It is a great pleasure always to talk with someone who has been into the music composition for decades, and Patrick Grant, a founder, guitarist and composer of a New York City-based ensemble Tilted Axes, is the right person for it. His determination is unquestionable, what besides this in-depth interview we did with him, can also be proven while listening the project’s debut release “Music for Mobile Electric Guitars.”
In the interview below, Patrick shares with us the history behind forming the project, as well as its mission. But he also goes on telling us about the challenges of being involved with Tilted Axes, his connection with Robert Fripp of King Crimson, and some more.
Where does the idea for the Tilted Axes project come from? Tell me about the band’s origins.
Since I was in my 20s I’ve been involved as a composer on a wide range of projects. Besides being in proto-punk and new wave bands when I grew up in Detroit, I am also a classically trained musician. I played piano and violin as well as electric guitar and synthesizer growing up. When I moved to New York, I moved here with a band but my primary goal was to continue studying and I did this at the Juilliard School. My first real musical job was working in the Orchestra Hire department of a classical music publisher. One of the composers that we published was John Cage, the avant-garde master. Not only did we publish him that I got to work with him as well. He was a huge influence on me in my 20s. For many, he remains an anarchist hero but, what he did for me, was open my eyes and ears to all of the other arts and how they are interrelated and how they work with each other. Besides the famous silent piece 4’33” that most know him for (that being a result of his study of Zen Buddhism), I was particularly attracted to his work for prepared piano and percussion. Prepared piano is where different objects, like nuts and bolts, are inserted into the strings of the piano so that it sounds like a metal orchestra. What a cool sound!
This led me to the study of the Balinese gamelan, the indigenous percussion orchestra of Indonesia. I had already been a longtime fan of minimalist pioneer Steve Reich who, in turn, was inspired by the drum music of West Africa. What does this have to do with electric guitars? Well, both kinds of music are in essence Community Music. This is music used in a society for community functions and is usually of the type where there is a role for many levels of performer, be they virtuoso or talented amateur. After I spent a number of years being the composer and music director for the legendary Living Theatre, I went to Bali a number of times to study the gamelan, how it works, and analyzed many of its interlocking rhythms which I find to be among the most interesting things in the musical world.
Jumping ahead a number of years, I was presented with an opportunity to create an event for Make Music New York who was having its first performance on the winter solstice. I was already known as a producer of a number of musical events that combined rock and classical sensibilities, so I didn’t have to look very far to come up with an idea for this one. For a number of years I had been toying with the idea of what it would be like to untether the electric guitar from the stage. I also wanted the project to be modeled upon the Balinese gamelan and other such ensembles that I had studied. Since the event took place on the winter solstice, the title of the project simply fell from the sky. Literally. It’s a play upon the tilted axis of the earth, which creates our four seasons, and the slang term for guitar, the axe. With the concept firmly in place, it just became a matter of how I could pull this off. In five years the project has gone through a number of evolutions and only just now has its first phase crystallized into what you hear on her new album.
What is the meaning behind “mobile electric guitars”?
One of the cool things about the project is that it is unique, the only one of its kind. I am the inventor. Even though Tilted Axes is a cool enough name, I wanted our title to be as clear as possible since the concept is new. So, the full title is officially “Tilted Axes: Music for Mobile Electric Guitars.” It is the name of our first album as well. That way it becomes self-described and self defined. I figured that if somebody reading hearing couldn’t get the slightest clue what we’re up to, that’s on them. It’s clear. Maybe a future project will be called “Tilted Axes: Music for Banging Your Head,” or “Tilted Axes: Music for Doing Your Laundry,” but, “Music for Mobile Electric Guitars” is where we’re at right now.
The project’s biography states that Tilted Axes combines “the energy of rock, the creative discipline of theater, and the experimental spirit of the downtown NYC arts scene.” Would you mind to elaborate on that?
Well, it does combine those things. One of the things I’ve noticed is that when anything new is created, it is usually the result of combining distantly related elements and forging them into one. Every time a new musical style comes along it is usually the result of creating a genre hybrid. There is also the possibility of new things being created by combining music with nonmusical elements even though they themselves have their own set of artistic criteria. I grew up with one foot in the classical world and one foot in deep in the vernacular, so combining things like this comes naturally to me. And for this, I ask the purists out there for forgiveness! No one can never satisfy everyone out there, no matter what they do. In fact, some might think you a little crazy at first, but if the idea has any value, it will sustain itself and people will eventually come around.
