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Rhythms Meet Algorithms: Sparks Fly When Jazz Musician Oded Tzur Partners With Engineer Vansh Makh

Rhythms Meet Algorithms: Sparks Fly When Jazz Musician Oded Tzur Partners With Engineer Vansh Makh

Courtesy Chris Knight


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Jazz and mobile apps may not be typically mentioned in the same breath, but saxophonist Oded Tzur, celebrated by All About Jazz for a string of albums merging jazz with Indian classical music, is changing that perception. Vansh Makh, a Bay area-based engineer, joined forces with Tzur to create Timeseer, described as 'the first and only HiFi Indian classical music app.'
Jazz and mobile apps may not be typically mentioned in the same breath, but saxophonist Oded Tzur, celebrated by All About Jazz for a string of albums merging jazz with Indian classical music, is changing that perception. Vansh Makh, a Bay area-based engineer, joined forces with Tzur to create Timeseer, described as "the first and only HiFi Indian classical music app."

Timeseer offers a distinctly visual approach to rhythm, portraying complex musical patterns through accessible geometric designs. Devotees of Tzur's distinctive merging of raga and jazz may find in the app a tantalizing look behind the curtain, as Timeseer quickly plunges the user into uncommon time signatures and mesmerizing patterns. The app features high fidelity, professionally captured Indian classical instrumentation, and encourages users to explore its geometric patterns, trying tihai phrases at various places in a diverse collection of shapes, giving rise to unique rhythms and emphases. It all feels enticingly naturalistic and prompts continual play and experimentation.

All About Jazz: I'd love to start from the beginning and walk through the origin of the app, especially now that Timeseer is out in the world. Vansh, can you tell me a little bit about your background and how that led you to working with Oded?

Vansh Makh: I was born and brought up in India, and actually I'm an engineer by profession. My main career has been in the high tech industry, mostly. I was working at a company called Qualcomm, making mathematical models for how to decode wireless communication signals for the chips that go into your phones. Then I moved to the Bay Area, and went into more machine learning-oriented fields in cybersecurity.

In parallel, I had been pursuing music as a hobby, as a passion, for a while. I picked up the saxophone as an adult. I was really into jazz music. From there, I reconnected with Indian classical music via jazz, which is sort of indirect and interesting. So I was wondering, is there a saxophonist who has played in the Indian classical idiom in a convincing manner, especially on the tenor sax? I looked around quite a bit, and Oded was the only person that I could find actually really who [took that approach]. And I was blown away when I heard him play the saxophone in an Indian classical setting. So I just sent him an email asking to have lessons with him; he said, "yeah, sure," and that was really the start of this beautiful journey. This was about eight or nine years ago.

That's when I started diving into Indian classical music on the saxophone under Oded, and one of the challenges that kept coming up were all these strange time cycles or taals, as we call them in this music, and you just have to improvise in these 7 beat cycles or 10 beat cycles or 12 beat cycles. I was really struggling with that. I remember I used to do a lot of research into how people have really solved this problem, how other students have solved this problem. There's no real methodology. The only advice I would get is "just keep practicing. Just keep practicing." I used to get really frustrated with that.

Then Oded started introducing me to these shapes that he would use himself that he had come up with while doing his studies. That was really the only methodical systematic way I could find which helped me really internalize these rhythms. I started using them—I used to print them out, draw them out, and put them on my wall, and just look at them while practicing. I started exploring with these visualizations that I was drawing on paper, to make a simple app out of it, so that I can use it for myself. I think that's how it just started getting bigger and bigger and bigger.

AAJ: So you were deriving more and more value out of these patterns that Oded had been creating for a long time, starting to use them in your practice, and you started to think, "Hey, maybe I could represent these through my software development skills?"

VM: Yeah, exactly. Rather than sketching them out, I wanted to experiment with the different shapes. It was more like just something fun to explore in the beginning. I remember the first prototype was just so bare bones. It had one play button, one slider for tempo, and a 10 beat cycle, I think. It was the first time I showed it to Oded—It was interesting to see his reaction. [laughs] I think he was excited. I think it wasn't how he himself completely envisioned the shape, but he did sound excited enough to build it.

Oded Tzur: It was very exciting.

VM: Like you said, I was just applying my tech skills to this problem. I was just curious what would come out of it.

AAJ: Do you feel like a certain one of you was the driver after that point? Oded, did you say, "Hey, let's add more patterns, let's add sound, let's make this more full fledged?" How did it develop from there?

OT: Well, I think it was very much a joint effort from the beginning when we decided that we really want to go for it.

VM: Yeah, absolutely. It was very much a 50-50 split.

