Since graduating from Grinnell College in 1977, Pat Irwin has enjoyed a remarkable career as a composer, musician, and now instructor at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts Graduate Music Theater Writing Program. His talent and influence have been felt on the stage, over the airways, and on both the large and small screen. He has helped up-and-coming musicians as an instructor and mentor. For more than 30 years, he has been an important and innovative figure in American music.
As a Grinnell student in the ’70s, he majored in American studies, participated in the Grinnell-in-London program, and received a Thomas J. Watson Fellowship, which enabled him to spend a year in Paris attending workshops and performing with composer John Cage. The Parisian music scene inspired him to return to New York City and join a band, where his skills as a guitarist, saxophonist, and keyboardist were showcased in “No Wave” bands that he helped form — The Raybeats and 8-Eyed Spy. Both bands were lodestars of the Manhattan music scene during the ’70s and ’80s.
He performed, recorded, and took classes at Juilliard and the Manhattan School of Music, and was a longtime performer with the B-52s, which had international hits such as “Love Shack” and “Roam.” Further demonstrating his musical range, Irwin collaborated on an opera with novelist William S. Burroughs; he has composed scores for cartoons, including the Cartoon Network’s Emmy award-winning Class of 3000 and Nickelodeon’s Rock’s Modern Life; he has written for films, such as Bam Bam and Celeste and My New Gun; and he composed for the HBO series Bored to Death. He also earned many grants and awards for composition, and today his talents are reaching the next generation of musicians through his work at Tisch.
Grinnell College is privileged to honor Pat Irwin for his vast contributions to American music.
Hello and congratulations to you all. It’s a wonderful honor for me to be here and to be part of this celebration, which it really is. Thanks to President Kington and the faculty, past and present, the administration and the staff and to all of you who make Grinnell College what it is.
I want to take a quick minute to thank Rachel Bly for taking such good care of my family and for me, [applause] and I also want to thank Rod Schultz for taking such good care of my family, for not only his work with the development office but for checking up on me in New York City and keeping me connected to the school. There’s no way I could have done any of those things that were mentioned to you, those beautiful remarks, without thanking my family, which is my mother, both my brothers and their families, and my wife, Terri, and my son, and I would also like to thank my dad who is no longer here but with me always.
When I was sitting, essentially in this place, and about to get my degree at about the same time in 1977, I could never have imagined the impact that Grinnell would have on my life and my career. You’re all graduating with degrees and that’s a wonderful honor and it’s fine, but you’re graduating with something much more and that’s each other. It’s a phenomenal asset and invaluable and it might not be particularly clear at the moment, but it’s something I strongly urge you to nurture and to develop. It’s a treasure. This place but not only the people, the place, but the people connected to it, is something you will always have.
Quickly I also want to thank a woman who was here when I was a student named Georgia Dental and Georgia was the administrative advisor for college events. In my case, I was the concert chairperson or co-chairperson, and I worked closely with Georgia putting together the concerts. She was passionate about the job, she had very strong opinions, but she was also very good at it.
That experience and the impact of working with musicians, it stays with me, stayed with me forever. It’s still with me today. That experience gave me access to music and musicians. It was much, much deeper than learning about the notes; it was about the life and the details and the discipline. I didn’t graduate with a degree in music, my degree was in American Studies, which at the time was among the more liberal of the liberal arts. But it was really about my professors, Charles Cleaver and Al Jones, giving me the encouragement to interview the residents of What Cheer, IA for an oral history report on that town. It was also about my art history professor, Dick Cervene, who knowingly, or unknowingly, showed me the music in the Jackson Pollock painting. The way he spoke about art, painting, was a work of art in and of itself. I can never forget the time that he came to see me play at CBGB’s. It was a total surprise, it always felt like such a small, intimate place and to see him there, he was standing right in front, and if you knew him you’ll remember he had on a big bulky sweater. It was totally inappropriate but he also had on a big beautiful smile and that single act of kindness, by just being there, was probably one of the more memorable and validating moments in my career.
I can’t really estimate the value of my liberal arts degree and to say that I use it every day isn’t quite accurate. It’s something much more than that. I’m glad I’ve got it and I’m glad to be celebrating it, right now, right here, with you. I mean this. We need more of you in the world. We need the ones who connect the dots between science and literature and theatre and religion and we need the ones that can connect with all the humanity, the humanity of it all.
Thank you and congratulations.