Following my previous question — how do you go about “taming” the genre such as rock with theatre’s discipline? I would say that these two are in the opposition.
I don’t agree with this word “taming” at all. It is just wrong. When I speak of theater, I am not speaking of Shakespeare or Broadway. I am referring to my own background and the avant-garde visionaries that I have worked with like Judith Malina of the Living Theatre, Robert Wilson, creator of “Einstein on the Beach,” and the like. These artists are known for creating monolithic spectacles that were driven by powerful music from beginning to end. A wall of sound. In order to create pieces of this magnitude and to sustain interest throughout, a certain level of discipline and awareness of how large structures work is needed. I would much prefer the word “focusing.”
Rock music is known for its energy, and believe me, a large group of electric guitarists probably contains enough energy to power a small city. But how to do that? That energy has to be focused and harnessed. Think of light. When its rays are diffuse, it can illuminate a wide area, sure. But now take those same rays, the same amount of energy, and focus them to a pinpoint. Now you have the ability to burn through a sheet of metal. To apply that metaphor to a large group of people, they need a common aim to achieve that pinpoint of focus, and that takes discipline. No energy is lost, it’s only amplified to a common purpose. Levels of personal and group attention have to be developed. Many of the musicians that I work with might not have had this kind of training before, so that’s what I hope to bring to the table when we work on a project, as much as I can.
For non-New Yorkers, what can you tell about the NYC arts scene?
Perhaps I’ve been living here too long, but I thought it was a pretty well-known phenomenon around the world. But what I can do is speak of my particular experience with it and my observations. One of the first things I noticed here is how the higher up you go, all of the arts begin to converge. Thermodynamics. They become dependent upon each other for their own existence, a cross pollinating community. Perhaps this does not apply to the beginning rock musician or the incipient band, but if you hang in there long enough, it will. The New York tradition is such that artists of different disciplines would hang out with each other and share ideas. Painters, writers, musicians, filmmakers, and people of the stage are constantly trading ideas. As I stated, miraculous things can happen when you take an idea from one art form and try it out in another.
Another aspect is how these artists support each other in terms of audience and creative resources. One of the things that drew me to New York was the fact that a lot of experimental music gets its debut in New York City art galleries. That’s a tradition. It is also not a surprise that a lot of the fans of experimental music don’t necessarily come from the music scene. They also come from the art or theater world. Why? My guess is that they don’t have any prejudice against what they’re listing to, they don’t have any horse in that race. They can just react to the music as it moves them.
Another distinction worth noting as far as New York City goes, is that for much of the second half of the last century, there was a distinction made between being an Uptown or a Downtown musician or artist. Uptown artists were generally more conservative and/or academically-based. They hearkened a lot to European models and classical forms. Downtown artists, on the other hand, have always been freer to mix things up, not only with the other arts, but with both popular and vernacular forms, such as jazz, rock, and the uncategorizable. I fell into this latter camp of downtown musicians. We have a lot more of a do-it-yourself attitude and were perhaps freer to create without the constraints of the past. A lot of good music came out of that scene during the decades when this distinction was at its sharpest. In fact, much of what is being accepted as avant-garde these days actually had its origins in the self-produced music series that came out of the downtown theaters, clubs, galleries, and warehouse spaces back when that was a new thing to do.
Nowadays this distinction isn’t as sharp. Perhaps the internet has spoiled the notion of having to actually go out and hear things, to see things, and to do things that are new. Then again, the role of time has its function, too. One of my favorite quotes comes from music writer Nicholas Slonimsky which goes: “It takes approximately 20 years to create a cultural curiosity out of a musical monstrosity, and at approximately 20 years more to elevate it to a masterpiece.”
I worked with a lot of different kinds of musicians in my time but the “electric guitarist” is a very special animal. I believe that part of the appeal of a Tilted Axes project is seeing so many of them work as a unit. Sometimes it feels like trying to choreograph a large group of cats. Joking aside, it was a challenge to create music and structures that could accommodate players that are coming from so many different backgrounds. Even though I am the composer, my aim has always been to keep it as open as possible so ideas coming from the players will shine through and have a place in the music. We all learned a number of things along the way.
For example, we had to keep string bending down to a minimum or at least put it in places where it was as tasteful and musically meaningful as possible. Sure, it always sounds great coming from a soloist, and it is in fact, a signature sound we have come to associate with the instrument. But, when you start putting together 12 or more players bending the strings where and whenever they want, it really starts to sound like garbage. This is where I had to make some decisions as producer. Maybe we can get away with this kind of stuff live but, on a recording where every bump and wart is audible, we needed to find a solution.
Eventually we came up with our own recording and performing methods that worked for us, but it did take some time to get there. This is just one example out-of-many that I could give. The good news is that after completing our latest album, is that we have a number of these new techniques and ways of communicating that we can call upon as needed. I look forward to implementing these in our newer recordings. We will simply build upon them and add to them as we go along. Now that we have a method, I for see things going more and more quickly in the studio.
Each piece on the record is different. How long did it take to complete the work on the album? Are there any improvised pieces throughout “Music for Mobile Electric Guitars”?
Thanks for saying so. It took great care in putting together an album that would have as much variety as possible, given the relative instrumental sameness of the ensemble. I also used a lot of “theme and variation technique” so many of the pieces are interrelated and are mirrors of each other. I hoped to cover as many different genres as possible: rock, prog, blues, jazz, punk, with some classical forms thrown in for good measure. As to how long did it take to create the album? For some reason, that seems to be a popular question.
It was done over 13 months with many stops and starts due to interruptions coming from other projects of mine, performances, and other work on the road. If one were to add up the actual time that was spent in creating the album from beginning to end, including tracking, editing, mixing, and mastering, we figured out that it took around 12 weeks. Some pieces came together rather quickly and other pieces were created much like one would create a film. That is, we would record lots and lots of stuff, and then it would be my job to whittle it down and put it together into a narrative form that made musical sense.
A number of pieces on the album do require different kinds of improvisation at different times. Many of the pieces are strictly written out, note for note, from beginning to end. Many others would include strict instructions for the players to follow i.e. perhaps the rhythms were there and the players would find the pitches, or the players had the pitches and would find their own rhythms. When we perform these kinds of pieces live every performance of that piece will be different, but it will always sound like that piece. Just like every game of chess is different but it will always be a game of chess.
Another kind of improvisation was used on pieces that clearly needed traditional guitar solos over the chord changes. These I leave to the individual performers to come up with. I rely upon their unique musical voices to add new color to the work. I’m happy to be working with these great players that can bring this music to life in ways I never expected.
“Collaborated” wouldn’t be the right word. What happened is: shortly after Tilted Axes gave its debut performance (we have come to call these “tilts”), one of our musicians recommended that I take part in an upcoming Guitar Circle course led by Robert. Now, while I was aware of Guitar Craft and the Guitar Circles, I never saw myself being a part of them until then. The idea was I would be going into it as a beginner and I would leave all preconceived notions of music making, especially with a guitar, behind me. While I had played guitar in bands at various times over the years, at that point time I was primarily known as a keyboardist and electronic musician. Since the guitar had reentered my life in such a strong way in my own projects, it seemed the right thing to do. That is, it was time to “up my game” and go deeper into the guitar like I ever have before.
Guitar Craft favors the Ovation super-slim acoustic guitars, and one was required for me to begin. Originally, Guitar Craft was using the Ovations Legend 1867 model but it was no longer made. I bought a secondhand one online. Just weeks before I was to begin, it arrived, but it’s neck had become detached and loose. There was no time for me to get a suitable replacement. I wasn’t sure if I would be continuing with this work so I was cautious not to spend a lot of money on a suitable replacement guitar.
What I did have on handwas a Daisy Rock girls guitar that has the most garish all of magenta colored bodies, all done in glitter. I know it looked silly but I thought, “Hey, Fripp has worked with Bowie so, how bad could it be to bring this guitar?” Pretty bad, it turned out. The instrument plays reasonably well but nobody could get over the fact that I would bring such a silly instrument to such a serious place. I quickly became “that guy with the sparkly guitar.” Robert had a good laugh but I felt that I had given myself an uphill battle in winning over any of the other musicians who had seriously dedicated so many years of their lives to that project. I felt like a dick but perhaps being so humbled left me more open to the new information that was coming in. At least it helped me find the musicians in the group who could see past that and determine my musical worth based upon more than that sparkly guitar. Thankfully, Robert was one of them. I think.
