Hip-Hop Aqualung: Greg Pattillo
Written by Bwog Staff
Lerner Hall will be presenting a series of free concerts throughout the school year as part of their Live at Lerner concert series. Earlier today, Greg Pattillo, famous beatboxing flautist, performed with his ensemble PROJECT Trio. Bwog sat down with Greg for a brief interview, asking him about how PROJECT Trio got started, his own musical background, and even his stint on iCarly.
Bwog: Beatboxing Flute music is a pretty specific style. Did you start with an interest in flute or in beatboxing? And how did your music evolve into what it is today?
Greg Pattillo: I started music in the 4th grade as part of my public school music program in Seattle, Washington. I quickly found a private flute teacher, and was ushered into the realm of classical music through the Seattle Youth Symphony Orchestra and local music competitions and adjudications. It wasn’t until I joined my high school jazz band that I started getting into non-classical music. When I enrolled in Conservatory, the curriculum was entirely classical, and all of my non-classical experience was built “after hours” through jam sessions and late night hangs. My non-classical directions were at first jazz, then emulating classic rock guitars, and then bluegrass mandolin idioms. As I tried to enter the professional realm, after graduating with a Masters degree in flute performance from the Cleveland Institute of Music, I was forced to seek out more styles so I could find more work!
I eventually found a voice with beatboxing combined with flute playing through my work with poets in San Francisco. Rhythmic idioms worked well with the spoken word, and I was seeking a less lyrical approach to accompanying the poems. I had only a few beatbox sounds at first, just enough to keep a backbeat. But I was committed topracticing and learning as much as could from the beatboxers around me. By the time I moved to NYC 6 years ago, I was full on experimenting with blending flute pieces and complicated beatbox lines while busking in the subway. Those arrangements were the ones that people payed attention to the most, and so that was the style that I spent more and more time developing.
Bwog: Who are your favorite musicians and how have they influenced your music?
Pattillo: My Conservatory teacher, Joshua Smith, must be mentioned at the top of my list of musical influences. He is the Principal Flute of the Cleveland Orchestra, and although I am not exactly well known for my classical stylings, his guidance was instrumental in shaping my ear, musical expectations, and a work ethic that is invaluable as a professional musician. He is not only an incredible educator, but also an amazing performer. Each week the students were able to get free tickets to hear the orchestra, and I was able to see countless concerts where he blew down the rep with jaw dropping beauty, sensitivity and detail.
In the non-classical realm, Rahsaan Roland Kirk is perhaps my favorite flutist (famous for multiphonics on the flute, as well as playing three saxes at the same time!), along with Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull (Rock Flute!) and Herbie Mann (classic jazz flute). Kirk opened my eyes to the sonic possibilities of the flute, Anderson showed me how hard the flute can rock, and Mann had a fresh be-bop sound that eventually blended with groove based rock idioms of the 60’s-70’s (live at the village vangard is a great example and so is his work with Duane Allman from the Allman brothers band).
Bwog: What do you think it takes to be a good musician?
Pattillo: A love for music and a willingness to confront your shortcomings with daily focused practicing. If the love isn’t there, one will never take the time to learn their instrument. If the daily focused practicing can’t be achieved, then neither can the growth needed to make your music mean something.
Bwog: What was it like being the principal flute for the Guangzhou Sympathy Orchestra?
Pattillo: I spent the summer of ’02 in Guangzhou as the Acting Principle Flutist of the Guangzhou Symphony Orchestra. It was a whirlwind trip that still to this day boggles my mind: I was basically smuggled into the country to work without a visa, given less than a week advance notice that I had the job, completely illiterate and unable to communicate with most of my colleagues (I don’t speak Chinese, and most didn’t speak English – rehearsals were held in Chinese) and put in an apartment where my roommate was stuck having to take care of me! He was American, so we could understand each other and get along, but I was useless by myself: couldn’t use a cash machine, ride the bus, ask for directions, go to restaurants. It was crazy.
But, we played awesome rep and the experience of being immersed in a foreign culture is amazing. You really learn a lot about yourself you take for granted in such circumstances. When they offered me the job as a permanent position at the end of the summer I thought long and hard about the opportunity, but in the end turned it down because I wanted a similar job, but back home in the states. I never did win a job back home, and funny enough, my failures as a professional here in the states is what has sent me on the journey towards beatboxing on the flute.
Bwog: How did PROJECT Trio start?
Pattillo: Peter, Eric and I have known each other since our conservatory days. We used to hang out and goof off quite a bit, but never thought we would eventually have our own ensemble. Peter and Eric had spent many summers in Boulder, Co. at the Colorado Music Festival, playing orchestral rep. During their time together they dreamed big about how cool it would be to have an ensemble that one could be vested in emotionally, financially, and with a direction towards performing and educating that could be completely controlled from within. The idea of PROJECT was initially a mobile one, where there would be PROJECT Cleveland, PROJECT NYC, etc, where all our friends from the different areas would come together to give concerts, classes and sweet hangs to excite the community.
By the time the non-profit status came through for this organization, Eric was already out here in NYC and Peter was just ending a stint in Cleveland and realizing he could move home base. We ended up all living in Brooklyn, and the first thing we did was record an album (Winter in June) and decided the PROJECT was now a trio. But, our ideas on community music, education and performance has been a huge focus of our group. Everywhere we travel we end up both performing and educating, and, now we find ourselves in our 5th season, going strong and still with tons of ideas just waited to be released on the public!
Bwog: Project Trio has done a lot for music education. What are your opinions on the state of music education in America today?
Pattillo: Where there is a will, there is a way. Music education varies from district to district, and we have seen some with much, and many with little to no resources available to provide group music education. Instruments are expensive. Education is expensive. Music is one of the first things cut from severe budgetary shortfalls, and we have come across many students who cannot correctly identify what instrument Eric plays (cello!), let alone tell the difference between Bach and Beethoven, or Charlie Parker and John Coltrane. That being the case, we have added to our educational classes options that show how students can learn at home, jam with their friends, write and arrange their own music with out the need for classroom initiative. These classes are supplemental if the students do have school music programs, but stands on their own without, provided that the students have access to instruments.
The state of music education in America today is a mixed bag, but as a general trend, it is most definitely sliding down the slope towards obscurity. On a positive front however,modern technology can step in and lend a hand to cover the deficiencies of the classroom. YouTube offers a way for anyone with a will to find teaching aids, free lessons, sounds on an instrument they couldn’t previously imagine and colleagues from different continents. Digital recording makes it possible to work on tracks and ideas through email, apps offer great knowledge in the music theory arena, and video chat enables communication from anywhere on the globe. The future of music in America is strong, we are a musical nation. But classroom and educational experiences are mired in a funding conundrum, and we might just be witnessing a rebirth of fundamental education platforms and goals over the coming generation.
Bwog: I see you were on an episode of iCarly. How did that come about and what was it like?
Pattillo: iCarly was a fantastic opportunity for me. The producers contacted me for the first season, based on my first youtube videos, and flew me out to hollywood to shoot for the week. I met all of the cast (and their mothers!) and everyone was super cool and nice. That was my first talking role on a television show and I even got a SAG card out of the deal! This all happened before the show had come out, and so I had never heard of it, and didn’t think much about the experience until it finally aired a year later. All of a sudden every kid in America with cable had seen “Sam’s cousin, the one not in jail…” beatbox on the flute. I must admit that I don’t watch the show, but I’m thrilled to be a part of something so mainstream!