Reading

The Composition of Wendel Patrick

Previous Story
Article Image

BmoreArt’s Picks: April 9-15

Next Story
Article Image

BmoreArt News: Happy 85th to The Senator and The [...]

In 2023, hip-hop and Wendel Patrick both turned fifty. In honor of the synchronistic coming-of-age moment, he hosted The Hip Hop At 50 panel discussion at Johns Hopkins in November and co-hosted the 100th session of The Baltimore Boom Bap Society, an improvised hip-hop collective that began in 2011 which he co-curates with Erik Spangler, aka DJ Dubble8. 

In the spirit of making meaningful connections, Patrick invited me to join all the fun and attend the 100th series event. I arrived at Le Mondo to see several of the group’s favorite emcees, musicians, break dancers, and featured guest, Lupe Fiasco. Patrick was in his element on turntables and electronics. The energy was high as both the audience and performers were building on each other’s excitement. I had the best time and was moved seeing him facilitate a community gathering around the collective love of hip-hop. 

Wendel Patrick is an associate professor of music engineering at the Peabody Institute at Johns Hopkins University; he is also a composer, producer, beatmaker, pianist, sonic architect, photographer, and videographer. But how has he sustained a career with such a diverse breadth of work? Well, in my brief time getting to know Patrick it has become abundantly clear that beyond his successes as an international music giant, Patrick is first and foremost a person grounded in his community partnerships. He elevates those around him through leadership, teaching, collaborative projects, and inclusive programming. Patrick seeks to accommodate those in his company which is the root of his sustained success.

Patrick has been active throughout the city of Baltimore curating the Baltimore by Baltimore Baker Artists Extravaganza and creating soundscapes for the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA). Last year, The BMA held the hip-hop exhibition called, The Culture: Hip Hop and Contemporary Art in the 21st Century, where Patrick made one of the two soundscapes for the exhibition and published his writing in the exhibition catalog. 

I just thought I would go on and be a pianist. That was the plan.
Wendel Patrick

This year, Patrick is composing a piano orchestra piece commissioned by Hopkins Symphony Orchestra. It is a classical piece, with a series of variations on a theme of a Mos Def (now Yasiin Bey) song “Auditorium” on the album, The Ecstatic. Mad Lib produced the beat, but the sample Patrick used was from a Bollywood film, Do Jhoot. He perfectly blends piano orchestra and hip hop in this piece where he is both the composer and will be the piano soloist at the world premiere performance that will take place this coming concert season in Fall 2024.

I met Wendel Patrick when I arrived at his home for our interview. When I got there, I was positively greeted by him and his loving dog, Dexter. We sat in the living room with ambient music playing in the background and began with what brought him to Baltimore.

How did you end up in Baltimore?

That was total happenstance honestly. I went to graduate school at Northwestern University School of Music and I planned on living in Chicago. When I was in college at Emory University, my mother had moved to Baltimore, and she lived in the Northwood neighborhood. So I would come and visit during vacations but had not only no ties to the city but no intention [of staying]—it had not even occurred to me.

I was supposed to live in Chicago. I came here for Christmas to spend time with my mom, and my sister was living outside of DC at the time. And one of the people I was supposed to live with in Chicago got a job somewhere else so the living arrangements fell through. So I was like oh well, I had not been around my mom or sister for a while so I will just stay for a few months, figure out some other situation in Chicago and… that was twenty-six years ago. I have been here ever since. 

What instrument did you learn first?

Piano.

What did you study in graduate school and where did you think it was going to take you?

At the time I went to study—my master’s is in piano performance—I just thought I would go on and be a pianist. That was the plan, but I actually started teaching at a place called Music & Art Center in Timonium… It is funny, one of the first concerts that I played when I came back here was at First Night Annapolis. 

When I moved back here, I came across my childhood trumpet, which I did not play anymore, and just thought maybe someone else would be able to use it. I was looking for places to maybe sell it. I went to this place called Music & Arts in Timonium which I saw in the yellow pages. I went in and I said, “Do you all buy instruments?” There was a guy there and he said, “We do not buy trumpets, but did you just perform at First Night Annapolis?” And I said, “Yes I did.” And he said, “Are you interested in teaching because our piano teacher just gave their two weeks’ notice.” I had never taught before really. But I did not know how long I would be staying so I thought it’s a job for a few months. 

