Pat Martino: In the Moment

Victor L. Schermer By

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AAJ: Let's talk about your AVM, arteriovenous malformation, the damaged blood vessels in your brain that led to a seizure and life saving surgery, and your remarkable comeback after losing virtually all your memory. Much of what happened was documented in the Ian Knox film and in your autobiography. I think your fans would like to know how you're doing now.

PM: I'm doing very well. I rarely even think about it, but there are times when certain conditions from that event re-emerge. I'll get a wave of recollection of what used to be: a sort of seizure feeling that sparks out from God knows where. But it passes. Occasionally I have these surges, but not that often.

AAJ: That's not a medical event like a real seizure, but a memory of what happened?

PM: I think it's more of a memory.

AAJ: It could be a flashback.

PM: I think so.

AAJ: What was most striking to me about the uncanny recovery of your guitar artistry was a crucial moment when your friend, former roommate, and student John Mulhern came over to your house in Philly with his guitar. I think it was at the request of your father, with the idea of trying to get you interested in the guitar again. There was a moment when Mulhern mentioned a time when you disagreed with him, where he preferred a major 7th chord in a place in a tune, and you preferred a minor 9th chord. Suddenly, you grabbed the guitar, and said something like, "Hey, let me show you what I mean!" And you started playing again. My understanding is that up to that time you had no recall of the guitar, and then all of a sudden everything started coming back.

PM: Yes. What he said really captured my attention. And the instrument participated in its significance. And maybe that's what triggered it to re-emerge: the moment that I picked up the guitar.

AAJ: So after that moment, things started coming back to you rather quickly?

PM: Very much so. It had something to do with a change that occurred in my understanding of music as a result of the AVM, surgery and memory loss. Prior to that time, music to me was a science, intricately interwoven piece by piece, scale by scale. It was about many details that I had to put together when I played. After the operation, it became enfolded into a simplicity based upon similarities. The more I saw those similarities, a oneness began to take place in my mind. I had a new perspective, a new way of evaluating everything. Instead of parts, I began to see it all as one. I started seeing all the opposites as one. It was day and night, man and woman, major and minor. I saw everything from a distance, from the outside, no longer falling prey to the elusive nature of a "Catch 22." Before all this happened, my life was a "Catch 22." There was always a snag. I never enjoyed anything much.

Part of that "Catch 22" was a result of being misdiagnosed as mentally ill before they identified the AVM as the cause of my symptoms. I'd feel a little better on medication, and then the symptoms would come back without explanation. After the correct diagnosis and the surgery, I began seeing everything from a larger perspective where everything was interconnected, everything was one. So that's what happened in my encounter with John Mulhern. He preferred a major chord and I liked minor. But, as I tell my students, those chords are part of a larger whole, which I perceived at that moment.

AAJ: It sounds as if in that split second, your mind grasped the music from a higher level of consciousness that allowed you to enter it again. It fits with the neurologists' idea that the intact parts of your brain had stored the information that you lost from the left temporal lobe.

PM: I tend to agree with that. I saw the whole musical staff, from the clef signature to the end, and it became in my mind a circle in which there was no longer a beginning or end, but a unified whole. I felt I was dealing with the whole of the music from a distance.

AAJ: Wow! It reminds me of a book you once mentioned to me, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes (HougtonMifflin Harcourt, 1976). One of the main points of that book is that consciousness arises from the connection between the two cerebral hemispheres. It sounds like when you made that connection, the two sides of your brain interacted, and your consciousness of music returned!

PM: That connection is like turning a straight line into a circle. Then it all becomes like the points on a compass: north, east, south, and west. Or like the hours on a clock.

AAJ: Is it possible that many people have trouble grasping the big picture because they see everything as a straight line rather than a circle?

PM: They see the circle briefly and invisibly, at certain times in their lives. Like on New Years Day, they suddenly see the whole year in perspective, in a circle.

AAJ: The neuroscientists in a recent study published about you [Galarza, M. et al. (2014). Jazz, guitar, and neurosurgery: the Pat Martino case report. World Neurosurgery, vol. 81, no. 3-4 (Mar-Apr), p. 651] looked at your recovery from the standpoint of anatomy -which parts of the brain were removed and which were left intact. For example, your many years of playing while you had the AVM undiagnosed, may have meant that the other hemisphere stored a lot of information to compensate for the malfunction in the region of the AVM.

