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Adventures on the Golden Mean

An interview with Wayne Shorter

From the time of his debut with Art Blakey's band in 1959 at the age of 26, Wayne Shorter has been one of the most individual and influential voices on the saxophone. He is also generally acknowledged as jazz's greatest living composer and writes also for orchestral and classical chamber ensembles. During the 1960s, as well as making classic recordings under his own name, he performed in and wrote much of the music for Miles Davis's famous quintet. During the 1970s and 80s, he co-led the pioneering group Weather Report. Today, in his 70s, he continues to astonish audiences with his highly original quartet. He is a longtime member of SGI-USA.

The Wayne Shorter Quartet in the Teatro degli Arcimboldi, Milan, on June 28, 2010: Danilo Perez (piano), Wayne Shorter (saxophone), John Patitucci (double bass) and Brian Blade (drums) [Mattia Luigi Nappi]

SGI Quarterly: What do you think about when you compose?

Wayne Shorter: I find inspiration for compositions that I'm working on mostly from moment to moment, thinking about something that inspired me when I was very young which I tried never to forget, like some books I read. The Water Babies was the first book I read all the way through.

I can remember from the age of around 7 my brother and I would make statues out of clay. . . We used to wake up at three o'clock in the morning, when there was no school in the summertime, when my parents were asleep. We would set up the statues and would hum music as the soundtrack and we would start making up stories.

So when I write compositions, I think about those times in my youth and try to recount those moments in music, but adding to that a real purpose for the composition, based on my childhood desires, dreams. When I'm writing music, I'm trying to incorporate the reasons for everything in my life and the life of human beings into the composition somehow. The one essence I try to bring out in the composition would be the essence of courage, the never-give-up spirit. I want the sound of noble causes to penetrate the music, and the frivolity of delusions and illusions.

I like to depict struggle in the composition itself, then the breakthrough and then victory. This has to be done very clearly and distinctively.

I'm thinking about how the music must move people to want to accomplish things that at one time seemed very difficult. Through hearing, experiencing some of the music that I'm working on, it will ignite them to challenge what they once thought was unattainable in their lives as adults. I want them to hear the youthful vigor and never-give-up spirit in this music, the noble cause, and to remind them of those same things they may have embraced as children but put away.

I want the music to be graphic so that people will see the pictures and be moved by the motion-picture aspect of my compositions and see themselves in this soundtrack of life.

The creative part of this music means that I have to write the music with which they are not familiar. The music that is familiar somehow presents a zone of comfort, in which there is no need to break through. No challenge. I am careful to leave out a sequence of musical sentences which may lead to sedation of the human spirit instead of awakening of that spirit. There is a lot of sedated stuff going on the radio!

I'm trying to keep going further, deeper into the interior of this music, the interior realm of the connection of music and life. The principles of this practice of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo have to be the driving force in my desire to compose not only for myself but for the sake of humanity, for others.

SGIQ: Is creativity something that comes from within an individual, or is it the ability to tap into something broader or more universal? What is the role of a mentor in this process?

WS: I think that creativity is something that comes from within an individual who has tapped into something broader or more universal. I think the creativity is something that says, "I can do something that has never been done before." We need the mentor because of all the obstacles that come with a first-time-never-been-done-before act.

SGIQ: What is the relationship between courage and creativity?

WS: A person can be very creative, but in the interaction with a mentor you can see that your creative process is geared toward a mission.

The relationship between courage and creativity is the linking of purpose and mission. Without a purpose and mission, the creative process can easily be led into a state of confusion, and the whole process of creativity can become convoluted, and implode. That is the path of confusion that leads to self-suffocating.

It's a funny thing, the state the world is in today with the economy and no jobs. This is the perfect setting for a relationship of courage and creativity to manifest within many walks of life. It is a time for great creativity.

A Response of Humanity

SGIQ: It's often said that artists have to struggle in order for their art to have real substance. Are there specific pieces of music that have come out of particularly difficult times in your life?