So I started teaching and—that was 1998 when I started teaching and Christmas of ‘97 was when I came here. I taught there for a little while and there was a flute teacher who also taught at Loyola University Maryland—and they had a couple of students that did not have a teacher… He asked if I would be interested in teaching a couple of students… I had two students the first semester and of course that turned into five, eight.

I was actually sort of dreading being asked to teach a class because I thought I would hate it. My second or third year there they needed someone to teach an intro to music theory class, so they asked me… And I loved it! I loved teaching. It was a huge shock… I was there from 2001 to 2013 and taught everything from music fundamentals to romantic music history, electronic music production class, classical piano. So that is how I got into academia.

I left Loyola in 2013, and at that point—the whole Wendel Patrick thing. That’s not my real name.

 

The heartbeat accelerates and then stops and at some point, I am the only thing there.
Wendel Patrick

What is your real name?

My real name is Kevin Gift. That is my name, it’s the one I used all the time.

When I started producing, I did not share anything I was making with anyone. At first, I started producing for purely cathartic purposes when I was not practicing the piano so I could just be doing something artistic.

I always grew up listening and loving to hip hop but I couldn’t afford any equipment when I was younger so I would beatbox, breakdance, rap, and stuff like that. I owned a drum machine at one point in college… So when I started producing, if you’d even call it that, I didn’t show it to anyone. It wasn’t for that.

But when I started to show it to friends—most of them were musician friends, many of them were piano friends from school—they would sort of listen for like ten to fifteen seconds, and then they would be like there is no piano. Where is the piano? It was confusing for people, so I wanted to come up with another name to maybe simplify things.

I was born a twin. My twin brother did not survive the birth or perhaps he survived for a day. It is a little unclear. But his first name was Wendel, his middle name was Patrick, and his last name was Gift. So I was like, I will use Wendel Patrick, not thinking it would turn into anything.

You’ve said you always felt like you were a twin, can you explain?

In one of my first memories [which became a recurring dream]… it was dark and there was this rhythm that was constant. I was not the only one there… There was something else there with me…

The heartbeat accelerates and then stops and at some point, I am the only thing there and then I wake up… It was not until years later that I was like, could that have been a memory of being in a womb?… I had that dream up until college, and then I would have it less and less. I started to have difficulty telling if I was having the dream or if I was having a dream of my recollection of the dream.

When did people begin to know you as Wendel Patrick?

I put out my first album in 2007, and at that point, I had been at Loyola for a while and I think I did my first performance as Wendel Patrick in 2005… I was performing on the piano a fair amount. I had just come back from playing a Mozart Concerto in Bolivia and for the first time I noticed something with my hand that was a little bit odd. I thought it was just fatigue and I stopped playing for two weeks. When I went back to play, it was worse. 

Long story short, I developed this neurological disorder, and it caused me to lose control of the index finger on my left hand which had pretty disastrous consequences. I essentially could not really play the piano; and part of the way I tried to cope was by starting to make more [music] electronically. Which ultimately ended up being enough for an album which I released in 2007 under the Wendel Patrick name. Once you have something out there in the world, it kinda works while you’re asleep. Then things started to progress slowly. People started to know me as Wendel Patrick.

Were you playing under both names? Was it like Kevin over here and Wendel over there?

Yes. The idea was that Kevin Gift would be classical piano and Wendel Patrick would be all hip hop and electronic stuff. And then I started to naturally incorporate more. I produce primarily on keyboard although I use other devices as well. Over the years it took me a really long time to get past this neurological issue. So now I am now at the piano quite a bit but doing all kinds of stuff that is not classical.

Did you see the neurological disorder as a redirection that was intentional?

I was super depressed for a significant part of that [time] …the main reason I was able to figure things out and get past it is because I literally gave up after trying for three or four years… The condition is called focal dystonia… It is a neurological disorder, and it causes you to lose physical control of—it can be different things. 

So I gave up… for three years and interestingly towards the end of that time… I started improvising more. There was a collective here called, Out of Your Head; they would convene musicians for these fully improvised free improv sessions… I did a couple and I noticed that during the sessions it wasn’t—it was still bad—but it wasn’t as bad.