So, I stuck with it (after getting a proper acoustic guitar). I began private lessons and became a member of the New York Guitar Circle. I have returned to work with Robert and the Guitar Circle on many other courses and this resulted in me becoming a performer in the Orchestra of Crafty Guitarists. This included work in the United States Mexico, and South America. This circle of study and performance came along at absolutely the right time for me. Not only has it augmented my work with Tilted Axes, but it has affected all of my other musical projects and has enriched my being. This work is about more than just the music. Personal development is the bigger part. There is no time to go in depth here, but if anyone is interested in finding out more about it, they will find plenty to read online.
Still, there is nothing like the actual experience. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, all Guitar Craft and all Guitar Circle work is coming to an end in March of 2017 after 32 years of existence. For those who have been a part of the GC, the work now is to see how we can take what we have absorbed and continue and resonate that out into the world through our own work.
So yeah, “collaborated” is not the right word. We say, “No student of Robert Fripp would ever call themselves a student of Robert Fripp.” Those who know, know what that means. That said, my work in the Guitar Circle has been a huge inspiration for my work in Tilted Axes and, I hope to some extent, Tilted Axes has been inspiration to my friends in the circle. I’m grateful for the spiritual support that Robert has given Tilted Axes all along.
Two tracks on the album are variations on material by Fripp. How did they find its place, and did you have to do any specific arrangements in order to fit them on the album?
This would be “Kneadle Variation” and the second half of “Corridor 84 + Krimson Coda.” In one review of the album (that I really loved), the first piece was described as sounding like “spiders knitting” and that it had a “hippie flute part” in one section. This piece is a variation on Robert’s “The Eye of the Needle,” one of the Guitar Craft Themes. I should add that all Guitar Craft music is written for guitar in New Standard Tuning (C-G-D-A-E- G). The original is a beautiful tune using major and minor chords The opening riff is in 16th notes in a 13/4 time signature. I found that when I played this opening riff on one of my guitars in Standard Tuning, these major and minor chords all of a sudden became whole tone and pentatonic tonalities. Very cool.
The other piece is based upon a riff that Robert showed us in Mexico that went back and forth between 11/8 and 13/8 time signatures and then flipped around, using exactly the same 24 notes, into a 6/4 time signature. I called the first rhythm “crooked” and the second one “straight.” When Tilted Axes workshops new material, we do so with a small group of us recall Tilt Core. I introduced these two riffs to the group as studies to get us out of that 4/4 time signature rut. I loved what I heard. So, while Robert’s shapes and rhythms stay the same, I put in my own pitches. From these two new things, I developed two new pieces developed and they became a part of our repertoire.
When it came time to record the album, these pieces developed even further in the studio. The “hippie flute part” is actually two guitars playing a whole tone canon in which I’m slowly opening and closing a cut-off filter. This took a lot of the twang out of the tone and gave it a very woodwind-like sound. That’s just an example of how these pieces we performed live would get augmented in the studio. Now, the trick will be to see how can we create this live. Thankfully we have the support of Electro-Harmonix so a future solution is never far away.
Since I have had experience in music publishing and handle enough of my own publishing over the years, it wasn’t difficult to organize the rights. I was happy that Robert was open to the idea and so he kicked me over to Discipline Global Mobile to work out the details. Though I have developed these themes into directions that have little to do with the originals, I think that the care, love, and respect I have for the original work comes through.
Over the years, you were a part of different projects. What kind of progress does Tilted Axes represent for you as a musician?
This project has come to mean a lot to me for a number of reasons. It has enabled me to grow in a number of ways and in a number of directions that I haven’t been able to previously. Most of all, I would say that it represents a crystallization of everything that I’ve done up until this point. This can be seen in the way that it incorporates not only so many different types of music, but also credibly draws in elements from the other arts. In a way I can say that this project has formed a wonderful umbrella under which all of my interests can coexist.
