A CONCISE HISTORY OF THE MOTOR TOTEMIST GUILD

From the Eighties...

Motor Totemist Guild was formed in 1980 by composer James Grigsby and poet/singer Christine Clements.  Throughout the 1970’s Grigsby had been involved with the study and performance of electronic music, Renaissance polyphony, progressive rock, post-Webern serialism, Balinese gamelan and punk-jazz.  Clements was active in the San Francisco poetry scene.   In 1984, after a move to Los Angeles, they released their first project, Infra Dig, the inaugural LP release on Grigsby’s private label, Rotary Totem Records.  Augmented by a large group of musical guests, the album left critic Richard Gehr “entranced”.  Gerald Lokstadt commented on their eclectic approach, “their style can swing from blues/jazz to Elliot Carter, sometimes within the same composition!”  He also noted that “their name is a spoof on every artist being part of a school or movement”, though Grigsby maintains that it is a reference to techniques pioneered by the Italian Futurist composer, Luigi Futi.

MTG at Anti Club, August 1985
Throughout the 1980’s, MTG released several albums, and frequently performed live in the Los Angeles area with a pool of musicians associated with the California Outside Music Association (COMA) and Independent Composers Association (ICA).  After Clements’ departure in 1985, MTG continued as an instrumental group, combining Grigsby’s Electric Chamber Music with free-improvisation, a direction influenced by the addition of woodwind ace Lynn Johnston and electric cellist Becky Heninger .  In press releases at the time, they described their sound as “ the songs of the mockingbird mixed with the delicate ambiance of a diesel exhaust pipe”.  In 1987, Emily Hay joined the ensemble, once again bringing vocals to the music, along with her considerable ability in playing the flute.  By the end of the 1980’s, MTG had grown to a sextet with percussionists Eric Strauss and David Kerman, and had collaborated with such diverse groups as 5uu’s and the USC Contemporary Music Ensemble as well as taking part in a groundbreaking cultural exchange with musicians from Cambodia and Laos.  In 1997, the recordings from this period were re-released on two CDs, Archive One and Archive Two by the No Man’s Land label in Germany.
MTG with musicians and dancers of Laos and Cambodia, May 1988

Through the Nineties...

In 1989, Grigsby and Hay joined together with David Kerman (drums) and Sanjay Kumar (keyboards) from 5uu’s to form a new group, called U Totem.  That same year, they were invited to perform along with Penguin Cafe Orchestra, Caspar Brotzmann, Bill Frisell and Michael Nyman at the International Art Rock Festival in Frankfurt, Germany.  In 1990, with the addition of Eric Johnson-Tamai (bassoon), they performed at the New Music America Festival in Montreal, Canada on the bill with the Fred Frith Guitar Quartet. The quintet version of U Totem, augmented by several studio guests, recorded two CD albums for Cuneiform Records: U Totem (Rune 24, 1990) and Strange Attractors (Rune 66, 1994). In 1993, they returned to Europe and performed for audiences in Holland, Germany, Belgium and Switzerland.

U Totem at Club Lingerie, November 1989

The City of Mirrors project

It was while Grigsby was staying in Amsterdam between engagements during U Totem’s tour of Europe in 1993, that the seed for the City of Mirrors project was planted.  “I had the pleasure of meeting the renown Dutch composer, Louis Andriessen . He told me, "My music is closer to Stan Kenton, than it is to Gustav Mahler.".   I felt it was significant that a European composer from the classical tradition would choose to align himself with an American band leader from the "swing era".  After I came back to the States,  I did some research.  In the late 40's, Kenton had assembled a massive 40-piece ensemble, including a full string section.  The arrangements, particularly those by Pete Rugolo and Bob Graettinger were astounding stylistic mixes, not classifiable as either jazz or classical music, with the implicit intent of furthering the language of music.  The discovery of this music was the impetus to create a new version of MTG, as represented on the City of Mirrors album.”

To perform Grigsby’s City of Mirrors, he formed a new version of the Motor Totemist Guild. To get the hybrid mix just right, Grigsby recruited stars of the Southern California avant-jazz scene, like Vinny Golia (woodwinds) and Jeff Kaiser (trumpet) and veterans of the indie rock world, like Joe Berardi (drums) and Jerry Wheeler (trombone) to play along with old cohorts from MTG and elsewhere. The group debuted in January 1998 at Los Angeles Harbor College and the City of Mirrors album was released on the Cuneiform label in 1999.

Motor Totemist Guild, Summer 1997

The All America City project

While composing & producing City of Mirrors, Grigsby was also working on another musical project, this one tied to an original screenplay.  The screenplay, titled Yu Gakusei (AKA Parachute Kids),  is a mystery/drama set around the death of a Japanese hostess working in a night club in Gardena, California.  Characters & events from the story are reflected in the music of All America City.  This music is a departure in sound from City of Mirrors, which was written for a large ensemble to be performed in concert.  All America City on the other hand, was created entirely in the studio, with emphasis on the full range of tone-colors & effects possible using samplers, computers & other studio techniques.  A small ensemble of musicians, featuring Bridget Convey (piano), Rod Poole (guitar), and Hannes Giger (contrabass) was utilized in the studio to create a sparse but complex sound space. Many sections of the score utilize graphic notation instead of the traditional 5-line staff. The All America City album was released by Rotary Totem in 2000.

Into the 21st Century...

After All America City, Grigsby put the Motor Totemist Guild on hold for several years to work on a codification of his original musical methods in correspondence to a hybrid-Tarot deck of playing cards, culminating in several open-score works and a massive twenty-five minute Octet. Then in 2005, in an abrupt about-face, he formed the NIMBY project to spotlight songs written in traditional forms, such as ballad and tango. Grigsby, along with Jerry Wheeler and David Kerman, flew to Bob Drake's farmhouse/studio in the French countryside to record the album, Songs for Adults, released on Ad Hoc Records in 2006.

The City of Angles project

Grigsby took a new quintet into the studio in 2010 to create music to accompany ambient videos for the Internet. It was clear that this nimble outfit was the right size and scope for the remaining chapter of the "City" trilogy - a set of short intricate compositions (based on the techniques devised in his Octet) alternating with songs (ala NIMBY). The distinctive voices and instruments of Emily Hay and Jerry Wheeler return with Grigsby to this 21st Century version of the Motor Totemist Guild, joined by brilliant newcomers Motoko Honda (piano) and Rich West (drums).

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