Creator of International Strange Music Day: An Interview with Patrick Grant

David Johnston

2012 Composer-in-Residence Patrick Grant  Photo by Erick Gonzales


2012 Composer-in-Residence Patrick Grant recently chatted with us via email about his musical experiences and explorations in NYC since the mid-80s. As a prolific composer in NYC for almost thirty years, Patrick has collaborated with a fascinating and diverse cohort of artists. Below are excerpts from his interview. For the full version click here.


You have a huge compositional range – scoring for theatre, film, dance, concert and more. Did you start out in one genre, or were you always looking for collaborations?

The one thing that I can say with some certainty is that it is only through acts of collaboration that we can be assured of our continual growth.

Being from Detroit and growing up there, I was exposed to a wide range of musical traditions that was an amalgam of genres coming from both sides of the Detroit River….What really got me going at age 11 was the soundtrack to the Stanley Kubrick film A Clockwork Orange. That was the first LP I ever bought. My family all played some kind of instruments but not necessarily classically and this was the album that opened that door for me.  Not only did it make me want to begin to take my piano and violin lessons much more seriously, but it also exposed me to electronic music and a new world of timbres.… At this point that was all that I was interested in, writing classical style of music with the possibility of electronics.

These creative impulses must have become intertwined at some point and they remain so today. I have always been much more of a composer than a songwriter, per se, in that I love the structures and forms inherent in all music, sometimes more than the actual pitch content itself….At that point, at age 22, I was pretty much split down the center creatively. One half of me was coming to the Juilliard School to continue my classical studies in composition and the other half of me was this spiky-haired, bottle-blonde kid, loaded with synthesizers, a veteran of the Post-Punk and New Wave scene. It would take New York City and the mentors and collaborators that I would meet that would guide me, that would show me, how it would be possible to unite these two sides of my creative self.

You moved to NYC in the mid-80s. Could you describe the new music scene then? What elements have changed or stayed the same?

In the mid-1980s the classical music world in New York City was sharply divided. It sounds funny now but there was a lot of resentment on both sides of the total/atonal schism. John Adams’ Nixon in China had just premiered at the BAM Next Wave Festival and I remember many of the musicians at work denigrating it because its rhythms and harmonies were clear and clean….The only thing that saved me through this time was the proximity that I had to the works and writings of Cage. Here I discovered his book Silence. Looking back on it now, it was a premonition of sorts that that book is dedicated to the Living Theatre, the only place that was willing to produce and premiere Cage’s works in the New York of the 1950s….

I was told that the Living Theatre was in need of a composer since their current composer was moving to the West Coast. I was a little nervous about this because the Living Theatre, in reality, had quite a reputation, many reputations in fact, depending on which decade of their existence you are looking at. My familiarity with them, and my primary interest, was in their history of working with great composers. I knew this from reading Silence. LT co-founder Julian Beck had died five years before and now his partner Judith Malina was rebooting her theater on E. 3rd St. They were working on a new production and it needed music. I showed up for a rehearsal on the first day of April (no fooling) to see a run-through. I had a lot of questions and I really wasn’t sure if I wanted to do this. I did like the idea that the theater had a structure and a history that I could plug into. So, after the run through I turned to Judith and I said, “I have a lot to think about, maybe I could come back again?” She immediately spun around to the company to extol, “He’s coming back! We have a composer!” That moment pretty much determined what I was doing for the next four years. Five years in NYC. My 90s had begun.

Your collaborations include working with theatrical giants such as Robert Wilson, Gerald Thomas, The Living Theatre to creating music installations at The Louvre. How did they shape or influence your creative work?

It all started with the time I spent with the Living Theatre. It was such an education to work with Judith Malina!…When I joined the LT they had just reestablished themselves in New York City. The company at that time consisted of actors from all of the decades of its previous 40 years. I think that’s what I liked about working in these theater companies most, and it is something that I see lacking today not only in theater, but in the music scene as well.…What I remember most from these days was the ultimate sense of trust that was given to me as the company’s composer and music director. I liked being in the position to represent music within theatre, an art form that included so many other disciplines….

