Sunday, May 17, 2009

Improv, Gyros & Rolling Stones.

In talking about improvising my way through a concert without a set-list or even thinking about what I might say, I just found this terrific story in SEED about musician Al Kooper improvising one of the great rock organ riffs of all time.

Al Kooper didn’t know what to play. He’d told some half-truths to get into Bob Dylan’s recording session — the musicians were working on some song tentatively titled “Like A Rolling Stone” — and Kooper had been assigned the Hammond organ. There was only one problem: Kooper didn’t play the organ. He was a guitarist.

The first takes were predictably terrible — Kooper was just trying not to get kicked out of the studio. But on take four, he suddenly found his chords. Kooper’s playing was pure improv — “I was like a little kid fumbling in the dark for a light switch,” he would later remember — but he ended up inventing one of the most famous organ riffs in modern music.

There is something profoundly mysterious about this kind of creativity. Kooper didn’t have time to think — the chorus was about to happen — and so he just started banging on the ivory keys.

Back in Buna, Texas in high school, I took organ lessons from this older lady and I met one of her other students, a girl whose musicianship I respected very much. She was years ahead of me, technically. But she told me one say, with a look of profound sadness, "I don't know how you just make stuff up. I can't do that. If it's not written out, I can't play it."

The article continues about a scientific test taken while jazz musicians were improvising. They wanted to see which of the parts of the brain would light up. That's my bolding.
But it’s not enough to just unleash the mind — successful improv requires a very particular kind of expression. That’s why the fMRI machine also recorded a spike in activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, a fold of frontal lobe just behind the eyes. This area is often linked with self-expression — it lights up, for instance, whenever people tell a story in which they’re the main character. The scientists argue that this part of the brain is required for jazz improv because the musicians are channeling their artistic identity, searching for the notes that best summarize their style. “Jazz is often described as being an extremely individualistic art form,” Limb says. “What we think is happening is when you’re telling your own musical story, you’re shutting down impulses that might impede the flow of novel ideas.”
You're telling the world who you are at that specific moment in time. I would argue that my friend who said she couldn't improvise also exercises that portion of the brain, though, when she interprets great writers. The emotion attached to her expression of those notes brings something new each time she plays it, with every single micro-second subject to variation.

The article said this one discovery "intrigued" them when they recorded Classical musicians improvising, that it engaged an area, the inferior frontal gyrus, usually reserved for speech, even though the musicians were not speaking with their mouths:
The inferior frontal gyrus, however, has primarily been investigated for its role in language — it includes Broca’s area, which is essential for the production of speech. Why, then, is it so active when people create music on the piano? The scientists argue that expert musicians create new melodies by relying on the same mental muscles used to create a sentence; every note is another word.
No. Not a "word." In music, there is so much more than a "word." Leonard Bernstein talked about this in his speech at Harvard. That music is metaphor. It is a word said with irony or anger or spite or whatever you happen to be feeling, a noun, a verb, a sentence and everything else all at once both when you write it and then when it's performed.

I think you can maximize that out. That an improvisational concert, where you have no idea what song you're going to do next, is also an expression of speech and of the moment.

The old inferior frontal gyrus.

It's also a kind of thrill ride.

I would wage that the inferior frontal gyrus is connected to the adrenalin system. I can only speak for myself, but when I'm singing a song, and it all feels really right, there is no time and it's way better than drinking, sex, and chocolate cake. It's over before it begins. Before you're remotely capable of grasping the moment.

But I keep thinking what if I had been in the studio with the Rolling Stones holding a guitar? I would have been worse than helpless. Here's to Al Cooper!

1 comment:

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