Glaciers & Glacial Paces: Sean Curtis Patrick's atmospheric photography & ambient music evoke mysterious beauty
Sean Curtis Patrick is one of Ann Arbor's most multidimensional creatives.
I don't mean to limit him geographically, either; this blog is about Washtenaw-area culture, so I gotta stress Patrick's local connex, but he's really one of the most well-rounded, multidimensional artists I can think of working today, excelling in music, photography, sculpture, film, and whatever other creative pursuits to which he applies his endlessly curious mind.
Even during the COVID-19 quarantine -- where some artistic folks are struggling to do any creative works in this chaotic time -- Patrick has been musically prolific and continues to pursue his photography, pottery, and more.
"A lot has been happening, even though I'm not leaving my house much," Patrick wrote in an email. "I've grown two full beards and then shaved them off during quarantine, so I know some time has gone by."
Patrick is the media design and production lead at the University of Michigan Center for Academic Innovation, and he's made remarkable films, interactive displays, and photos of Greenland's glacial melt. Outside of his day job, Patrick pursues hobbies with the sort of obsessive focus that bespeaks a passion for experience, exploration, innovation, and just living a full and rewarding life, from climbing mountains and riding motorcycles to racing bikes and modifying technology to fulfill his artistic ideas.
During quarantine, Patrick has been releasing a series of EPs and singles that explore ambient music realms, but they feel like extensions of his overall artistic aesthetic and purpose rather than mere background sounds. His is a world of visual wonder, aural invocations, and a desire to live not just as a bystander but as one who dives in and explores our universe and shares those discoveries with anyone who's open to experience all the grandeur, sadness, beauty, and wonder of our Earth, existence, and beyond.
I asked Partick about his creative process during quarantine and how his various artistic pursuits inform one another.
Q: Your artistic work rate during normal times is already staggering, from music and film to pottery and photography. How are you finding the quarantine in relation to your artistic output? Is it helpful to have all that extra time? Or do you work better with the structure that comes when you're creating around a 40-hour workweek?
A: Isolation has vacillated between sometimes being fun and cozy and sometimes really stressful, and I assume a lot [of people] have gone back and forth in the same way I have. I am lucky as I have somehow stumbled into a lucky situation where I can make art and music for just me, but then there is this small but dedicated audience that is excited to participate or support it. I believe I am on Day 64 and have been laying pretty low in general. I have had most groceries delivered and have really stayed put, trying to follow the directions of health professionals. So, that has left me with a lot of time sitting around my house with a lot of noisemakers and cameras around. A lot of recent visual projects have taken me out of Michigan and now I am having to "turn the telescope into a microscope" and not leave my property. There are a few new films and things I have made where I didn't even leave my house. Those can be fun little challenges. Somedays, making some art is the very last thing I want to do and then a day later all I want to do is create. I think my girlfriend and cat may think I am a bit manic lately, but I guess I can own that. Back in 2010, shortly after the recession, I was out of work and while that was financially stressful, it was easily the most enjoyable and artistically fruitful period of my adult life. The film world had dried up and I wasn't finding work, so I just made things to keep me from going insane and to look back at that period and its work is so great and gratifying. Some of the things I made in that period are still surfacing in recent releases, so its the gift that keeps on giving. So reflecting on that when thinking about our current situation, I think being around the house 24/7 has allowed some of us artists to have the artistic superpower of making things almost non-stop. I do have a great gig at U of M, which I do 40 hours a week, but being in the same house that I have my studios in makes the whole thing pretty darn efficient when I take off my work hat. I do have a quarantine rule where I don't make any art or music during weekdays, just so I do have a bit of a boundary and it keeps it fun when it does happen.
Q: Each of your releases during the quarantine has a specific setup -- whether it's just using one or two instruments, or a set of parameters, or a piece of tech. You often had similar restrictions when making music pre-quarantine. How does having rules or restrictions help you create music? Do you have a list of rules for future recordings -- almost like a songwriter would have chord progressions or riffs saved even if the tune isn't there yet -- that you're working your way through?