Then there were the tours all over Europe….That taught me the most in terms of how my music communicated. I enjoyed seeing how, for instance, one piece or section of a score would be a hit, in Italy for example, and then that same section could be a disaster in Berlin, or vice versa. Ultimately, I started seeing how certain sections of the music seemed to resonate with all the cultures, certain sections that spoke universally to the public. This was something that I really took with me and still use to this day….

It wasn’t until 2002 that I actually had the opportunity to work with Wilson or rather, Bob….It is said that the best thing about working with Bob is not necessarily Bob himself, but in all of the other artists and potential collaborators you meet while you are there at Watermill. This held very true for me. Many projects ranging from concerts, commissions, dance, and film, were a direct result of the connections I made there and continue to cultivate.

The same applies to the work I did in France. One of their government’s culture directors that I was introduced to liked my work, so I was commissioned to write music for an installation that was displayed at the Louvre. This was for the then-to-be-built musee du quai Branly. They also used some of my music for a couple of TV spots. Since the new museum was meant to concentrate on World Art, they wanted music that related to my experiences in Bali.

Directly after that in 2004 I got to meet Gerald Thomas, or shall I say, meet him again. I actually met him in 1997 at a party in the Dakota.…He was an illustrator for the New York Times Op Ed page and then in the early 1980s decided to take his visions to the stage….In the meantime, I am looking forward to future collaborations that I have coming up with Gerald. I’ll be scoring a number of Beckett pieces he’ll be directing in Dublin and an original piece in Brazil in 2013.

You’ve taken three trips to Bali to study gamelan. When did you take these trips, and how have they influenced your work?

The first time I remember consciously hearing gamelan music was in a travel documentary that aired on PBS….I was immediately taken with the sheer brilliance of it. Much of that had to do with the speed at which it was played….Just after I finished my work with the Living Theatre, I spent almost 5 weeks in Bali between December 1993 and January of 1994.…As it happened, I met an American living there who pointed me in the direction of a musician who was the son of the man who taught McPhee Balinese music many decades before. His name was I Wayan Lantir, son of Grindem.

…I returned to Bali for another five weeks in 1995 and learned a number of new techniques, especially in the art of kotekan, a Balinese style of hocketing between two instruments.…Much of my music in the mid-90s was influenced by these experiences and, not having a gamelan of my own, I started expanding electronically….Just when that phase was beginning to run its course, I had an opportunity to go to Bali a third time.…One of the best things that came out of this trip was that I had sufficient time to digitally record the gamelan instruments note for note. When I returned home, I was able to use these samples to create my own virtual gamelan on my Kurzweil.…

This whole gamelan phase of my career reached a close during the years 2002 and 2003 when, through an introduction by my electronic music mentor David Borden, I became Composer-in-Residence at Cornell University’s Ethnomusicology Dept. I used this opportunity to complete a piece I had been working on for a for a while. This was a ballet called The Philosopher’s Stone based upon a scenario by the French surrealist Antonin Artaud (La Pierre Philosophale, 1931).…

In light of your impressive compositional range, do you have a singular approach when it comes to deciding upon a composition or project? Or are there many factors that come into play?

Lately I’ve come to realize, when looking back over my work, that the pieces of mine that worked best were ones that involved ceremony of some sort. Whether it was the cantatas of J.S. Bach, the Balinese gamelan, avant-garde theater, or the ritual of the rock ‘n roll stage, I began to see these in terms of ceremony. This means that there is an extra-musical element involved. This factor has manifested itself in my work in a variety of ways.

One who is familiar with my work will notice that beyond the music I like to incorporate a strong visual element whether in the staging, an eye-catching logo, or in the very title of the piece. When one or more of these elements falls into place, I feel that the piece is now existing in a universe all its own, a separate world with rules of logic unto itself….Then I feel very comfortable and it’s as if the piece is writing itself. It takes a lot of work and preparation to get there.…

It can also work the other way around too. I can spend a lot of time finding just the right combination of notes, the right musical DNA, the right seed from which the piece can organically grow. As in nature, there are good seeds and there are bad seeds and I won’t know what kind they are until I let them sprout a little. With each discarded seed I get a better idea of what I’m looking for before I actually find it. When I do, then again, it is as if the piece writes itself. I just have to shape it as it grows….Then there are those moments, rarely happening without the necessary preparatory work, that simply happen spontaneously. Those are good times. I wish I knew better how that worked. The best I can do is to be ready.

