Interview with the Artist

(Another re-issue, this one from the Bush era. With apologies to Terry Gross and Fresh Air.)

 So, tell me, Doctor; did you find that formal training interfered with your development?

Undoubtedly, Terry. The classes were too structured. And they didn't have anything to do with what I was trying to accomplish. I had to find my own voice, I had to do it my way."

So, did you read alot about the human body and surgical procedures?

Ha, ha, ha. No, Terry. I did no reading. I can't read. Reading is too structured, the ideas are dead. They can't express my feelings, they don't allow me to follow my vision, what I want to do with my surgeries.

So, then, how do you do a surgery?

Well, first I find an idea I want to express. Then I find a patient, one that we might call "sick," if you follow my meaning. Then I assemble a team to work the machines, you know surgery has gotten so technical these days. Me, I prefer to rely on the tried and true, the traditions of the people - hitting knees with hammers, squeezing a persons wrist while I look at my watch. These have always been enough for me.

Yeah, I've always wondered why they press down peoples tongues with those kinda popsicle sticks? Why do they do that?

I doubt if anyone really knows anymore, the technique is so shrouded in history. But I think it comes from long ago. In the middle ages they used to push the tongue down out of the way so they could see if any imps were living in there in what we call the throat tract. With most people now they do it out of a sense of ritual. But it's very useful to see whether anyone has cavities.

Wow, a holisitc approach.

Exactly. Most people think only dentists are interested in the oral hygiene of their patients. But even when I do brain surgery I find it connects me with the whole patient, it gives me an emotional understanding to serve as a basis for my work.

Exactly how is that?

Well, this is where who I am is different from who you are and where my work comes from.

Ok, so let's get back to doing a surgery.

Right. So we have a "sick" patient that I think I can work with.

I should tell everybody here because this is radio that you made those hooky things with your fingers when you said - I'm making hooky fingers here - "sick."

Yeah. So, surgery. First I try a couple of standard things, things that work in most situations. I take out the tonsils, maybe the appendix, do some exploratory surgery until I get a picture of what I want to do.

Supposing someone just want a rinoplasty.

I don't work on animals.

No, a nose job.

Oh. See that's an example of what I'm against. Why make it so mysterious? I mean we all have the same bodies. We all learn the parts of the bodies using common terms - throat bone, head bone, tongue bone. Why should I have to figure what part of the body is like a rhino. You see, the "educated" doctors equate the rhino's horn with the nose! As if that's all a rhino is. It's demeaning to the rhino. It's a stereotype. They don't understand the whole animal, it's hopes and dreams and favorite foods. It's absurd. But to answer your question, sure I still start with the tried and true. It's my signature style. It's what sets me apart from the hacks.

Are all your operations successful. I mean, do you always get results.

Sure everything results in a result. But that's why they say medicine is more art than science. You can't always know what will happen. Some things just don't work. But you have to follow your vision and see if you can get it right next time. But one way or the other, good or bad, you have to be true to who you are and use the materials, the sick guy in this case, to do what your inner sense... I mean, there are some operations I've done that I don't like. But you keep on plugging.

Well, I want to thank you for talking with us.

My pleasure, Terry.

That's what it sounds like to me to hear most pop, jazz, or world musicians talk about music. It's not that they are uneducated or rely on improvisation or the style of music. All musics of all cultures started without training or models, made up or improvised on the spot. It's more a hostile defensiveness, a willful ignorance that equates innocence with purity or authenticity. And then there is the curious narcissism of our age where we all demand to be recognized as artists of something, that all activity is a sign of creativity and that creativity is self-expression and that self-expression is the stuff and substance of art.

The problem with rejecting formal education is that you have to re-invent the wheel. The untrained musician spends years finding the chord progressions and teaching himself to play them. He could learn the progressions in a half hour. He could spend the next years learning to expand his control over them, building unique music. Instead he winds up claiming cliche as success.

Ok, so some cliches have become overworked because they're powerful, effective, and flexible. But others are simplistic, a stereotype, an excuse not to have to think.

From time to time a get a new guitar student who taught himself a few chords and now wants to learn a specific song. Most often it's "Stairway to Heaven", actually. Not a particularly difficult song but it requires a certain group of techniques, both right and left hand. I explain that I could take the next six months teaching them that one song, or we could spend six months studying the techniques we need by learning other songs, simpler and graded, so that in six months he can learn the song in an hour. And it always works.

By that time they usually see how simple pop styles are and learn them on their own, often after only one playing. After all, the studio musicians that back up most soloists get hired because they can read the music and get it right the first time.

As for reading music, those who knock it can't do it in the first place. It's like asking a five year old what's easier, talking or reading. The written word can be read with a great variety of expression, emphasis, and emotion. Reading music allows for even greater expressiveness than reading words. Look at the tortures of emotion opera can express. And imagine a symphony orchestra or even Tom Jones' backup band not being able to read.

Think of the great works that are written, works by Bach, Beethoven, Gesualdo, Berio.

I've got a library of books. How long would it take to memorize just one. And would you trust the work of a playwright who couldn't read, or the work of an airplane mechanic would couldn't read the manuals, or the work of a President who couldn't read his speeches?

Well, I guess there's an exception to everything.