At the same time, it opens up a lot of new doors that were previously not there. Tilted Axes can take on many forms depending upon the situation and still remain true to itself. I think that every musician wants to have as many options as possible in which the integrity of their project, or band, is not compromised. With this project I can take it into the rock world, into the classical world, or into the realm of film and theater with equal ease. We are all very happy that the album has received the attention and the acclaim that it has. Perhaps not surprisingly, this is been coming from all directions. The album itself, being a sort of theme and variations, has meant that there’s at least one track on it that is bound to appeal to somebody no matter what their personal background. This was not a calculated move, it is just who I am, it is just who we are, is just what the project is about.
There are always some people who say the album might be more successful if it had vocals and lyrics. I don’t agree with that. Not only do I love instrumental music, this has enabled the project to be as universal as possible across a wide range of styles and cultures. Future projects will have a definite concept within which it can reside and resonate, but that’s about as precise as I would like to get with this work. For now.
Does this project have a future, and what is it like? Do you plan on releasing new music? Do you have any touring plans?
I certainly hope that it does have a future because we are already making plans! In much of my previous work, I’ve integrated elements of science and drew upon that for inspiration in finding new forms and narratives. Because Tilted Axes has, in a way, astronomical origins, I would like to bring that element back into the picture. We have already performed inside of museums and I think a natural leap would be to start creating music for planetariums. No, not in the Pink Floyd laser light show kind of way, but something new, even though we would be incorporating some use of film.
Those who know my music know I’m found of odd meters and rhythms. I hade to dial that back a bit on “Tilted Axes: Music for Mobile Electric Guitars.” I mean, since most of that music is procession-based, it had to be mostly in 4/4 time signature. You can count on the rhythms getting more on the newer work. However, I’ll never totally abandon 4/4 because, after all, I am from Motown, and the groove is in my blood.
One of the good things about having our new album out now is that it gives us the opportunity to let it run its course while we make plans and work on new things. We will be doing an appearance at the New York City Village Halloween Parade and that will be a good promotion for the group, the new album, and for our sponsors and supporters. Vox amps who have been there for us for quite a while now. Their mini-amps sound great and add so much to our mobile performances. So, that will be an audience of close to 250,000 people and that’s not even counting the TV broadcast. We’re stoked!
In the meantime, I am looking at three notebooks here that are full of handwritten new music and charts for us to begin recording demos of and to rehearse. That’s the cool thing about having the album out right now, it lets people hear the music while you’re getting ready to put out something new. That has its own arc. I already have almost a half an hour of new tracks ready to mix and master but I’ll need a few more to create an album. Before that, I also have a full album of other music of mine, separate from Tilted Axes’work, that needs to get out. Not all of that is a electric guitar-based, much of it uses electronics and orchestral instruments as well. Consider that to be Electro-Acoustic ChamberPunk. Yeah, that’s what I’d call it.
One thing I did learn from the release of the Tilted Axes’ album is that any new releases don’t have to be that long. I knew that I was asking a lot from the listener in providing 75 min. worth of music but, that was simply the size of this set and I didn’t want to break it up. I mean, that’s just a little less than a short feature movie would last. In duration, that’s as long as our live show. Since these are instrumentals and don’t have vocals and lyrics, another challenge to mention is that, as composer and producer, I had to keep each and every minute of the album as interesting as possible. This meant that a constant flow of new ideas had to keep happening. Even if a section is repeated, like a chorus, there always had to be some new element that was added to sustain interest. These new recordings use that same philosophy, and hopefully, will be done just a little bit better. I could say that on many levels the current Tilted Axes album is the best thing I’ve ever done, that I’ve ever been a part of. I give a lot of that credit to the performers. Even so, that means that the bar has been raised and that there is something for us to live up to. I believe we can.
The concept of touring is a tricky one for us. Like I said, Tilted Axes is part project and part band. The sheer size of even the smallest incarnation, Tilt Core, is still bigger than most groups. I subscribe to the theory of “the magic number 7 plus or minus 2.” That’s how Tilt Core operates. The larger tilts that we have done have been based in New York because I live here, and the other ones that have taken place in other cities and other countries, have relied upon large festivals that could make it possible.
Since the release of the new album, a number of very cool offers from festivals near and far have been coming in for 2017. I hope that in the coming year I can create a Tilted Axes event somewhere near your readers and include as many local musicians as possible. That is when we sound our best, when we can bring in the distinct flavor of local musicians. So keep your eyes and ears open. Not just for Tilted Axes, that’s just good advice.
Cover photo by Jocelyn Gonzales