Convocation Aug. 29, 2002
I remember years ago sitting in a movie theatre watching Stanley Kubrick's film 2001 when it was still the future. I was crazy for anything having to do with space, and the thought of starscapes and zero-G space stations had a special fascination for me. But I'll never forget the disorienting feeling I had the first time I saw that sequence of the astronaut jogging around the circumference of the space station. You couldn't tell what was up and what was down. It was all just one continuous circular motion. I had never seen anything like it. This was space. Well, I think that was it for me because that was the moment I began to wonder what music would be like in zero- gravity. I didn't know it at the time but looking back I can see that that night at the movies was a transformational moment for me. It changed the way I thought about sound and that's what I wanted to talk to you about today.
In my experience as an improviser I've found that knowledge comes from the most unexpected places. Some of the most profound things I've learned the core concepts and ideas that at the heart of my work, are thoughts that have evolved from exposure to subjects beyond my music training. I've realized that what you carry with you from your education isn't so much "what you think" as it is "how you think." That it's the quality of your thinking your mind's openness and ability to process your experience artistically, intellectually, and emotionally in a fresh and spontaneous way. That's what makes a difference.
As a jazz improviser and now a teacher of improvisation at the New School I'm constantly reminding my students that there's a great responsibility that comes with performing "in the moment." Jazz musicians meticulously rehearse spontaneity. In the jazz tradition music practice, theory, and history all combine to inform the choices that improvisers make when they perform. But creativity and imagination can't grow in a vacuum and for students, having an open mind to ideas outside their own discipline holds the potential to completely reshape their work.
I've improvised a living in jazz by allowing many of my interests to intersect with music. Whether it's writing music for NASA or setting Jackson Pollock's painting to music I've allowed my mind to draw inspiration from thought and experience outside the world of jazz. I realize now that one of the ways this kind of lateral thinking was made possible was by introducing myself to different subjects when I was in school. I could never in a million years have anticipated how taking courses like Art in the Machine Age, Modern Drama or Developmental Psych 101 would resonate in my work today. Studying abstract painting helped me imagine a jazz quartet that could swing around sound the way Jackson Pollock threw paint. Exploring Freud and unconscious processes helped inform a whole new spontaneous approach to composition. My interest in zero-gravity found expression in imagining orchestras that use circular movement to create changes in sound. These are just a few examples where this kind of thinking has led me. [Think about it as you're designing your course schedule this semester]
In a university you also have a unique opportunity to get close to great minds from diverse fields like the ones you see on this stage. Learning from them may not only be about the information that they have to offer, but about learning how they think. What they question, how they organize ideas, how they consider information - not only what is said but what is unsaid, how they put ideas in context, how they focus or allow their thoughts to flow freely. These are insights that you can take with you wherever you go. These are insights that can transform your mind.
I'll never forget the first time I spoke with the great jazz innovator Ornette Coleman on the phone. I was about 20, full of fire and ready to move to New York and begin my career as an improviser. I thought surely he'd have some extraordinary advice for me. Well, the phone call wasn't quite what I expected. I'd introduce a question and Ornette would seem to respond to it but then would arc off in an abstract way onto subjects that seemed to connect but I wasn't sure. There was a passion and mystery in his voice that I could feel but not quite understand. Well, many years later as Im teaching his music to students at the Jazz School, I realize that that quality of his language is exactly what characterizes the genius of his music - melodies that seem to randomly crystallize in different directions but retain a beautiful continuity at the same time. That's the genius of his thought. It just took some time to understand.
I hope your experience at the New School University is filled with illumination. I'm honored to have pianist Marc Copland join me to perform an original piece for you called "Unexpected Light."