First-Time Nominee: BT (Part One)
The Recording Academy asked this year's first-time GRAMMY nominees to collect their thoughts and share what it feels like to be nominated for a GRAMMY. Tune in to the 53rd Annual GRAMMY Awards on Sunday, Feb. 13 on the CBS Television Network from 8–11:30 p.m. (ET/PT).
This story begins on Feb. 26, 1985. Music and images from the 27th Annual GRAMMY Awards at the grand Shrine Auditorium in sunny Los Angeles flickered to life, flying by primitive means from antennae through the airwaves to set-top boxes across the United States. Small resonant frequencies bouncing through the air to a family television with rabbit ears in Rockville, a small town nestled in the suburbs of Maryland.
The temperature was in the lower 40s that day and raining. I was a hopeful, bright, awkward 13-year-old student of the arts. In those first 13 years of my life, I'd been avidly devoted to the study and practice of music. I'd played innumerable Chopin etudes (my favorite still being Op. 25 No. 7 in C minor) and studied composition and theory under the guidance of Setirios Vlahopolis at the Washington Conservatory. Each summer I mowed lawns to buy my first synthesizers and drum machines. As a young boy, my love of music absolutely consumed me. From the age of 4 onward, I was devoted completely to unraveling the complexities and beauty of anything my ears could hear. Music was (and still is) my safe place, my first love, my awe and wonderment, and my silence.
On that foggy evening 25 years ago, a spark was lit in my 13-year-old heart that I carry with me to this very day. I saw four modern masters of my instrument, using the most cutting-edge technology of the time, innovating and propelling the medium forward in a single, monumental push. I watched this monolithic event in awe. Those men were Herbie Hancock, Howard Jones, Thomas Dolby, and Stevie Wonder. That performance at the 27th Annual GRAMMY Awards, sandwiched just before a commercial break, sculpted an entire universe of possibility and hope in my adolescent heart. It is the moment that made me believe it is possible to be embraced and honored for accomplishment and innovation, and better yet by a group of your peers. At that moment, anything became possible.
I returned to the halls of Tilden Middle School the next day with an ineffable spark that remains in me still.
It's amazing how we all have defining moments, moments that shape our topography. It's also amazing that it sometimes takes years to see the beautiful lines of elevation, longitude and latitude that have become manifest and connect from such simple things.
Flash forward a few years. I studied earnestly, forfeiting a social life for arduous practice and devotion to all things music. I was accepted to Boston's Berklee College of Music at the age of 15. Not long after, I got a one-bedroom apartment in L.A.'s San Fernando Valley. With a mattress on the floor and a diet consisting solely of packaged Ramen noodles, I made my demo tapes and submitted them all over town. I was shot down a thousand times by record labels and A&R people that didn't understand, or if they did, didn't care.
But I did. And I stayed the course. Even in the mid-90s, when finances forced a sabbatical from L.A. and return to my parent's house in Maryland, I did not quit. Putting blinders onto the reality of my daily life, I poured myself into music. I attended lectures and read Keyboard as though it were a sacred text. I built instruments in my bedroom, studied coding, practiced Hannon exercises, and kept my ear to the ground with anything happening in modern music. As far as my career, however, nothing was happening.
Then something did. On blind faith, I sold my clunker car and started a record label with my childhood friend Ali Shirizinia. I made a record called Embracing The Future, and that record found its way across the waters to England where people were actually interested. I met DJ Sasha, who was playing my records across the UK and began to visit there, returning several times to record and perform, until eventually I signed my first record deal in 1994 with Warner Music in the UK. By this time, my first album IMA was completed. IMA was primarily an instrumental album containing protracted and elongated compositional forms that were described as "lush and dense" and "dripping with years of study." But also audible to me were the years of hope and deliberation that were finally beginning to bear the first buds of fruit.
By 1999 my desire to compose music for motion pictures landed me back in California. I landed a big Hollywood manager and scored film after film and produced project after project, the months becoming a blur of marathon work sessions. Steadily over time, the projects became bigger and more influential. Almost all the money I earned was reinvested into my work; creating new technologies, proprietary software, handmade instruments, and the like. While scoring films was fine, my ongoing desire was (and still is) to push forward the use of electronics as a medium for human expression into the mainstream. I longed to be additive.
Then in the middle of all this, something beautiful and unexpected happened.
(BT is nominated for Best Electronic/Dance Album for These Hopeful Machines at the 53rd Annual GRAMMY Awards. In addition to his solo career, he has worked with artists including Tori Amos, Peter Gabriel, Seal, and Sting.)