This installment of Blues, News & Views is a little different. I’m writing about a project I performed in a few weeks ago here in Detroit. Tilted Axes – 30 mobile guitars!! You may ask what does that mean? Well it’s a project conceived by guitarist/composer Patrick Grant. Patrick is originally from Detroit and our bands shared gigs together many years ago. Patrick writes and arranges music to be performed by 30 or more electric guitars in motion …

Howard Glazer: Blues, Views & News from Detroit #3

We walked through the streets of Detroit while performing. Each guitarist has a battery powered amplifier over their shoulder, we started at The Detroit Historical Museum and proceeded to many key locations in the Wayne State University area and ended up at Comerica Park performing at the entrance of a Detroit Tigers Baseball Game. Patrick’s music encompasses many styles of music not just, but including blues. It’s really something to see & hear and in September he will be bringing it to Germany!

Patrick Grant is a Detroit-born American composer and performer living and working in New York City. His works are a synthesis of classical, popular, and world musical styles that have found place in concert halls, film, theater, dance, and visual media over three continents. Over the last three decades, his music has moved from post-punk and classically bent post-minimal styles, through Balinese-inspired gamelan and microtonality, to ambient, electronic soundscapes involving many layers of acoustic and electronically amplified instruments. Throughout its evolution, his music has consistently contained „…a driving and rather harsh energy redolent of rock, as well as a clean sense of melodicism…intricate cross-rhythms rarely let up…“ Known as a producer and co-producer of live musical events, he has presented many concerts of his own and other composers, including a 2013 Guinness World Record-breaking performance of 175 electronic keyboards in NYC. He is the creator of International Strange Music Day (August 24) and the pioneer of the electric guitar procession Tilted Axes. 

HG: Many years ago…(the 1980’s) you were in Walk Thru Walls…and I was in What If Thinking and we did several gigs together. Can you please give us a brief bio about yourself? (I am sure that a lot has gone on in your musical career since those days, music studies, groups, etc.)

PG: Yes indeed, we shared the same stage many years ago and here we are now. Briefly, I was a Detroit kid who studied classical music by day (piano and violin) and played in bands by night for chump change (guitar & keyboard). I liked the immediacy of playing in a band: a song or jam created that day could be presented to the public that night. There was a certain do-it-yourself attitude of the early 80s that I liked that I carry with me to this day. I also played in a band called Changing Bodies that, after some local success, decided to move to New York City. The band fell apart almost immediately. I loved the city and decided to stay and pursue new experiences, mostly because a lot of musical heroes of mine were right there and accessible.

I played in a couple of bands, refining my rock and blues chops but also developed my scoring and arranging ability by going to the Juilliard School. At the time, the East Village was a hot bed of all kinds of creativity so I was naturally drawn there. It was quite an education in music of all sorts, visual arts, and especially theater and performance. I took a job as composer for the world famous avant-garde Living Theatre. One of the benefits of this position was that after hours, I had a space to myself in which to present concerts of all kinds of music. Cutting edge theater like that has always been a passion of mine since any kind of music could be used, Blues, Rock, Jazz, Contemporary, Electronic, etc. It was the perfect outlet for all that I wanted to do and, above all, it was done live.

The rhythms of world music called me too. In the 90s I spent a lot of time in Bali and in NYC-based gamelans (metal percussion ensembles). I found the 5-tone scales and percolating syncopations really useful when applied to our root music.
From that time, up until the present, I found myself creating and producing a number of concert series and musical events. This came from my experience in theater and related arts. I still have a bit of P.T. Barnum in me: “All the public wants to see is something they’ve never seen before.” I’ve always been grateful that in my NYC experience I’ve had some really great mentors. You can’t beat that.

HG: Tilted Axes….30 plus mobile electric guitars…..quite a concept…what made you think of this (what led up to the idea, what other projects were you working on, etc.)?

PG: Being that I have a reputation for creating events, in 2011 I was asked by Make Music New York to come up with an idea for an outdoor, roving performance to celebrate the winter solstice. The idea of an electric guitar procession had always been in my mind and now came the opportunity. It’s because of the axial tilt of the Earth we have seasons and that’s the origin of the project’s name, that and the obvious play on the word “axes.” We’re so used to the electric guitar being tethered to the stage via amplifiers that it would be a first to free them up through the use of mini-amps that the performer would where. First we tried Danelectro HoneyTones, then Mini-Marshalls and Pignose 7-100s, but have finally settled on Vox Mini 3 G2’s. They’re our amp of choice and they make our soloists sound great.

Conceptually and musically, the project plays upon the electric guitar as an American Icon because that’s exactly what it is. It is arguably the most American of all musical instruments, everything else coming from Europe or elsewhere, no matter the style. As such, the repertoire I’ve been creating for the group draws from the styles most associated with the instrument, Blues, Jazz, and Rock, and especially a few that are not associated with it, Classical, Contemporary, and Avant-Garde. It’s when these unlikely elements are combined, with featured soloists from each genre performing together, that we it gets its distinctive sound.