We’re curious as to how you came to work with John Cage’s production team? And produce your first recordings in Philip Glass’ studios?

I spent the summer of 1990 on a European tour with the Living Theatre. When I returned to New York early that fall I was without a job and had to find something to float my boat until we began a new piece. I forgot how it came about, but I believe I contacted Paul Sadowski, one of the very first people in the industry who commercially engraved music for the publishing houses here. He ran a shop close to Cage’s loft and was his personal engraver. He also provided the same services for Boosey & Hawkes, especially for their publications of Leonard Bernstein and Steve Reich. I had met him a few years earlier when I was working at C.F. Peters. He hired me because I had the necessary skills in printing and binding. Plus, as a musician, I was also able to proofread….

Jumping ahead a few years to January 1997, I had just given the first concert dedicated solely to my music with my own ensemble. I had written a number of acoustic works that were the result of my study of the gamelan in Bali….I used the recordings of this performance to raise funds for that first CD, funds were augmented by a loan. Having that together, I started looking around for a studio crew.

The engineer that I found, Gary Rindfuss, recommended a number of studios that were within my budget. Amongst those was Philip Glass’ Looking Glass Studios, for me a perfect fit….The end result was a CD called “Fields Amaze” after the title of the opening track, a piece for gamelan and microtonal piano (keyboard). That was the hit of the CD and it still gets played live to this day and on the radio. It got very good reviews, especially from the Village Voice and from WNYC’s New Sounds. I felt very comfortable working in the studio.…The big plus from this experience, besides raising my game a number of levels by working with the crew at Looking Glass Studios, was that it really put me on the radar in the New York City new music community….

You created International Strange Music Day, a real holiday that’s celebrated on August 24. Could you describe how you conceived of this musical holiday and its activities?

After having a hell of a time finding a label that wanted to put out my new CD, I decided to form my own label and put it out myself….I chose the name Strange Music for three reasons. First, it would be a lot easier to remember than my own name if somebody heard it for the first time: Easy, right? Second, it would prepare the layperson for what they were about to hear.…But for the average person, it was (at that time) not something they would be used to hearing, especially my use of alternate tunings and time signatures. The third reason says a lot about where I was compositionally at the time. I was fascinated by Chaos Theory and fractals. I still am. Much of my music from this period was pattern-based, self-similar, and self-described; my personal contribution to Post-Minimalism.

The fourth (and invisible reason) was that the word “strange” contains the five letters of my last name.…So, for me, August is traditionally a pretty slow month. Having a new CD on my Strange Music label, I decided to stir things up a little bit, and in an Internet post to a number of music newsgroups on the Internet, I declared August 24th as Strange Music Day. It gave me an opportunity to come up with a cool graphic and drive home a point that I still believe in to this day: it is always good to listen and play music that we are unfamiliar with. It keeps our ears and outlook fresh. I took August 24th as the day because it was the birthday of my then-girlfriend’s father who had been very, very kind to me, who was very knowledgeable about the arts world, and was a mentor to me of sorts.… Around 2002, I started noticing that various summer schools were picking up on it as an actual holiday….Once I started seeing postings coming from Europe, I changed the name to International Strange Music Day. It’s just been getting bigger every year….

This year I decided to take it a step further and we had the first International Strange Music Day Performance Soiree. I asked the New York music community to submit their ideas and apply for spots on the concert. I wanted to see a lot of new music notables perform music that they were not usually associated with, to be willing to explore uncomfortable places, to reveal their guilty pleasures and hidden parlor tricks to the public. It was a blast! It was just one those things that came together and happened so well. I and everybody involved are already looking forward to raising the bar next year. You have been warned!

You’ve been an active performer, curator and producer of many NYC events for almost thirty years, what are some of your favorite spots from over the years?

