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Jazz Cosmos: Music and Modern Physics

By Published: November 19, 2013
Skeptics may say that comparing jazz to something as abstruse and difficult to understand as quantum physics (the great physicist Richard Feynman said that nobody understands it!) is sheer nonsense. But there are various ways in which the universe of jazz behaves like both waves and particles, showing quantum paradoxes that the best musicians are very gifted at producing. The most obvious example is John Coltrane's "Giant Steps" in which he combined quantum leaps from one remote chord to another (particles) with continuous chord progressions (waves). Coltrane's finesse was so difficult to figure out that it took a brilliant critic like Lewis Porter to explain how he did it. More generally, jazz frequently makes use of paradoxical insertion of notes, harmonies, and rhythms that clash against one another and yet come together to produce new experiences and effects. Thelonious Monk, with his angular rhythms and chord clusters did this frequently. He would break up the time signature and the chord progressions in disturbing ways (particles) and yet the overall impact would reflect the original intention of the melody (waves). Like electromagnetic waves and the Greek gods, Monk could assume two (or more!) forms in the same improvisation. Similarly, some drummers like Elvin Jones
Elvin Jones
Elvin Jones
1927 - 2004
drums
, Joe Morello
Joe Morello
Joe Morello
1928 - 2011
drums
, and, more recently, Adam Cruz
Adam Cruz
Adam Cruz
b.1970
drums
have been capable of playing two or more unrelated rhythms simultaneously. Some of these juxtapositions of paradoxical opposites can be traced both to African rhythms as well as to the classical American composer Charles Ives, who incorporated musical impressions of street bands, nature, and conversations simultaneously as if one were standing on a street corner. Jazz at its most amazing happens when players, or else the right and left hands of the pianist or drummer, take totally different tacks from one another yet make it all come together well. Particles become waves and waves become particles. Paradox rules. Opposites attract and become one.



The Uncertainty Principle and Jazz Improvisation: You Don't Know What's Going to Happen Until it Happens!

There is another way in which jazz and quantum theory are almost identical. Quantum theory says that you can't predict the position and speed of a very small particle like an electron until it happens. At the smallest magnitudes such as subatomic levels, the measuring instrument affects the outcome, so when you observe the particle, you influence it in unpredictable ways. An electron is nearly as small as the quanta of electromagnetic waves that are used to observe where it is and how fast it is moving. So when the waves hit the electron, they change its position and speed. You can't separate the observer and observed. The result is that you don't know the outcome of the event until you measure it, not before. This ambiguity of result came to be called the "uncertainty principle." Until you actually measure it, the "particle" is more like a "cloud" of possibilities. This is exactly like jazz improvisation. While composed music is determined in advance, improvised music is defined at the moment of conception. The musician himself doesn't know how it will turn out, and the players themselves sometimes express surprise at what they have just improvised. No two improvisations are ever the same, although they sometimes "quote" one another.

Thus, both jazz and the subatomic world of quantum theory are born in the moment of performance, in the here-and-now. Just as subatomic events are serendipitously affected by the means of observation and other forces, jazz performances are influenced by the audience, the mood of the players, even the temperature of the room. (There was a recording session where the room was so cold that a string of the upright bass snapped, and the bassist had to improvise with three strings, which totally changed his approach!) Jazz and subatomic occurrences are spontaneous here-and-now creations.


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