At some point right around the time I started playing those hip-hop sessions, I decided to sit down and try and play a classical piece that I had played at concerts.

I could not play it and it was horrible. But it was different. 

Whatever was going on was different, physically. I thought to myself, If it is different, then it means it can change. It could get worse or better, but it can change. Whereas the whole time I was trying to figure it out I was always like I hope this thing goes away. Why did this happen?

So I started to do all these experiments like wrapping my fingers tight with rubber bands and playing… Technically there is nothing wrong with you physically, it’s just this instruction that is getting out of whack. 

At one point I put on thin gloves. And playing for like ten minutes, I was almost fine—as if it hadn’t happened. I remember being really shocked. After like ten minutes my brain was like uh uh uh and then it started happening again. But that’s when I started to realize that I could function. I started doing all kinds of stuff like re-fingering, trying to play as much as I could without using the finger at all.

So in 2013 you are integrating both the levels of playing with and without your finger. Did playing with your finger ultimately bring your abilities back? 

At that point I could kind of control it. But I still had to be very careful and think a lot about how I re-fingered things… Now there is very little hindrance, but the hindrance is not really a hindrance as I have figured out ways around whatever hindrance is left and there are certain things I do a lot better than before it happened at all which is kind of amazing. 

Getting better at scratching totally helped rewire what was going on because it was a different fine motor skill. Finger drumming really helped to shift what was going on [with me] neurologically. I believe if I did not do all of these other things and spent a significant time basically doing a different physical skill I do not know if it would have shifted the way it did… this was over years. The Wendel Patrick side of me rescued this other side. 

Do you practice any routines to sustain your creative success?

I walk a lot. I like to wake up in the morning and take my dog, and pick up coffee, and then we’ll go for a walk for about an hour. I like to walk around my neighborhood and so sometimes I run into people I know or wave to folks… I just like to be pretty quiet.

I write a lot of music in my head. I really like to work at night. I also have a 24-hour gym membership so sometimes I’ll just go to the gym at 2 o’clock in the morning which is also really helpful when it comes to writing music.

If I am working on something, I usually don’t listen that much to other music because there is music constantly going through my head.

Any time I am traveling I pretty much always take my camera with me. A big part of my practice, if I’m on tour in another city, is to go for really long walks—usually with my camera to document. It’s really relaxing and just good for me mentally.

I know that you just had a big birthday, how is it turning fifty? Do you have any regrets?

Of course you turn fifty, and you reflect on your journey thus far if you are fortunate enough to get to fifty. I just think honestly it kind of puts the past and a bit of the future in perspective.

After hitting this milestone, how are you processing the current stage in your career?

It’s a reality check that I’m doing what I like. I am doing what I want, and I’m experiencing these incredible moments of connection with all kinds of people—whether it’s [the] audience, or students, or these legendary figures that I have always wanted to work with.

It is really gratifying to know the decisions I made twenty, twenty-five, thirty years ago and stuck to in terms of what I wanted to do, that those still resonate and still hold true. One never knows if they will. 

What advice or support do you offer your students?

I encourage them to try to make plans and set goals but also to be open to those plans and goals changing. I could never have imagined the career I have [now] when I was in school, because the world was totally different back then. The technology that I use all the time now didn’t even exist back then, so how could I have planned? Try to be open and try to be a good, kind human. Both of those things can serve you well.

Photos by Wendel Patrick

Related Stories
The Month-Long Festival Closes May 31

Visual artists, business owners, musicians, performers, and so very much excellent food from the APIMEDA (Asian, Pacific Islander, Middle Eastern and Desi American) communities are annually featured in a series of tours, events, and exhibitions. 

Orange Grove Dance's new performance, executed by human dancers and choreographed with Artificial Intelligence (AI), in review.

A&I, which launched on Friday, April 19th at The Voxel in Baltimore, combines experimental dance, ambient soundscapes, minimalist stage design, and innovative lighting techniques with a high-tech concept.

This year the MdFF will emphasize emerging filmmakers and technologies, with an emphasis on local and global impact

Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Katori Hall brings four gay Black men together for the weekend

With The Hot Wing King, Baltimore Center Stage serves up a lively spread of rapid-fire one-liners, spicy moves, and camaraderie that serves as an entree to a discussion of contemporary Black manhood through April 28