A: I like structure, deadlines, and limitations. When I am working alone, I avoid that thing a lot of artists allow, which is fixating and falling off the face of the Earth due to a single idea they keep honing. As an example, I have been in a long-standing project with my best friend, Trevor Edmonds, called Miracle Baby (which is now kind of a goofy name as it all started as a joke. Oh, well...) But, all of my recent EPs and music (now at seven releases in the last eight weeks) follow the old Miracle Baby equation: keep it somewhat simple, keep it cohesive, and work efficiently. Its an amazing process and is easily one of my favorite ways of making material. The last record we made was during the Swine Flu epidemic and we both caught it. We were both so sick and fever-ridden as we recorded, but it had to be done in the span of a weekend. So, as I wrote a guitar melody, Trevor was laying down some drums on a different track. Then we switched! It has always been so much fun and I like to think my recent solo output is in homage to that. (On the Miracle Baby front, Trevor and I are re-releasing a 10th anniversary 10-inch of our last album called Other Worlds People after the current COVID stuff dies down and we can work on mailing out things again. It looks super cool!)
I think keeping it simple makes the recent EPs possible. Most of the material has revolved around two specific gizmos: A Teenage Engineering OP-1, which is easily one of the coolest, most inspiring pieces of gear in the history of musical instruments, and a super old, single-channel tape machine called a Nagra III. It weighs a ton, but is battery operated and kind of bomb-proof. I have modified the signal path a few times by adding some pedals in-between the synth and recorder just to "roll the dice" a bit for more chaos. Speaking of chaos, I live-streamed the first five recording sessions on Instagram and I think that helped me make it fun and interactive but also hold me to the very concept. I played old girl group songs and my cat was walking around the mixing board. But if I hadn't been live streaming and telling people throughout that the EP would be released the next day in that stream, there wouldn't be any challenge to make something good but also be timely. People that like my art -- or me in general -- dig the level of "let's give this a shot and see if that sticks" that I don't see a lot in other artists. People treat their image or social media accounts as mini brands and sometimes get a bit too conservative about how they operate and what they release/create. I am not a brand. I am just a goofball that is somewhat alright at a few things and am willing to experiment more publically than others and lean into it. Does that make me a musical daredevil? If so, I await the white leather jacket with tassels and gold helmet.
More broadly speaking, I think I have outgrown the whole "I will perfect this piece for years" as the worlds listening habits are so fleeting these days and pretty much every business that aggregates all of our "content" is artificially throttling or limiting exposure, so I don't think it's valuable to hone ideas for years anymore unless you have the luxury to do so (big bands & artists). So much of the world is competitive now, which I loathe, so why not subvert that by just being open and honest, but also nimble and efficient? I think bands like My Bloody Valentine taking 20 years to release a follow-up record is a bit of a luxury almost none of us have. Even at a smaller version of that where my pals and I are, I relate more to my pal, Fred Thomas, who is always making neat stuff than to some group of millionaire musicians whose label is telling them that June is the "best streaming month" so they should hold off, etc. Am I becoming jaded with my old age? No! Never!
Q: How does your photography influence your music and vice versa?
A: I see all of my stuff as one thing, which may sound odd to people. I just don't see much of a distinction as much as someone that may be consuming the material. Obviously, I acknowledge the difference between one of my Tea Bowls and a film from Iceland, but most of it comes from the same place and ethos within me. Most of my work can be defined as someone trying to make something visually/audibly interesting, that is kind of pretty and has some connection to the natural world and the chaos of the universe. I see my paintings or pottery as those things but I see them also as physics and chemistry experiments. As for the relationship between my music and photography, I think they are super symbiotic. Most of my music is framed from the idea of a "soundtrack to a film that hasn't been shot yet", so visuals are really important to me on that but also can take many paths. Like, for my recent single "Khumbu (70/LXX)" I had the idea of swooping over glaciers and icefields as I wrote it. I knew that the cover should have something to do with that. That connection between an ambient guitar piece and glaciology was probably just me. Most others wouldn't hear that and think, "Gee, I'm imagining Everest's Icefall," but that was worth exploring and making some visuals that followed that personal narrative. I used some images that I shot in Greenland when making a documentary there and Iceland of giant blocks of ice to simulate what I was imagining. Also, a small aside: Personally speaking, an album cover and track names can make or break a record in my eyes. It's this whole package. In the same way that if a piece that really affected you in some earnest way and then you looked at the cover and it was some jokey image and the tracklisting was a bunch of jocular humor, it would totally make me think that it wasn't nearly as profound as I previously thought. It doesn't mean there isn't humor to explore, but to me, the whole picture is painted by all of the constituent pieces coming together in a super unified and expert way. That probably doesn't apply to everything though!
