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When you watch a group of great musicians play jazz, you can almost see a thickness or some kind of magnetic field in the air between them. Something is tying them together, compelling them to take a solo or accompany someone else’s. Something is drawing out of them the notes they’ve studied and practiced and thought about, inducing them to place their fingers and blow their breath in certain ways.

It’s a way to learn more about human interaction, says David Borgo, a jazz saxophonist and associate professor of music at the University of California, San Diego. Borgo studied ethnomusicology, the way cultures around the world hear and play music. He says those connections he’s felt playing and hearing music — even the edgy, noisy stuff that comes out in the avant-garde realm — make him hopeful that music can instruct us on how to better live in harmony.

These ideas of improvisation and the way we influence each other are what Borgo will be exploring alongside social network expert James Fowler at next week’s Bronowski Art and Science Forum. After he’d played saxophone for a few minutes in a concrete courtyard one drizzly morning this week, Borgo sat down to jam with us on some of his favorite themes: music, human connectedness and the way we see the world.

When you play, do you play with your heart or with your mind?

In some ways, what you hope for is that you’ve done so much thinking through and working through possibilities in preparation for the moment that in the moment, none of that is what’s sort of compelling you. My favorite performances are often those where I’m less aware of what I’m doing, less aware of how much time is passing.

An analogy that’s often made, and I think it’s a good one, is you take 10,000 free throws hoping that in the championship game, you can kind of be in this Zen state and sink the basket.

Does it come out differently when you play with your heart?

Absolutely, yeah. Improvising is the hardest thing to talk about. But it’s this chemistry, this kind of thing that can happen. And I won’t be the first to admit it doesn’t always happen. It’s probably a minority of the time that it really clicks.

You started playing saxophone when you were 8, and you’re 41 now. Why do you keep playing music?

I do it because I still chase after that experience. And I think lots of people enjoy and would want to chase after that experience. But maybe we’re all living in an age where we’re just bombarded by easy-access experience. You have to make an extra effort to say I’m going to commit myself to this, I’m going to play the violin. I mean, the violin takes 10,000 hours to make it sound good.

Somehow we’ve positioned the arts as hyper-specialized because we have wonderful specialists. But we’ve all too easily written off the masses as not creative, not artistic, who should get a job and provide for themselves.

But I’m encouraged, at least, that there seems to be more amateur production. The word amateur gets a bad rap, right? But it’s got the root word for “love.”

Some of the stuff you play is pretty far out there. This conversation you’re having next week is partly about social networks. What responsibility do avant-garde musicians and the world of musicology have to translate what’s happening in it to regular people?

It’s what I struggle with on a daily basis, in part because my interests are both. A lot of my interests are hyper-specialized: I do this free improvisation, avant-garde jazz — things that admittedly have a very small, dedicated following. And so many would kind of dismiss them, asking: Well, what’s the relevance there to the greater questions we all face?

But as an ethnomusicologist, you’re always trying to understand: What is this thing called music? How is it that it remarkably draws people together, and drives them apart, in interesting ways across the planet?

I think that’s what so great about music; it serves so many human needs. It serves the need for us just to get together and groove and dance and feel connected. It serves the need for this kind of space outside the ordinary rigmarole where you can feel more contemplative. Different cultures value these spaces differently.

What do you prefer: Listening to records or going to a concert?

I love going to live music. I probably buy less records now than I once did, in part because I value what you can get out of a live jazz performance.

I think it’s knowing that you’re in the room not only with the performers but with an audience. There’s something about the magic of the moment. That ultimately, there’s an energy circulating. When you’re listening on headphones at home, there is kind of a remove. It can be a wonderful experience and it’s a key component to how you learn this music. But it’s still nice to know that it’s music being made at that moment for that group of people.

What happens in a jam session?

There is a certain intimacy that you’re achieving with your fellow performers, and hopefully with the audience, that’s maybe what makes music such a special thing. Something that sort of transcends language. It’s not about sharing information or even telling stories to one another. But it’s actually doing things simultaneously, in the moment.

I work in an electroacoustic duo with a trumpet player. We both have laptops and live processing. And we both use lots of extended techniques — he’s using key sounds and I’m putting a French horn mouthpiece or a recorder mouthpiece on my saxophone. Just to expand the palate of possibilities.

But one thing I really love in that format is that I’m not sure what I’m producing and what he’s producing, or what the computer’s generating and I’m generating. You don’t want it to be completely confusing or it’s not interesting to you or to the audience. But you do want a little bit of, almost like identity play.

I think for me it’s a platform where you can explore the fringes of: What does it mean to be human? Where does my identity stop? Where does my cognition stop? You know, is it really inside my head just because they tell me that’s where it happens? Is my body really this boundary that separates me from my environment?

What kept saxophone as your primary instrument?

When I went to study ethnomusicology, there was one day in particular where I was studying the shakuhachi, the Japanese bamboo flute, with my teacher. I had a concert that night, but I took a Latin jazz gig, you know from 5 to 7 or something, playing Western flute. The embouchure (mouth position) for Western flute and shakuhachi are distinctly different. So I’m playing all this Latin flute stuff, and then I barely made it to the concert, they threw me in a kimono, threw me out on stage, and I just kind of folded. I couldn’t make the switch. And I went home, probably got drunk and reflected on, “What am I doing here?”

You’re not going to get 10,000 hours on every instrument. The saxophone was my entry point and it remains central. Even if there’s moments, years when I get bored with it. You just kind of find other things to get involved in. It’s the thing I can always come back to and feel like it’s a part of me.

Like an appendage, almost?

Yeah, it really is. Gregory Bateson had this great quote, “Is a blind man’s cane a part of him?” The first answer might be, no, it’s a cane, it’s an external thing. But to that person it becomes a way in which they’re engaging with their environment.

Isn’t a musical instrument also that?

Interview conducted and edited by Kelly Bennett, arts editor for VOSD. You can reach her directly at kelly.bennett@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.325.0531.

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Kelly Bennett

Kelly Bennett is a former staff writer for Voice of San Diego.

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