra of Crafty Guitarists in a document entitled “The Six Principles of Performance,” especially the phrase stating, “Music so wishes to be heard that sometimes it calls on unlikely characters to give it voice.”
Bringing it on home
The idea to bring the event to Detroit seems a natural one, likely a way of repaying what Detroit’s musical heritage has given the world. Tilted Axes, a play on the axial tilt of the summer solstice, when the performance was originally staged, will now be Tilted Axes Detroit, in connection with the vernal equinox, also the first day of spring.
Organizing it was fairly simple: Grant called a few buddies in Detroit and was directed to Sue Mosey of the University Cultural Center Association, who embraced the idea and helped get the ball rolling.
The event will begin at 12:30 p.m. at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History and will proceed around the north midtown area for a few hours before ending up at the statue of “The Thinker” in front of the DIA.
Grant says the route is planned very carefully. “It’s an honor, and a really historically correct way to start anything related to the electric guitar at the Wright Museum. It’s really black American music, and anybody playing anything derived from it are its heirs.” The music will be played by about two-dozen mostly Detroit-area guitarists, with a banner carried out front. Listeners can expect some rock-oriented parts for the procession, as well as dronier, noisier material. Grant will by then have walked along the route and studied it. He hopes to try to find certain walls and overhangs that will help reinforce the sound, a vitally important detail for this moving troupe.
“It’s being created for two distinct audiences,” Grant says. “The first will know what’s going on, and the second will be clueless. That’s my favorite audience, the one that says, ‘What the fuck is this? Oh, shit, this is awesome!’ I find that very satisfying. It’s a celebration of the first day of spring. What a great time to make people smile.”
You can hear Grant’s smile over the phone when he talks about how meaningful it is to bring what he’s discovered back home. He says, “When people come together, something’s going to happen, especially when they come together to make music. Something remarkable happens. The potential is there for music to take on life of its own — as a participant or a witness — hitting us below the level of the spoken word. To see something come together like that, it’s a positive message. And I think people respond to it.”
He adds, “One thing for sure, despite all the heady pedigree stuff I tout: It will rock!”
Patrick Grant will perform before the event, with Duende! and Bricktown Station, in a show starting at 5 p.m. March 17, at PJ’s Lager House, 1254 Michigan Ave., Detroit; $5.
Tilted Axes Detroit will perform starting at 12:30 p.m. March 20, at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, 315 E. Warren Ave., Detroit. For a map of the procession’s route, see patrickgrant.com/TILTED-AXES-DETROIT.html.
Michael Jackman is managing editor of Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]