I favor the word “procession” over “parade,” which is what a lot of people call it out of convenience. For me, a procession shows a deeper intent and purpose, it’s not just fun, but there’s something deeper beyond the surface if someone looks and listens. It raises questions and that’s good. Also it has the benefit of mobility. In a sense it can be seen as a peaceful form of guerilla-theater. Most musicians worry about people showing up to their gig. We don’t have that problem. We can go to where the people are: indoors, outdoors, it doesn’t matter. What does matter is the smiles that break out upon the faces of the people who weren’t suspecting us to show up. They’re my favorite audience ever.

HG: My column is primarily Blues related, I know that some of the pieces in Tilted Axes such as Beaubien Blues, are blues based. Can you speak to how the blues influenced you and how it fits into your compositions?

PG: In 2000, I spearheaded the compositional element of a project between arts schools in New York, Stockholm, Sweden, and Shanghai China. This was for a large scale project in which each of these three partners would research their own culture’s root music and bring that to the table. Representing the USA, our root music is a combination of Black and European cultures and the hybrid styles they created. These are Blues, Jazz, Rock, Folk/Country, and the music hall that came out of Vaudeville. My mentors on this project were Quincy Jones and Billy Joel. That was one of the best educations especially when delving into the deep origins of the Blues. In that sense, any American musician can say they have one foot in Africa, that’s the real origin. As a result, no matter what I’m working on, I find these elements creeping in, and naturally so, because that’s who we are. Tilted Axes is a great opportunity for this.

HG: You have done Tilted Axes in Detroit more than once and now it goes to Germany. When and where will you perform in Germany? Have you performed with the mobile guitar concept anywhere else?

PG: I’m very happy about that. What began as a local project (NYC) became a national project through Detroit. I always wanted to break it out of NYC and I figured that my hometown was the best place to try it out. It worked. Now other cities in the USA want to talk about the possibility of doing one there. I have friends in Germany who I’ve know through my theater and concert work there. They’ve watched this project grow and, now that they’re celebrating the anniversary of their organization in Düsseldorf, want to bring the project there. Now, it’s becoming an international project. What excites me most is how the project is adaptable to different circumstances, cities, players, the lot. Every incarnation of Tilted Axes is specific to the time and place it’s being performed. Germany will be no exception. I always write some new pieces for every incarnation and will do so for this one too. In the past, I’ve liked being on tour throughout Europe because different pieces would get different reactions in different countries. It’s a great way of learning what, beyond these different reactions, is universal to each piece at its core. I look forward to the input of the German musicians and see what they will bring into the mix.

HG: When and where in Germany will Tilted Axes be performed?

PG: The performance date in Dusseldorf is September 13th. No specific location since it‘s a procession in the streets

HG: There is still an obvious connection to Detroit, in the most recent Tilted Axes performance, many of the song titles had Detroit references, can you talk about the connections between Detroit and the other places you perform such as NY, I know that there is a big connection between The Detroit music scene and Germany, especially in Berlin.

PG: Perhaps it is because I am a Detroit native that will always be the case. Even in NYC, I retain a certain Detroit-ness that sets me and the other Detroit born musicians here apart. I try to explain to people that it is because of the sheer geography of Detroit’s location, we’re right across the river from Canada and that influence is more apparent to a Detroiter if they go away for a while. While the Delta Blues remained pure in many aspects, the Blues and R&B of Detroit was influenced by the European sounds filtered through Canada. My guess is that’s why music there was so willing to add strings and horns to their arrangements. It also opened the door for more than three chords. In a sense, I just described how the Motown sound came to be.

As far as Germany goes, there’s been a kinship there for a number of reasons. First, Michigan had a huge German population way before the car companies came into being. Historically, most of the agriculture in Michigan was handled by German immigrants. We share many cousins, I’m sure. Another reason is that we became huge industrial centers. Detroit is also the birthplace of Techno. I believe that it’s a result of our industrialization. Even when we in our 80s bands, we had no problem making music with machines while other cities struggled with that very concept. No surprise that Germany picked up on this aesthetic almost immediately. Isn’t interesting that much of the best music in this style uses pentatonic scales?

As for Berlin, I love that city, ever since my first performances there in 1990. They were still tearing the wall down. My hope is that should Tilted Axes: Düsseldorf go well, that it opens the doors for Amsterdam, Vienna, and Berlin.

Now, I’m entering into discussions regarding future projects with São Paulo this week. Who knows? Maybe they’re ready for an artsy electric guitar project based on American root music as seen through the ears of a native Detroiter too. Fingers crossed.