Q: You are a polymath, for sure. But it seems to extend beyond artistic realms and into your rock climbing or motorcycling or environmental work. When you get interested in something, you seem to go ALL IN. Have you always been someone who loses himself in his passions, vocations, and artistic pursuits? What are some things you'd like to do -- some new hobbies you'd like to explore?
A: I have always been like that. Some more recent pursuits are just acting on old desires, having the time or resources to do so. When I was a kid, I had a few heroes that really set my inspirational path and most of them are super different people. They were people like Carl Sagan, Sally Ride, Bob Ballard, David Attenborough, Dr. Dan Aja, Jacques Cousteau, George Lucas, Conrad Anker, Sylvia Earle, Robert Rauchenberg, and Stanley Kubrick. I think one thing that unifies people like them is/was a really deep and innate curiosity about worlds, how they work, and they all explored things in ways different from how they were "supposed to." I like to think I am a product of my great upbringing by two amazing parents, all of my hero's works, PBS, BBC, NPR programming, and tons of library books.
A lot of my recent time has been trying to reflect on what's really important to me and what my finite life means/is.
There are so many things I want to do still and some I need to focus on now rather than when I am 60. I think most people have mental games like that though. Right now, everything is on hold pretty much, so I am retreating to my old habits. I used to be really into racing bikes up north. It was a total obsession. Training all of the time, spending all of my money on titanium screws, and really pushing myself. It was fun. Reflecting on that last week, I realized I think it was time to buy my first new bicycle in 20 years. So, that's been a recent, somewhat expensive research mission. Gulp.
I cleaned up my garage and set up a small pottery studio in there, too! Working on getting those skills back after pausing for two years.
I can't wait to get back into some mountains. Being in isolation has really made me miss my past homes/lives in Texas and in California. That's probably going around a lot with people. I am really hoping to get out into the wilds and make some more films later in the year that won't just be of my cat or lens flares from my living room. I would also love to get back to the Arctic and make more art about that part of the world. It was really important to me to map this glacier in Greenland last year because I wanted to show people how beautiful and special these places are and they are worth changing our habits to protect a bit more than we currently are. It would be amazing to get back there someday to capture more stories about a place that pretty much took up most of 2019 for me and has become super important to me. I had a plan to go back on a solo mission to Washington state and map a glacial calving front in the highest possible resolution to blow some of my glaciologist friends' minds. So much is up in the air right now though. I guess I will be able to ride a new bike around soon though!
I think along with all of the recent visual stuff, I am going to get collaging again for some neat stop motion animations I have in mind and I am also going to be starting a new, very exciting project with a previous collaborator about space, time, and grapes. Just you wait.
Q: What have you been listening to / reading / watching during quarantine?
A: I watch very little TV in general but I have been re-watching tons of old Adam Curtis documentaries, old Charlie Brooker TV critique shows, a really wacky British show called Taskmaster, and tons of strange but great YouTube finds. I have also been watching so many dumb movies. I am kind of becoming one of those old books from the '90s that had every conceivable movie title within and a small blurb about it. It's probably not good for my brain! My pals in Chicago, Third Coast Percussion, have been live-streaming some great things lately on their YouTube channel. They are some of the best percussionists currently alive and are super swell guys.
I have been reading this graphic novel loaned to me by Mr. Jeremy Wheeler about the Iran Contra Affair, which is pretty rare and I promised to not get coffee stains on it. Its called Brought to Light and is by Alan Moore and Bill Sienkiewicz. Thanks for that, J. It has been fun to read! It is a really neat hybrid of comic and journalism. [Editor note: Check it out on the Internet Archive.]
I have been listening to tons of things on my iTunes library that is kind of ancient, most of it given to me by Dr. Ryan Howard about 10 years ago. Old girl group compilations and off-kilter garage rock from the '60s. It has also been a great time to check out new works by people I have been hearing about for years but never had the time. Those are some of the positives of this whole situation, that we all now have a lot more time on our hands to absorb some stuff that maybe passed us by before. I have listened to a ton of old Japanese records as well. The new Caribou, Squarepusher, and Four Tet records have been getting some spins, as has my friend Erik Hall's interpretation of Steve Reich's "Music for 18 Musicians." Two of my best pals, Chad McKinney and Dan Streeting, have also been releasing some neat stuff lately that's been on repeat around my house.
Christopher Porter is a library technician and the editor of Pulp.
➥ "Mini MoogFest 2017: Sean Curtis Patrick" [Pulp, November 15, 2017]
➥ More quarantine releases by Sean Curtis Patrick: