Physics and Jazz
Stephon Alexander is an Associate Professor of Physics at Haverford College, focusing on theoretical cosmology, quantum gravity and particle physics. He is also an Assistant Professor (Adjunct) of Physics at Penn State University. Stephon has studied at Brown University and done postodoctoral research at Imperial College, London and at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Laboratory. He is on the Board of Directors for the Network for the Improvement of World Healthare, an action-driven organization that forges global partnerships to address local health challenges. He also plays jazz saxophone and sees improvisation as an extension of his scholarship.
Stephon Alexander: So, it’s interesting that a lot of modern jazz composers; some names that immediately come to mind; people like John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter; there was always directly; Sun Ra; and a deep appreciation, and even a very deep, intuitive understanding, of modern physics into their music.
And one of the things I like to do for fun is actually look for those connections, like literally- I talk to music composers and it’s like this hobby of mine, where I will take a Coltrane song, or the chord changes, and try to relate it to music theory and physics.
One thing I found interesting is the notion that Coltrane came up with, was something called; it was a sort of a musical illusion device in saxophone playing. See, a saxophone can’t play more than one note at a time. It’s a monophonic instrument. But what Coltrane was able to do was to come up with illusory effects on the saxophone--I call it that--and it was called sheets of sound. Or another thing that he did was figure out ways in which you can go to higher notes that a sax was wasn’t built to make.
And this uses ideas in physics, like non-linearity, for example, that there isn’t always a one-to-one correspondence between a wave and a note, and I mean, one wave- if I add two waves together, I get a third wave. There’s not always a one-to-one correspondence; that’s the difference between linear and non-linear.
And since music is a way a culture is able to figure out techniques to do that, ways in which, you know, you can hear more than one note at a time--and how is that related to physics? Well, quantum mechanics is exactly an example of that. A particle really can be; there’s a probability, in a sense, of a particle being here or here, then in a sense, you can think of it as occupying two places at the same time; until you go and measure it.
And the question is, well, that’s not hard to get your mind around, but in a sense that’s what the sheets of sound Coltrane was doing was like; because you are playing many ways, many different notes, on an instrument that can only play one note at a time. But there’s this overall effect in which all those notes are co-existing.
What the sheets of sound is; I’m going to be switching between different individual notes. So, for example, I’m going to play a “D”.
And I’ll play a “G”- I’m sorry, a “G.”
All right, and that’s a “C”- and if I play them very quickly.
But if Coltrane figured out alternative fingerings while playing those notes in a rapid succession that you get an effect that it sounds like this. So that’s an example of sheets of sound. Altissimo was basically that the sax normally can just go up to, say, this high F sharp. That’s a high F sharp for me.
But then you can go further by using a non-linear effect by, you know, using your diaphragm, down here, by forcing the resonance from down here. So I can go up to my high F sharp.
Stephon Alexander: Actually, I’m working on a little album project--it’s almost done, and the title of the album is called-- and a lot of the songs are inspired by my love for great cool ideas in physics and how it’s connected to jazz music, in particular--but actually it has a lot of. It also explores the idea of diversity and creativity, so it uses modern rhythms, like a Brazilian beat versus a Reggaeton beat versus a hip-hop beat. So it uses modern rhythms with jazz improvisations, combining it with themes and impressions--having to do with cosmology and particle physics and string theory. And the title of the album will be called Mathematics!
Because when I grew up in the Bronx in the Eighties, hip-hop music; there was a part of rap music where guys would battle each other on the streets, and sometimes the battling would go into the subject matter would be talking about science, for example, and they even called it droppin’ science, like Eric B and Rakim.
I used to take the bus home from school and these guys would be on the back of the bus around, rappin’ and battling each other- droppin’ science, so to speak, and one day, you know, I heard someone say, “Yeah, man, ‘cause I got enough mathematics.”
So it also captures a big part of my, you know, what inspired me, was that I was already living in sort of a- this rappin’ and improvisational rappin’- and talking about things around you in the universe, and stars exploding. But I’m like the star exploding. Planet Rock Afrika Bambaataa- one of the first rap songs out there.
So, that title of Mathematics sort of brings it all together.
Recorded June 2, 2008.
Alexander shares the music that most reminds him of physics. He even plays a few notes.
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