One of the things that initially drew me to New York City was the tradition of the loft and gallery concerts that took place in the 1960s and 1970s.…When I moved here in 1985 I was so disappointed to find that this tradition was in a fallow phase. I thought it was over….It was difficult finding traditional venues to perform in since we were young and didn’t really have any names yet, so to build upon the loft model seemed to be the way to go.…The first series started in 1989 and it was called Silent Treatment, a composers collective, really. These took place at the Middle Collegiate Church on E. 7th St. in the East Village.…

The next phase of my concert production began on St. Patrick’s Day 2000 at the Annina Nosei Gallery. That was a big deal for me….Musically, this concert also represented a new phase in my music. I was moving away from the gamelan and was paring down my ensemble to a core of three keyboards and percussion.…

Having this history, Jed Distler of ComposersCollaborative Inc. asked me in 2007 to help produce a large scale production of Terry Riley’s In C for Make Music New York, the annual summer event. The following year we did the same with a production called “Music for a Change.”…Having been a part of these two events, I got to know MMNY’s founder Aaron Friedman, who proposed that I come up with something for MMNY in 2010. I chose to do a performance where I live, at Waterside Plaza in New York City, right on the East River. Finding a theme was easy: water. I pulled together colleagues from Composers Concordance and we put on a large-scale concert called H2Opus….

Last December, Aaron Friedman decided to launch the very first Make Winter New York on the winter solstice….Now it is time to put something together for this coming December, and based on popular demand, we will be doing Tilted Axes again. Receiving the residency from Exploring the Metropolis is a huge part in making sure that, not only is it going to happen again, but that it is going to go well, a bit bigger, hopefully a lot better. Fingers crossed!…

As an active and multi-talented artist, what keeps you motivated and fresh? What are some future project ideas?

I wish there was a magic answer for that one. I sure would like to know! Believe me, some days I just sit here and ask myself, “What am I doing?” So, I try to have a structure to my day. I have always been a list maker….A lot of what I do to stay motivated and inspired does not have to do with how much I work at music…but with how much time I spend looking into the other arts, but especially science. Through a process called mapping, many scientific concepts can be expressed musically.…

I have notebooks and manuscript books that go back years with ideas that I have jotted down. Many of these contain ideas I wish to do in future projects and am simply waiting for the right opportunity. I think that for every ten projects that I try, I am lucky if three or four actually come to fruition. It’s all about things happening at the right time and the right place. Only preparedness can open the door for opportunity. That’s not news.

But, when things do work out in an ideal way, I like to move from a completed project to a new project that is a complement in some way to the one before….I am working right now on setting up some opportunities to return to theater next year with Gerald Thomas’ work and that excites me very much. There’s a number of smaller chamber works coming up in the next half year….One big piece of news from this summer is that, through a lot of negotiation and patience, Sony/ATV and Hal Leonard Music have given me permission to use the Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever” as the basis for a set of variations for chamber orchestra and rock band. That’s a big deal. That’s a huge deal. Look for that next year….

Could you describe your plans for your Residency at Turtle Bay Music School?

I have decided to take the word “exploring” at face value….Under the auspices of this residency, I have been creating a few smaller works in my studio, but it’s the work that involves multiple guitars that was tricky to set up. For me, any large production is like writing a murder mystery: one starts out at the end, with the crime solved, then moves backwards toward the beginning….I am building upon what I created last year for Make Music Winter, Tilted Axes, and I want it to be better, but not change it too much.…

Secondly, I have to set up the core musicians on this project. These will be guitarists who are coming from all kinds of backgrounds and my hope is that we will have a melding of styles that will be in itself a veritable sonic picture of the city. The tricky part is finding a structure that works for the project, yet is still a continuation of last year’s work. That’s my job. I want to open up the structure of bit where other musicians can have the opportunity to be in the spotlight. Just how is part of the exploration….

Then we’ll begin the third and final section of the work and that is where I will be pulling in other players to fill be the outer core of the ensemble. I envision that on top of the set pieces of music that will make up our performance, there will be need for large atmospheric sections made up of simple elements. This is most effective with many musicians. It also opens up the opportunity for players of varying ability, this outer core. This returns to my deep feelings for a community music.

Tilted Axes takes place on December 21, after my residency has technically finished, but I will return to the school on January 25 to perform sections of this piece with others as well as my solo set with electronics. All of this work will have been developed during, and thanks to, the residency.



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