It is very short. Musically it leaves a lot to be desired. But this is a historic recording. The players are two real heavyweights, and this was their last-ever appearance after a long-time partnership.
That insignificant-sounding chirp, almost lost in noise, is the death spiral of two neutron stars, each the size of a city but as massive as the sun, revolving in ever tighter loops towards an unimaginably violent collision. A collision which literally shook the fabric of space and time.
Feeling unshaken? It all happened 130 million years ago in a distant part of our galaxy. The vibrations – gravity waves – that eventually reached the Earth were so feeble that only extremely sensitive instruments could detect them. But the impact on science was huge. If you are remotely interested in the universe around us, you need to know about this. Just watch this 4-minute video, or google ‘LIGO Virgo’, if you have not done so already.
On the day this stunning observation was announced, I happened to start reading The Jazz of Physics by Stephon Alexander. I did not yet know how appropriate and timely the book’s content would be. The author is a physicist and saxophonist. He argues that waves and vibrations are incredibly important in physics at every scale from the cosmic to the subatomic. He finds many analogies between music and physics.
The analogies extend to the thought processes of the physicist and the musician. Since Alexander is both, he is able to provide some interesting comparisons. Both disciplines require a balance of theoretical calculation and intuitive spark.
Perhaps the best way to read the book is as a memoir: the personal story of a music-crazy guy from the Bronx, who became a physicist researching the deepest foundations of the cosmos. A guy who works daily with legendary scientists like Lee Smolin and Brian Greene, and also gets invited to Wayne Shorter’s 75th birthday party.
The physics is mind-blowing stuff. It’s about why there is anything at all; why, against all odds, the universe is friendly to life; how our universe came into being; and the other universes that could exist before it, after it or alongside it.
Without mathematics it is impossible to understand this stuff in anything more than a poetic way. A few formulae appear in the book, but they will be mere squiggles for anyone who does not already know a serious amount of mathematics and physics.
Jazz enters into the book as Stephon Alexander’s other passion. Wherever his international scientific career takes him, he is visiting jazz clubs and jamming with local musicians. He talks to Pat Martino, Ornette Coleman and Sonny Rollins about their improvisation methods – all fascinating, and all quite different.
In 2014 he made an album with the electronic musician Erin Rioux. This track is an homage to Ornette Coleman.
In London he hangs out with Brian Eno, another physics enthusiast, whose ‘generative’ music is basically mechanised improvisation.
A long phone conversation with Yusuf Lateef, sparked by John Coltrane’s mysterious 60-note ‘mandala’ diagram, probably planted the seed of this book. During his talk with Lateef, it became apparent to Alexander that Coltrane and Einstein, each a genius in his field, thought in similar ways. “That day, like a stereoscopic image coming into focus, my parallel lives in physics and jazz blended before my eyes, creating a new dimension.”
Einstein was not just a brilliant calculator. He had a powerful physical intuition and imagination, and he tested and developed his theories in gedankenexperimente (thought experiments). “Much like Einstein working with his thought experiments, some jazz improvisers construct mental patterns and shapes when they solo. I suspect that this was true of Coltrane.”
As a pianist I construct physical shapes with my hands. The keyboard itself is a physical representation of the equally-tempered pitch system. I often wonder how sax players do all that stuff in their heads. Despite the keyboard’s assistance, I still feel the need for geometrical representations and diagrams (a running theme of this blog).
So I was curious to find out the meaning of Coltrane’s mandala. I have to say this book left me still curious. A chromatic scale runs around the mandala’s circumference. But why five octaves? Of all the questions that the diagram raises, that has to be the first and biggest. I don’t think the pentatonic scale can be the answer. Alexander points out that a pentatonic scale can be made from five perfect fifths (e.g. CGDAE). But Coltrane did not visibly highlight any pentatonic scale on the diagram. And though there is five-fold symmetry in the diagram, that symmetry relates to octaves, not fifths.
A whole chapter about quantum mechanics riffs off a comment by Mark Turner, “one of the few tenor players since Coltrane who has been able to create his own style.” The more certain Turner is of what he is going to play next, the less certain he is of what will come immediately after that. There is a striking analogy to Werner Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, which says that you cannot accurately determine a particle’s position and its motion simultaneously.
I would have liked a bit more explanation of the why and how of Turner’s musical uncertainty principle. For example, every tune has landmarks where you have to be in a certain harmonic place when you hit a certain beat. Are those among the moments when a musician might be most certain of what they will play? Between landmarks, might a player feel more free to bend the harmony and the rhythm? Is that what Mark Turner meant? I am sure there is more to be said about this subject.
Alexander uses musical analogies to explain tough and important science, in provocative and illuminating ways. The early universe, at a time when it was opaque to light but transparent to sound, resonated like a musical instrument. Its vibrations had not only a pitch or wavelength but a timbre – a specific quality of sound, due to subsidiary resonances determined by the material in the universe – just as the sound of a guitar string depends on what it’s made of. The subsidiary resonances of the universe reveal the influence of dark matter, the mysterious invisible ballast that stabilises galaxies. Long ago, dark matter had a role in the initial gathering of matter into protogalaxies, as we can deduce today from observations of the cosmic microwave background radiation. So the musical concept of timbre can actually help to answer the question ‘why are we here?’
Last week’s gravity-wave news adds support to Alexander’s contention that we live in a universe of vibrations. The universe is not exactly full of music, but it is full of music’s raw material.
The good news: we finally got to hear the sound of a titanic stellar collision. The bad news: it isn’t exactly The Great Gig In The Sky. Better not throw out your record collection just yet.
Further reading, viewing and listening
NYT review of The Jazz of Physics, by pianist Dan Tepfer, another core inhabitant of the jazztrophysics Venn diagram.
Dance of the Illusion is another track from the album Here Comes Now by Stephon Alexander and Erin Rioux. You may argue that two-chord mainly-electronic dance music is not jazz, but this has got loads more Youtube views than the track we featured above.
And finally, a comment from Samuel Taylor Coleridge, born 245 years and a couple of days ago: