A Year of Februaries

I was sitting in with my dad’s pinochle game some years back when the animated conversation reached a bit of a lull, I chimed in asking Les Grollnick, a retired newspaper editor, what his son Don was up to. Don, kind of a legend in popular music, had followed up being Linda Ronstadt’s musical director with doing the same for none other than James Taylor. “Donnie’s woodshedding,” Les replied. Although I was no stranger to the music world – I had written reviews for Bruce Springsteen and even the likes of Genesis and the Who – I had never come across the term woodshedding before, so I took the bait. “Woodshedding is when a musician turns away from the outside world and settles in to write and arrange. They traditionally do this in February.” “Why,” I asked, “because it’s the shortest month and they’re loath to do it?” “No,” he responded, “because there isn’t much touring to be had; the holiday gigs are over, so it’s a time to catch up in the home studio and get work done.”

Please take note, this article is not about Don Grollnick or Bruce Springsteen or for that matter pinochle. It is intended to give you a look at a very gifted and creative composer – Keith Patchel. I have been familiar with Keith for many years, a journeyman guitarist who has backed up Richard Lloyd and was one of 200-plus musicians who were part of Rhys Chatham’s Lincoln Center extravaganza Crimson Grail in 2009. Keith himself has penned a great deal of work including film scores and performance pieces. We randomly met up for coffee in the West Village, and when he filled me in on his latest work, it became clear that an interview and in-depth profile were in order.

First, he related the story of a live performance that had gone down the previous Saturday night on the Lower East Side. I asked him how it went. “It was great; we played a MarsBand performance at the Ludlow House, which is part of the Soho House. I’m working with Dr. Paul Sutter who is a renowned astrophysicist on faculty at SUNY Stony Brook, so it’s sort of a science/entertainment package, but very interesting. I’m doing this combination of live music with Paul talking to us narrating a space talk, if you will, and it’s all synchronized with a movie that we created. So it’s a structured improvisation. I’m calling it AstroVisual Music, but it’s a multimedia, multi-genre of live music, film. and a narration of where we are in space and time. This one focused primarily on the solar system and some of the aspects of the moons of Jupiter. We have plans to keep expanding this as well. It’s a very exciting thing to do. It just felt so good to perform this live, and it was very well received by the audience. I was very pleased.

Composer Keith Patchel

“I am accompanying Paul live with my laptop acting as my orchestra, so I have many different sounds and prerecorded segments that I am interacting with. Imagine a piano concerto, an old fashioned piano concerto, where you have your orchestra, and then you have your piano soloist. So in the live environment, I am taking on the role of the soloist, but I am continuously mixing and changing the combinations and relationships of the backing that I am playing with and the actual sounds that the piano is playing. The keyboard is more like a controller. It can sound like a harp; it can sound like any of the instruments of the orchestra.” 

We know you as a composer, but should we also think of you as a guitarist?

“As we go further with this, I am planning to use guitar, but as of right now, the initial phase one, I am focusing on playing the keyboard. We need this particular instrument because it ties into the computer. Right now, I am the band.”

Can you tell me more about the visual component?

“Paul has made a movie drawing on NASA footage, astronomical footage, and he edited it together as a really beautiful and compelling film that is projected on one wall of the performance space from his laptop through an HDMI projector.”

Have you explored any Eternal or what we would call Sacred Mathematics that joins our universe or incorporated any of this into your compositions? 

“Structures, yes, very much so. I got acquainted with Paul by reading one of his books, so I very much wanted to meet him. The music, some of the computational structure, is based on ratios, vertical and horizontal ratios, that are used to create a very unique sound structure, to create what I would call my own language that I’ve used over the past seven or eight years. I was doing some experimentation at the Museum of Natural History and did some performances up there. It gave me time to look around and think about a lot of things. It’s kind of medieval and alchemistic, the notion of science/math, the music of the spheres, reinterpreted by myself. It’s my particular take on it with an astrovisual slant.

“We did a MarsBand performance on February 3 on Zoom for the Boston Museum of Science, https://youtu.be/AD49ETSi1kQ. It was very well received; we had about 800 or 900 people viewing. For a first show, it was a very, very good result. We are talking about doing more work with them as well.

“I have been painting abstract work, which has informed my musical composition and also developing musical education software for kids. I am continuously composing music, plus painting, so I am always busy doing something. There is always something new to do. I have also started doing one-minute videos for TikTok for people learning how to play the guitar. Kind of a public service, just to put out some of my experience to help people.

“When I was in London, I was working with a producer named David Young who had done a lot of work with John Cale. I thought of myself as a really good guitarist, and I could play a lot of people’s music. I had my own band, but a lot of people were asking me to back them up as well. And I met Richard Lloyd through a guy named Joe Bidwell who had been John Cale’s keyboard player. Joe wanted to do his own thing, and I started playing with him. That’s how I met Richard. It didn’t last very long as they all had different ideas of where it was going, but Richard asked me to play with him.”

Can you reflect back of the events of 2020 and tell me how they affected your work?

“The last year has been solitary, though I’ve been very fortunate, as I have gotten a lot of work done. I’m always composing music as well as developing my start-up music-education software that is taking some interesting turns. I completed a National Science Foundation accelerated program in the fall and was green lighted to apply for a very large SBIR [Small Business Innovation Research] grant, I don’t know if I’ll get it and won’t know for several more months, but that has all been in process. Yes, it has been a solitary year, but I’ve managed to play some improvised jazz with friends of mine. There was a place out in Brooklyn that was open for a while, and we would get together and play there. I’ve also been giving lessons on Zoom. You’ve got to adapt, but I, like everyone, would like to come out into the world and play live music again.

“I have spent most of the last year alone at home working on things. It’s been a strange year, but I have also been very fortunate that I could stay healthy and get a lot of work done. I read several very deep music theory books that I have put off for some time, since I had the time to finally get to them. That has been kind of a beautiful blessing.”

I found the score to the Pluto Symphony to be surprisingly lyrical.

“I thought about this long and hard – I want to write music that reaches people. I want to write music that connects them to the visual experience that they are having. I’m creating music in this genre that I am calling AstroVisual Music that is related to what you are seeing and what you are feeling, the sense of majesty, timelessness, and vast, vast distances. That planet Earth is a minute speck in the galaxy, but our lives are very big and important to us. Powers of ten and powers of a thousand. I want to encourage people to embrace their humanity, I’m always filled with a sense of wonder when I look up at the sky at night. It is a very meditative and beautiful experience.

“Modern music is so very many things right now, so much more than Stravinsky and Schoenberg, Well, I can put it this way. I wanted to make a style of music that is not difficult for a person to absorb. The music is quite complex, but I always try to keep it lyrical.

“I’ve always tried to be very open minded about my influences. I’ve always loved classical music. I have a master’s degree in music theory and composition, classical guitar, and electronic music. I was just very open to looking at a lot of things. I did come up in an era when you had to be in one camp or another; you could only be into one. You couldn’t be a true punk rocker if you were into classical or electronic music, and I always shrugged my shoulders and said alright, let’s see. I think my intuition guided me in the right direction where today everything is a multiplexing of diverse musical styles and combinations feeding the creative process. My approach has always been eclectic.”

Where do you see yourself in five years? 

“Well, I see myself doing what I am doing now, but even more so – doing more with the MarsBand, working with my music-education interactive-software Plinkout, and continuing with my abstract painting. These are all things that keep me intensely happy, and I consider myself a very lucky man.”

Thank you Keith, I absolutely cannot wait to see the next MarsBand performance.

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