Rocking in the Streets
The pioneer of the electric guitar procession brings the phenomenon home to Detroit
Published: March 13, 2013
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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