I'm thinking there was an additional factor that the neuroscientists don't talk about so much. Going back to the 1960s, you always have had a larger perspective -let's call it "spiritual" or perhaps "mathematical" -in which your brain stored the information holistically (what you call a "circle"), so that once you saw a small part (the two chords with Mulhern), the whole musical world came back into view for you. That's what the neuroscientists call "functional connectivity," the cooperative interaction between different parts of the brain that control cognition, language, music, etc.

PM: That's a good way to look at it. It was like a rebirth of the essence of my whole self, of what I truly am. When I was a kid, I was totally attracted to the guitar my father gave me, like a kid who always wanted to drive his dad's car! Then he learns to drive the car, and the car and he are inseparable. But if the car breaks down -like after I had the surgery -the driver now realizes he's separate from the car. He sees the car outside of himself and that he can get another car or take the bus, so he's no longer so attached to the car. Similarly, there's the body and the soul -the self, the "I Am," and when I'm no longer so attached to the body (and in my case, the guitar), I experience my true self on a spiritual plane. I think that perhaps my spiritual life as well as my total detachment from the guitar due to memory loss may have put me more in touch with my higher consciousness and my true self, and that might have spurred my recovery. The straight line of life became the infinite, eternal circle of the true self. [The circle as a symbol of unity is present in the Hindu mandala and the uroboros, the snake biting its own tail. -Eds.]

I'm not the only one who believes in the true self of the present moment. Eckard Tolle (The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment; Namaste Publishing, 1997) has a similar perspective. Kahlil Gibran (The Prophet; Knopf, 1923) also put forth such a viewpoint.

AAJ: Similar ideas are also present in Buddhism and Hindu philosophy.

PM: Yes.

Music, Math, and the Spirit

AAJ: Your theory of guitar fingering positions is related to your idea of lines becoming circles.

PM: My approach embodies the opposites, the yin and yang of the guitar. I take the seven and five of the octave, the white and black keys on the piano, which is in one dimension, a straight line, and project it into two dimensions, vertical and horizontal. On the piano, it's addition: 7 + 5 = 12. On the guitar, it's multiplication: 3 x 4 = 12. These are only algebraic symbols, but they contain the truth that constantly hits me. So when the twelve notes of the chromatic scale are projected into two dimensions, as a circle, the fingering on the guitar becomes simpler and more flexible.

The guitar and life itself have both taught me that straight lines, from start to end, are not the correct way to understand things. We think of our lives as going on a straight line, from birth to death. But that is not the whole story. The essence of it all is love, and love occurs in the moment. It's a rush that cannot be described. We all have a tendency to think of love in terms of the people and the circumstances that seem to be generating it. But, in reality, love is separate from all of us. It's alive in itself; it's a true source. In Catholicism they refer to such love as the holy spirit.

So what it comes down to is that we have to detach, disentangle from all the details, and focus on love itself in the now. Since I lost all my memory after the surgery, I had no attachments to the guitar or anything else for that matter anymore. As the guitar or a pen or a cup of coffee came back into my life, I was no longer attached to them. Each object became something for my precise use for specific needs. I found myself detached from and outside of all these things that I had previously depended upon as part of who I was.

AAJ: That's certainly manifest in your guitar playing. The feeling is that it is a precision instrument which is active in the moment, never as if you're trying to think of what to do or where to go next.

PM: Right. I never practice anymore. I just play. After the operation, I have never practiced.

AAJ: It sounds like after the operation, you approached the guitar in a completely new way, on a higher plane of consciousness.

PM: It was really an extension of what I was seeking from youth on. In 1968, long before the operation, I was delving in Bayyina and in Eastern philosophy. I was always seeking that oneness. After the operation and memory loss, the oneness became free, it emerged. I think that what I sought was already within me. The aftermath of the operation released what was in me.

AAJ: You always perform with a high degree of concentration. Some jazz musicians seem more in a dream-like state when they play, letting their minds wander to different places and expressing these various thoughts, emotions, and images in their music. But you are totally focused, perhaps like a Zen master, totally centered in the now.

PM: Yes, but whether I like it or not, sometimes I get distracted. That's just being human. I bear with the distraction and accept it. I don't judge it, I don't condemn it. I flow with it. I see where it brings me.

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