Earmark with Patrick McGraw

March 22, 2017

Earlier this year I was at the Tranzac for an event, and afterwards went out for sushi with Patrick McGraw and a mutual friend. We were walking to the nearest subway station at the end of our night, and in the midst of a conversation Patrick said—in an entirely sincere voice—“It is a lot easier being a raccoon in Toronto than being an artist.” We had a pretty good belly laugh at the comment, but I have been reflecting on Patrick’s statement since then. I can see where he’s coming from.

Patrick arrived at composition as a career later in life (after initially pursuing physics). In this conversation he shares some early musical memories, and a few ways that two of his worlds (physics and music) are colliding in his current practice.

Canadian Music Centre: What got you excited about music at a young age?

Patrick McGraw: As a small child, I heard a mixture of classical and folk music around the house. Once a year we would break out the Christmas records, including some Czech ones from my mother's background, and that most musical season probably had a disproportionate impact. A bit later I remember being blown away when I heard Dvořák's symphonies for the first time. They triggered almost synesthetic images of moving shapes and words and numbers, and soon I could hum just about every bar. I had strikingly little interest in any rock or pop until it suddenly burst into my awareness in high school, leading eventually to the post-punk and early Goth music that had a lasting influence on my outlook. As far as being a composer--- When I started learning the clarinet in grade 3, I liked to write my own tunes, which I always imagined as being orchestrated. I went through adolescence with a nearly unbearable churning of inchoate seething music in my head wanting out. The first composition to really reflect my own imagination successfully I would date to the electronic music class I took as an undergraduate physics major, but it took years of struggle to decide at last that music more than science would be my creative outlet, or even that I had a right to choose that. Perhaps that sonic magma needed to cool just enough to allow me to shape it.

CMC: What was the most important music concert/event you attended?

PM: Hard to say. A series of intimate performances by the Cleveland-based Cavani String Quartet was probably as responsible as anything else for infecting me with the spirit of chamber music. But some of my experiences playing in groups were more formative than concerts I attended as audience.

CMC: What is on your personal playlist?

PM: At the moment, I've been listening to Murray Schafer's string quartets, but Bauhaus, Joy Division and the like are perennially resurfacing. You may seldom hear this kind of starkness in my own work but somehow it's always in the background.

CMC: How do you define your musical/artistic community?

PM: That's potentially a loaded question: Who's in and who's out? I really appreciate the supportive new music community of Toronto and environs that I consider home, but of course that is one of a number of overlapping layers.

CMC: Tell me about a project/work of yours that you are particularly proud of.

PM: The piece I wrote for Jesse Clark and the Toy Piano Composers Ensemble in 2015 is one of my more tightly constructed scores, with self-imposed constraints inspired by the subject matter. Part of an effort to reconcile the two interests that have shaped my life, I wanted a piece that was playful and not too academic-sounding while sincerely expressing what had always appealed to me about physics: this idea of a mathematical order that lies below the surface but is there if you seek it. Setting research papers to be sung was a thought-provoking challenge--- bringing out the drama in what might seem impenetrable writing; editing for musical tractability while preserving the essential narrative. I began to hear distinct authorial voices in the apparently driest of prose.

Check the CMC community page regularly for more composer profiles! To learn more about Patrick you can visit his soundcloud page.