Rocking in the Streets
The pioneer of the electric guitar procession brings the phenomenon home to Detroit
Published: March 13, 2013
“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.”
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