Pat Metheny: It Starts from Listening

by Barbara Jöstlein Currie, hornist

The great Pat Metheny, legendary jazz guitarist and composer, also happens to be an opera buff. Hornist Barbara Jöstlein Currie and retired music teacher Jim Stombres, who was Barbara’s band director at Naperville North High school, spent time exploring Pat’s process, his philosophies, his passion for Tristan, and more.

Barbara Currie: Can you tell me a bit about your musical upbringing?

Pat Metheny: My family were all trumpet players. Me, too - I started on trumpet when I was eight. But I fit chronologically right in that demographic of people who saw the Beatles in the mid/early 60s on the Ed Sullivan Show. Suddenly, the guitar had a place in the culture that took it from being simply a musical instrument to an almost iconic emblem of everything that was about to happen. Where my story differs from the other gazillion people who got interested in the instrument around that time was that I heard “Four and More,” the Miles Davis record, shortly after I got a guitar. After that, I became devoted to wanting to understand what that music was all about.

Jim Stombres, Band Director: How are you able to make complicated and intricate rhythms sound so calm?

PM: When I write music, I often wind up performing it on tour hundreds and hundreds of times, so it is always important for me that I try to shoot for the point on the X/Y matrix where things have a kind of natural inevitably. It has to meet some kind of distinct musical challenge or narrative question that can only be answered by that particular musical result. For every 10 things I write, I usually wind up not using eight of them. It takes me a long time to get to something that I will really love playing night after night, that I can find something new and challenging in each and every time.

But regarding this question, there is one aspect of this that I find to be a common thing, that I experience myself as a listener. I can study a Bach piece a thousand times and hear it differently every single time, yet there is a sense of, “Well, of course it does that.” Or hearing a master soloist who makes the most difficult thing sound almost easy. I am often told by musicians as they come into one of my bands that a lot of the music sounds a lot easier than it actually is to play. It takes me quite a lot of work to get to something like that though.

JS: Where do you get your inspiration to write such beautiful melodies?

PM: Music itself is intrinsically inspiring to me. I know there are musicians who look outside of music to find meaning and then bring it into their work, and I almost envy their ability to do that. For me, it is all built into the sound. Everything I need is all right there. That said, I have lived a rich life and have traveled all over the world playing music for more than 40 years. Everywhere I have been and all the people I have met over that time have enriched and enhanced every aspect of my life. In the end, it all comes out in the music.

JS: What do you do to relax and unwind?

PM: I am pretty much unwound and relaxed all the time!

BC: Does classical music influence you when you’re composing?

PM: I am not a huge fan of the whole idea of genres or styles of music to start with. Often, I am not really certain what people are even talking about when they use those kinds of genre designations that seem to come up a lot. To me, music is one big, universal thing. The musicians and composers I admire the most are the ones who have a deep reservoir of knowledge and insight, not just about music, but about life in general, and are able to illuminate the things that they love and have found to be true in sound. When it is a musician who can do that on the spot, as an improviser, that has a particular familiarity to me because of the roads I travel on most. But even in through-composed music or interpretive performances, I recognize that essential connection that happens between the material at hand a musician on a mission to communicate something essential and important to them. That is what I always respond to the most.

I feel like I am a musician in this broadest sense first, more than being attached to any particular area of music. It seems that the various subsets of the way music often gets talked about - the words people use to describe music - sometimes come down to more of a cultural/political discussion than a musical one. I am really not that interested in the discussion part of it in the same way I am interested in the spirit and sound of music itself.

BC: I recently spoke with a friend from high school and mentioned how exciting it was to meet you, and she instantly clapped the opening to your chart, "First Circle,” something we had performed over 20 years ago. Do you have any classical or operatic pieces that have the same effect on you?

PM: Wow, there are so many. I do think that there are formative pieces that we all experience, often in our teen years, that wind up having a lifelong effect on us. And so often it comes from the music programs in our schools. In my small town of Lee’s Summit, Missouri, we were incredibly lucky to have an amazing band director, Keith House, who was one of those singular figures that made a huge difference. He recognized early that I was unlikely to become a good French horn player (I had switched from trumpet in 7th grade) since I was devoting every waking second to becoming a guitarist and learning the jazz language.

