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Jazz Cosmos: Music and Modern Physics

By Published: November 19, 2013
In a similar vein of constancy and precision, the pitches of the notes were standard for anyone who used the same tuning fork. In addition, the sonorities of the instruments and voices all strove for the same ideal. All good violinists, for example, sounded pretty much alike. (Compare that with the very different sound timbre, for example, of Coleman Hawkins
Coleman Hawkins
Coleman Hawkins
1904 - 1969
sax, tenor
and John Coltrane
John Coltrane
John Coltrane
1926 - 1967
saxophone
on tenor saxophone.) So, like Newton's unchangeable laws, musical pitch, tempo, and sound were constants. Composers like Bach used them in highly creative ways, but were restricted to a limited and specific sonic vocabulary.

With minor adjustments, such as glissandos and shifts of tempo, that state of affairs lasted for three centuries, and is still the gold standard of most classical performances. However, at the same time that Einstein changed the face of physics, jazz changed the complexion of Western music. Like relativity theory, jazz capitalized on the fact that time, space, and sound (the equivalent of matter/energy) could be altered and "bent" to suit taste, purpose, and expression. Jazz allowed composers and players to alter rhythm, pitch, and sound in ways that still make some classical musicians bristle. What they don't realize is that outside of the classical European repertoire which they were taught, musicians have always used every means at their disposal to achieve self-expression. Folk music, Indian raja, African drum rhythms, and many other musical forms and genres use diverse scales, sounds, syncopations, and inflections that are outside the Western classical mold. Music, broadly defined, is the use of sound (and silence, as John Cage argued) by whatever means possible to achieve an effect. Jazz is in good company when it uses swing rhythms, "blue" notes, plunger mutes, growls, squeaks, and whatever else it wants when the mood or meaning calls for it. Western classical music occupies only a very narrow window within the scope of world music.

Specifically, the jazz rhythm in which the off-beat is held back and understated is a metaphorical parallel to Einstein's (now proven) theory that time slows down as an observer approaches the speed of light. Someone once made a very bad joke, saying that Frank Sinatra
Frank Sinatra
Frank Sinatra
1915 - 1998
vocalist
's ending of "Strangers in the Night" was like a Buddhist or existentialist mantra: "DO-BE-DO-BE-DO-BE-DO-BE-DO. (My apologies!) The jazz rhythm does in fact express the alternation between doing and being, action and pause, tension and realease. With jazz, time slows down and speeds up between the downbeat and upbeat. Count Basie
Count Basie
Count Basie
1904 - 1984
piano
defined jazz as music that makes you tap your feet. The reason you tap your feet is that for a split second time slows down just before the off-beat, and the tension is experienced as exciting and driving. You are on a space ship moving close to the speed of light, where Einstein's theory would predict you would be younger than if you stayed on earth that whole time. When you "return to earth" after a swinging jazz set, you feel younger, just as you would be if you were on that hypothetical spacecraft.

Einstein also held that space is not rigid but flexible. He predicted that a ray of light would bend around a massive object like the sun that has a strong gravitational pull. Physicists and astronomers were astounded when an eclipse of the sun allowed them to measure the curvature of the light coming from a distant star when it entered the sun's gravity. Einstein correctly inferred that space itself curves around a gravitational force.

The jazz equivalent of the curvature of space is the "blue" note, a note that bends down below its usual pitch, and gives a sense of sadness or gravity to the melody. The Blue Note (the tone, not the record label or nightclub!) defined jazz melody and harmony from the very beginning. Modern jazz, however, has gone well beyond the blue note to include all varieties of shifts in the notes and chords used for improvisation. Contemporary jazz musicians bend and transform the notes all the time. Bebop players added distant overtones that didn't belong with the chords at all, but "sounded good." Modern innovators like Dave Liebman
Dave Liebman
Dave Liebman
b.1946
saxophone
add all kinds of harmonics and dissonances that no one ever "heard" before! And Rudresh Mahanthappa
Rudresh Mahanthappa
Rudresh Mahanthappa
b.1971
sax, alto
has added notes that occur only in East Indian scales. Jazz has bent the well-tempered scale forever, just as Einstein bent physical space by applying a new mathematics (Riemannian geometry) to the universe.


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