“I see Tilted Axes as a form of secular ceremony”

Tilted Axes’ studio album “Music for Mobile Guitars” brings together compositions by Patrick Grant for the collective. Tilted Axes performs in processions of musicians through the streets of a city or a major building. We spoke to Grant about what Tilted Axes is all about, why he sees J.S. Bach as his main inspiration and how gamelan music has influenced his compositions for electric guitar.

An interview with Tilted Axes’ Patrick Grant

Jordan Smith: I enjoyed reading about Tilted Axes’ aim of taking the electric guitar away from the stage and creating music outside the structure of a normal band. How did the idea for this emerge? Were you inspired by any other musicians?

Patrick Grant
Patrick Grant of Tilted Axes

Patrick Grant: What can I say that I haven’t already said? The Tilted Axes project is a culmination of many things I’ve been doing over the years: event production, street theater, classical music, world music, graphic image, and is informed by the circumstance and place in which it is performed. I sometimes joke that it is a kind of performer’s revenge: Instead of putting on a show and hoping that an audience shows up, why not find a way to take the show to where there’s already thousands of people? There may be a lot of truth behind that jest.

So, while it’s not a normal band, it is a structure. There are core players but many come and go depending on availability and location. The structure thrives upon the different players contributing their individual music voices to the overall sound of the ensemble and the music I compose for it. In a lot of ways, many of the pieces are like baroque music: there may be a melody and a bass line, but the musicians are encourage to fill in the harmonies with monophonic lines, no strumming unless called for. In this way it functions like figured bass. I love the some of numerous melodies and countermelodies intertwining to create the sound of the whole. It’s an apt metaphor for how the world can work when it’s at its best. We do not have lyrics so much of that is implied.

As for musical inspiration, I’d have to say Bach and any other composers from any place and any era that composed music for ceremony. I see Tilted Axes as a form of secular ceremony. Some events are serious, some are just-for-the-joy-of-it convivial, but our intention is ceremonial. That’s why we call what we do “processions” and never “parades.” The difference? Intention.

I also cite Bach because it presents a layer of commonality amongst all the players. While we may come from different backgrounds, on Bach we can agree and it’s a good place to begin. 20th century composer Maurizio Kagel wrote a piece called “The St. Bach Passion.” When asked why did he call it that, he replied, something like, “While not all musicians may believe in God, they all do believe in Bach.” That resonated with me and has stuck to this day. Sure, we take it different places, but having a common starting point is a big part in projects of this scope and diversity.

JS: Where have been the most exciting places to perform a Tilted Axes event? Do you have any special memories in particular?

PG: I like performing inside museums. The uncertainty of the weather in any out door event is always a cause for concern. In museums, we have the room and the number of public to do what we do, plus the sound of these vast spaces and the visual inspiration cannot be beat. This has been done as a combination of in and out of door locations. It’s a great way to find and lead a public around. You’d be surprised how many people like to tag along. Eventually, I would like to add planetariums to this list. That has been a focus in the creation of upcoming work. Many of my works incorporate programmatic elements found in science and this would be a natural evolution.

It’s hard for me to pinpoint any exact favorite memories from past performances. The way that the repertoire sounds different when played by guest musicians in different cities, from different cultures, makes me feel that we’re doing something right. This may sound like a contradiction but it helps to refine what is truly universal in the project but incorporating as many different interpretations as possible. It’s a process.

JS: How have audiences responded to Tilted Axes’ performances?

PG: That one can never predict but we have notice certain reactions that keep popping up no matter the time and place. First of all, there is usually far more people that don’t know that Tilted Axes will be taking to the streets than there are those who do. There is that element of surprise. No, we are not a flashmob, let’s get that straight. We are however a concert that you didn’t know was going to happen. In motion. The response from the public is mostly one of joy. Many people begin dancing and bopping along. There has even been instances when an inspiring rapper will jump up with a freestyle that cracks us up. Genius, really. I’m at my happiest when surprises like this come our way, too. That’s the thing about the street: you can never predict what is going to happen out there. But that’s an exciting aspect of it. Sure, there’s always a few grumpy folks who are like, “Oh man, I don’t need this right now,” but I get the feeling that they’d be feeling that way whether we were there or not. A very small percent like that. You can tell by the faces of the people. And, the more “non-street” the music is, like our more classical numbers, the greater response because that’s even more incongruous and unexpected.

JS: I noticed you draw on gamelan music in your compositions. Could you say a bit about this and any other styles you find particularly inspiring for Tilted Axes?

PG: That has been a big part of my formation. I have been to Bali on three separate occasions to study the gamelan, the indigenous percussion orchestra of Indonesia. All of the instruments are bronzed-keyed metallophones of varying sizes held together by tuned gongs and percussion. My teacher was I Wayan Lantir, the son of Grindem, who was the teacher of Colin McPhee, the Canadian composer and ethnomusicologist largely responsible for bringing Balinese gamelan to the world’s attention in the 1930s. This work continued in NYC with Gamelan Son of Lion, a new music gamelan that has been around since the 1970s. Many new music composers have been through their ranks and they’re still creating and presenting music.

What I found (and find) fascinating about Balinese gamelan is that it is a 20th century music created in the 1920s and 1930s. That means it is different than the traditional gamelan music of the Javanese courts much in the same way that our jazz is different than European classical even though the instruments are the same. Balinese music is much more syncopated and lively that the Javanese. I love it. One of the techniques that I continue to use is that of kotekan, or what we would call hocketing, the distribution of a single melodic line amongst two or more players. It’s a monophonic way of suggesting polyphony. In many ways, Tilted Axes has been my way of creating a gamelan with guitars. There is still much more I can bring in along those lines.

There’s two other things to consider, too. The structure of gamelan music, Balinese or Javanese, is similar to that of fractals. That is, it is to a large extent self-similar and self described. If you know the core melody, you can extrapolate the melodic branches and ornamental flowers that will naturally grow from that root. When I first began studies in gamelan I was also interested in fractal music so it was a natural move. Science again.

And of course there’s ceremony. The Balinese day is full of them, big and small. For each one there is an accompanying music that goes with it. There are also ceremonial street processions there done with handheld instruments and gongs of different pitches carried on poles. I see this as another Tilted influence.

Tilted Axes album cover
Tilted Axes album cover

JS: What has been the response to the album? Do you plan to make more studio recordings of Tilted Axes’ tracks?

PG: Myself, and the whole group, could not be happier with the response the album has received. Never have I had a project so well documented by the press. It’s been a bit surprising actually, but we’ll take it. More than a couple reviewers called us “Music for Mobile Guitars,” without “Electric” in the title. That sort of missed the point but we still got high approval ratings. That was cool because until you put something out into the world, you’re never really sure what you’ve got.

When we were creating the album, my primary aim was to be sincere to the music. There is some genre hopping going on, that’s the nature of variations, but nothing is a goof. It’s for real. More than that, I’m glad that so many writers saw beyond the patina of “electric guitar” and understood the music. I thank the many savvy writers out there who truly listened.

Yes, there are numerous rock influences on the album, but it is all held together with classical rigor and input from non-pop sources. Ten years ago I would have said that I was a contemporary composer whose work is influenced by popular music. Now, I’d rather say the opposite: I’m a rock musician influenced by his classical training.

And the benefits of that reversal of outlook? I’ve found that the rock audiences are more open to classical influence than classical audiences are to rock influences. That’s not true across the board but it holds true internationally. Plus the listening audience is ten times bigger, more fun, and in many ways, more inclusive. Not that the music is any different, I’ve just placed it somewhere else. It’s an experiment that is working. Now that I have my feet placed squarely in these two different worlds, future work will be able to swing bay and forth between the two more easily. I hope.

Yes, new Tilted Axes works and repertoire are being created and recorded for 2017. Expect crunchier time signatures, more complicated structures, and a good mix of serialism balanced with clear melodic riffs done as polyphonically as possible. That’s where it begins.

JS: Where is Tilted Axes going next?

PG: We’ve been getting a number of small offers but we’re a big organization. An event has to be of a certain critical mass for it to work. That holds true whether we perform as a full blown Tilt of 24 musicians, or function as Tilt Core with approximately 7 to 9 of us. As of this interview, it’s best we finish the recordings already begun and plan ahead for 2017.

In the new year, there are a number of festivals that we’ve been invited to and some other large scale events we planning ourselves. We’re always open to ideas from host cities and organizations. Creating music tailored to specific events is one of the things we do well. We say: Tilted Axes works best when it’s a part of something bigger than itself. Still, it’s great to have a project that can take on so many shapes as need be. One thing we have going for us, so far, is that we’re the only mobile electric guitar ensemble out there. At the moment there’s no competition. However, I have a nagging suspicion that, given the success and visibility of this project, that’s about to change. No problem. We’ll just have to keep, figuratively and literally, one step ahead. That’s what we do.

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