However, he programmed very hip pieces, like Die Meistersinger and many of the Mozart, Beethoven, and Vivaldi “hits,” while asking me (actually, making it requirement!) to write my own original music for our concert band. By 9th grade or so, I was working in nearby Kansas City as a professional musician and was kind of off on my own, but the foundation and exposure he gave me to a broad range of music was so important and was a real testament to music education in public schools.

BC: Given your comprehensive understanding of harmony, do you ever find it difficult to just sit back and enjoy music you're listening to?

PM: That is such a good question. There were many years I was really able to do that. Even while working on a piece, I could actually “turn it off” in the middle and just hear it as sound. That was really advantageous in a bunch of ways. I don’t know why, but about 10 years ago, that went away. Now I kind of see a score all the time in my head for whatever music is going on around me. And honestly, it does drive me a little nuts. But a few weeks ago, I was working on a piece with some other musicians and for about an hour that ability came back. I am kind of studying what is going on with all that - it is an interesting issue.

Photo by John Peden

Photo by John Peden

BC: The greatest jazz performances are usually those where the players are the most responsive to each other. In opera, we feel our best performances are those where we're the most responsive to each other, and collectively to the singers. Is this commonality of the performances part of the draw for you?

PM: To me, the most important quality that measures any musician is their listening skill. The way someone listens is the way they play. I think that transcends style or setting. It is the same regardless of the material at hand. All the best musical experiences I have ever had revolved around a sense of collective listening and the feeling everyone shares being in that particular moment as it is happening.

I always respond to music first as a listener. In recent years, on a good night, when I am playing or working on something, I mostly don’t even feel like I am doing anything. I am just listening. And if I can really hear it, maybe I might be able to contribute something. But it always starts from a listening perspective.

BC: Have you ever wanted to compose anything for orchestra?

PM: I have written a bunch of music over the years for larger ensembles, including orchestral music. And I have gotten many commission requests from orchestras to write pieces. The issue for me is time. In addition to all the recording and touring that I do and the time it takes to write new music for each project, I also have three kids and a great family life here in NYC. To write something at the level I would hope to get to would take me a year or more, and honestly at this stage of life I couldn’t really set everything else aside and do nothing but write and still survive and keep the kids fed. But it is one of my dreams to do that at some point. I even have a pretty complete sketch of what it might be.

BC: What are some of your favorite operas or classical pieces?

PM: Tristan and Isolde is right at the top. What happens harmonically in that piece is an never ending inspiration for me. In “jazz” terms, I often describe it as a four hour long meditation on everything a Minor 7(b5) chord can mean to the universe. I have heard many versions of it over the years, but you guys with Sir Simon Rattle this past year was the greatest I have ever heard, and one of the best musical experiences of my life. I went several times and it was better every time.

Of course I love the Italian guys - I will come for any Verdi or Puccini. But honestly, the Met is a place to trust. I know it will always be special. Given the time and opportunity, I would come to anything you all present with the foreknowledge that it will be an unforgettable experience.

BC: How many operas do you attend a year? How long have you been coming to operas at the Met?

PM: It depends on how much I am touring and what is going on when I am home. There are times at home that I kind of have to maintain myself on “output” and really limit my “input” time. But I would say I go at least twice a year - sometimes more. We literally live right across the street. Honestly, I don’t go out much to hear music in my general sphere. Going to the Met is one of my favorite things to do and a real treat. Of course, every aspect of it is great, but the MET Orchestra itself is just unbelievable - one of the greatest orchestras in the world. 

There is a hypothetical measure I often contemplate. If somehow there were a way to quantify something like “Units of Human Achievement,” how many “UHA”s does it take to become a coherent improviser, or a nuclear physicist, or a master of some other kind of skill? If there were somehow some kind of scale to address the maximum cumulative “UHA”s present in a room at a given time, I don’t think there is any human activity that could rival what happens in an opera performed at the highest level. The years and years of practice, preparation, and study required by each player and singer, the level of competition and dedication required to get to that seat, the almost superhuman level of talent represented in the greatest composers, the craft and dedication of the stage workers, the administration, and on and on. What could be a more amazing display of what it is possible to achieve in a lifetime on this planet than that?