Wayne Shorter and pianist Herbie Hancock, 2007 [© Jean Marmeisse/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images]

WS: There was one piece of music. The difficult time was in 1996 when [my wife] Ana Maria passed away, July 17, 1996. It was after that in 1997 that Herbie [Hancock] and I recorded a duet album. There was a piece of music that I had written when I was at New York University. It was a class assignment and it was only a short, short piece. I looked at this music--it was from 1952, an assignment from a class; eight bars of music, maybe four. So Herbie and I recorded eight bars and we improvised on it. When the Grammy Awards came, I was at the Min-On Museum [in Tokyo]. Someone from the Min-On front office came upstairs and said to me very quietly, "The piece of music you wrote won the Grammy. Wait a minute. You won two Grammys!" That piece of music was "Aung San Suu Kyi."

Any time that Herbie and I would play that, we would hear from the audience, "Yeah!" There was a response of humanity, rather than something musical.

This piece taught me something about the other difficulties that I would have. It's difficult to have your music embraced by large audiences, because the music that I write and play is considered complex and futuristic.

When Herbie and I did our duet tour, we had people coming backstage and expressing how gratifying it felt to participate in what we knew to be the creative process happening in the moment, rather than how masses respond to what is familiar, like a pop concert or rock concert where everyone automatically embraces what's going on the stage.

I'm learning that what is considered difficult during writing, I will embrace and it becomes fuel. I look at the difficulty as no coincidence. I have to look for the deeper meaning.

Now when I walk on stage, there is a lot of applause. Even people who don't really embrace the music, they are hearing, "Wow! He is a fighter." Maybe my behavior is starting to infiltrate--the behavior of a person who doesn't give up.

SGIQ: As a human being, and as an artist, what is the quickest way to break through the confines of one's ego?

WS: I think the quickest, direct, convincing way is when you see everyone as a mirror and there is a realization that you may draw an audience musically but no one is really drawn to you.

I think, only through interaction with other men and women in many walks of life can a direct breakthrough of the confines of one's ego take place.

At some point, the human being is the measure of what an artist really is and does. The artist part cannot really measure the value of the human being. It's like Art Blakey said, "You can't hide behind your instrument or your profession." As a human being, your humanness will eventually tell who you are as an artist. It will show itself, reveal itself in your art.

The confines of the ego have consequences in that they deny the actual art from coming to true fruition. When the humanity is lacking in whatever you do as a performer, that will transmit to the audience. Lack of humanity will at some point direct you to perceiving that your artistry is false.

"The quickest way to break through the confines . . ." That should lead actually to eventually finding a mentor. I think one way is to think back as a child--who you admired. Go back to what inspired you to become an artist. This kind of a seeking spirit could lead this person to a mentorship relationship.

Playing Eternity

SGIQ: Where does the creative inspiration come from when you're improvising together with other musicians?

WS: The inspiration is in always trying to do something that has not been done, to discover, to experience originality. It's almost like, how do you play eternity? How do you write eternity in music? A lot of people don't believe in it, they don't want to talk about it. They say, "You only live once." The word "eternity" doesn't come into many conversations.

SGIQ: But if eternity is in a moment?

WS: It's in the moment. Jazz! That's the challenge of improvisation. Also when you are writing music. I used to tell interviewers, "Well, when I'm writing music, it can be also improvisation, the moment in slow motion."

[Kate Garner]

To be creative is to know that you are not confined by a false mandate or set of rules on how to be creative, not being concerned with validating one's credentials as a musician. I'm talking about where a musicologist says, "This is a legitimate composition." This is superficial validation. We can't be bothered with the superficial.

Part of the creative process is not knowing. We have to be humble enough to know that we don't know everything.

Back to the "quickest way to break through the confines of ego"--it's to discover that one is ignorant of many, many things. The creative process entails removing the ego, which blocks the way.

SGIQ: What advice do you have for the youth who are developing their art?

WS: My advice is to read as much material as they can; to read as many novels, to see many different kinds of films. Read as much literature as you can from different parts of the world that has been translated into your own language; to observe the humanity around oneself, to observe oneself and the humanity--men, women, children--around oneself; to participate whenever feasible with the workings of society and the community. And collaborating with other people in the same field, and people in different fields. To isolate oneself in the name of art is backward motion. It serves little purpose and leaves one defenseless in the world of real hurdles and obstacles, which we need in order to grow.

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