Pat’s Keynote Speech at the Society For Neuroscience Conference
Transcription of the speech:
It is an incredible honor to be here today to speak with you. Thanks to everyone here at the Society For Neuroscience for inviting me.
This is a unique gig for me. I don’t usually get to just talk, usually I have to warm up for two hours before getting onstage. (laughter)
There are many privileges that come with living a life as a musician. But one of the best parts of it all has been sitting at a unique vantage point that allows me to study a particularly odd intersection, that magical, elusive spot on the X/Y continuum where the brain meets the soul.
In that place, where the goal of maximum consciousness is an essential component of what it takes to be a great musician, that same sense of consciousness is also paradoxically the thing that you find disappearing completely as you get to your best moments on the bandstand.
Basically my best job description is that of professional improviser.
While the word jazz has some utility as a kind of shorthand to invoke a very broad cultural and musical tradition, within the community of musicians that I am lucky to be a part of, we are mostly unlikely to use that word as having any singular meaning beyond those cultural connotations.
To me the general zone of interest that I inhabit seems like one that has been around forever. I have a feeling there have always been professional improvisers of many kinds, in every population, throughout all of human history.
I often describe jazz as being more like a symptom of a way of life or a process, rather than a thing or a destination.
We are basically a community of musicians who are looking at musical creativity in the broadest possible sense, embracing the potentials of all genres of personal interest to each of us as individual improvisers in ways that allow us to get to that rare and exalted territory where we can be free as players to illuminate, share, and project a way of being in music that reflects our best hopes and dreams in life to everyone and anyone who might be interested in hearing.
I am lucky that I get to play a lot. For example just over the past month I played 30 concerts in 28 different cities all across the states — from Maine to Hawaii.
It has been this way for me for a long time, almost forty-five years now. Personally speaking, getting to play, to improvise every night, night after night after night, has been the best possible pathway to real musical understanding.
The bandstand is not only church for me, it is the R&D center of musical insight.
The word improvisation, particularly in music, carries a certain almost mystical quality to it.
And music in general does function in a way that is unlike any other of our human experiences. You can’t see, touch, smell or taste music, but when you walk into a club or a concert hall where the performers are really on, regardless of the style or genre that they are playing in, there is no mistaking it.
But, I would like to talk about the process from a different angle, a more pragmatic and practical one.
Yes, we improvise; but the fact is, we are all improvising, all the time.
We all enter each encounter, and our every moment, with a general sense of what might happen, but rely heavily on the degree of empathy, knowledge, language and social skills that we have obtained over the course of our lives to negotiate those moments.
In fact, while there are certain mysteries involved in musical improvisation, the closest parallel I make to civilians is the direct analogy between what we do and language itself; and storytelling in particular.
As someone who lives daily on the front lines of this transaction, the science of what is actually going on is almost as fascinating to me as the result.
How does this actually occur? What is it exactly that is going on when we as improvisers can collectively and individually bend time and open a window into a world that was as unknown to us as performers as to the audience just a few seconds ago? And especially; not just on occasion, but night after night after night?
To a certain degree, although there is a kind of special status given to advanced musicians who are improvisers, on a very basic level I could say that it has much in common with any job where troubleshooting is a high value skill. As much as the sort of priesthood factor may figure into it all, the basic refrigerator-repairman type impulses are at least as valuable.
When I am looking for musicians to play with, of course I want folks who are absolutely great, who are fluent and play their instruments really well. But the general human factors of flexibility, maturity, humor and resilience are actually much more valuable to me over the course of hundreds of nights on the bandstand.
And the number one key skill that is required for the gig is being a great listener.
would offer that there is no better laboratory for examining consciousness than what happens through musical improvisation at the highest levels.
Over the past thirty-five years, I have a kept a journal of every day of every concert. It has been an ongoing quest for me to not only understand music, but to do my best to up my batting average by being able to get to my really good stuff as an improviser through a study of what is going on around the music. To try to notice and pay attention to and even attempt to quantify the things that seem to help me to get to the place that I need to be to play my best.
For me, the whole thing is kind of between me and it. The external conditions like the audience, the room or the acoustics weirdly are factors, but in the end, as I look at my notes over so many years, those things actually have very little to do with my success rate at getting to what I hope to get to.
And that exact destination is actually quite hard to describe. I want to be able to really be in the moment on the most micro level possible, while essentially being almost removed from it.
I often describe my relationship to it all as being a fan of music; a listener — first.
At my best I don’t even feel like I am doing anything. I am just standing there, listening. And if there happened to be a guitar player there, which there is, and it happens to be me, what would I like to hear that player do?
And then, I try to play that. But the entire process I just described happens in almost real time, less than a millisecond I would say.
This particular form of engagement/detachment requires an odd kind of understanding that I believe can fit some of the same kinds of descriptions that I see some folks chalk up to various metaphysical phenomena. But honestly, I experience it as being able to happen on a much more repeatable basis after years and years of trying to understand and learn about what it takes to be able to get to what I hope to get to musically each and every night.
I can’t say that I am 100% there, but by really trying to make sense of the process I am more consistently able to really be in the thing and therefore increase my chances of being able to improvise at the level that I aspire towards.
Obviously, being able to invent melodies on the spot at a high level within a complex harmonic framework is not an easy thing to do. But the fundamentals of understanding how it all works are not at all unlike what it takes to learn a new language and are somewhat quantifiable in almost linguistic terms at this point.
And yet, while fluency itself plays a big role in being able to hang with great players, fluency is not enough to be able to generate new material night after night, hundreds of concerts in a row. And this is all before even discussing the parallel factors of groove and time feel and how those elements superside all others.
The issues of consciousness and free will and how they intersect with empathy, shared language, politics, and of course musical imagination itself is on full review nightly.
And then, there is the X factor which is actually the truest and deepest currency that we trade in as musicians; soul — the hardest element of all to quantify, and the component most central to what makes music music.
This is where it gets really interesting, and I am particularly curious to discuss this aspect of things from a brain perspective with you all in our following discussion.
While I am a huge proponent of the scientific method even as applied to something as relatively esoteric and maybe seemingly unrelated as musical improvisation, I also have to acknowledge the huge gaping hole in whatever it is that I can quantify and measure about every aspect of my life as a player, with those many other things that I simply have no explanation for.
I am particularly interested in where our further discussions might lead us into talking about some of those things.
In the sort of post-modern world that we live in, where there seems to be a constant conflation between things of true value with almost anything else, I do my best to maintain a kind of objectivity about things that is weighed solely by the ideals revealed in the currency of music itself as I have come to understand it.
The best musicians I know have a fantastic combination of skills and wisdom that I have found I can almost measure in a metric that I have been calling “Units Of Human Achievement (™)”. (laughter)
For instance, taking into account the amount of years it takes for a great orchestral musician to master their instrument, the genius of a composer like Mahler, and the brilliance of a conductor like Sir Simon Rattle, it is hard to top the concentration of Units Of Human Achievement that one can find at a Berlin Philharmonic concert, or an opera performance in Verona; or in a more concentrated dose at an improvised music concert at the highest level.
But i have a feeling that the total sum of Units Of Human Achievement represented in this room right now may be among the highest total levels I have ever been around. (laughter)
What a special thing it is for me to be here with you today. Thank You!