OT: So one day, Vansh actually started developing these things. And like he said, when he showed that to me, I was completely mind blown, because I never thought that day would arrive, and it was very, very exciting. And once that happened, we basically started on this journey of saying, "Okay, so these shapes, how can we make them better? How can we make them into these meditative tools that you can really hold in your mind's eye and connect to the music on a deeper level?" So that's where the journey started.

AAJ: Vansh, do you feel like this was a unique application of your skills thus far in terms of how you were incorporating these audio visual elements, the creative aspect? Did it feel very different from the work you've done in the past?

VM: When I started this, I mainly thought of it as an audio visual project—that you have a visual element to it and you have a music audio element to it, and that would be it. I'm pretty decent at coding, but coding is not really my profession. I had confidence that I would be able to code it, but the coding part is not what was exciting me, just the fact that at the end of it would be this cool product out in the world that has been in our minds for so long.

However, in the process, what started happening was we started coming up with new ideas. For example, in the app you can tap a specific rhythm in the app and it pops out a visualization unique to that tapping pattern that you've put in. Or the rhythmic accomplishment, the tabla sounds. We had to build a whole mathematical model which was very heavily based in probability theory, which mimics how a real tabla player would think about ornamenting a rhythmic cycle so that it's not monotonous, but it's not too ornamented either. A vocalist would prefer lower levels of ornamentation, whereas an instrumentalist would prefer higher levels of ornamentation.

So suddenly, it started becoming this very math-intensive, algorithmic-intensive work. That's where I was really pleasantly surprised. All my skills of mathematical modeling of signals: in wireless communications, you have frequency, and you have tempo in music. I started seeing so many parallels that it was quite mind boggling to me. I was very pleasantly surprised that I was able to bring all of those skills together.

AAJ: Did you do research beforehand before you settled on making it into an app that you could download from the app store as opposed to a web-based application? Did you do a market survey and check if there are other similar things like this out there?

OT: Well, the first version, actually, the prototype was a web-based app. It's still out there, but it's a secret where it is. [laughs] Only Oded and I know, and we keep it as a fun reminder of the legacy. We go back to it and look at it, how funny it looks now.

That's where we started because that was the easiest way to build a prototype. But then it was pretty clear to us that if you want to make it really serious, we'll have to convert it into a mobile app because that's what musicians really use. No one is going to sit down in front of a computer and do their practice as much; you want it to be available in a portable manner wherever you're going.

Part of that market research was looking into existing apps for Indian classical music practice that we were already aware of, since we both obviously play the music. There are quite a few—not a ton, but there are a handful of such apps that provide the accompaniment, which in this music is primarily the tanpura, the stringed instrument that is used for the drone, and the tabla. These apps are very widely used.

When we realized that we wanted to create an app that would use the visualizations and perform those same accompaniments alongside the visualizations, we realized that we're entering this market of Indian classical music apps. At the same time, it's important to mention we're thinking beyond those confines as well. Timeseer is going to have more and more applications within it that would speak to, say, a jazz musician in the future, though right now it is still focused around the Indian music practitioner. But that is the market research that we had to do. What we noticed very early on is that while there are existing options, all of them have a sound profile that, to me at least, leaves some room for wanting more.

[Tabla and tanpura]—These are instruments that are so impressive in person. If you have a tanpura with you in your hand and you know how to tune it—which is a very precise project because the overtones of the instrument are so strong, you have to tune it so perfectly well—and you have a live instrument in your hands, it's one of the most amazing experiences to hear in person. So the standard that was set for these apps that mimic those sounds was not the standard that you would expect from a professional music environment.

We really wanted to make an app that would be on another level in terms of sound, so that was our second priority. The first priority was the visualization, and the second one was to make an app where you can sit in that sound and actually be inspired, and that would actually sound like the instruments. So going into the studio and recording these instruments very well, and mixing them well, and making that all sound good on the phone—that has been another part of our journey that actually took quite a long time.

VM: Oded's being very modest here. You spent hundreds and hundreds of hours just perfecting that mix.

OT: It was really nuts. My wife and I had one or two conversations about that. Luckily, I also made an album about her, so iI had some give, some room, I suppose [laughs].

We're talking about at least a year of 10 to 15 hours days of just working on the app. I had spent time with Manfred Eicher in the studio, making albums and noticing what a difference good ears can make. You're in the recording room and you're playing the music, and it's all about heart and it's all about meaning, and then you're going into the concert room, and you either hear what you meant, or you don't. If you know how to record instruments and you know how to mix them, especially the way that he does, it's just a very inspiring thing to be around. So when we created this app, we really wanted it to be good. That took quite some time. I'm very proud of the result, and I would add one last thing about the sound quality. We are still in continuous work with Nitin Mitta, who's the tabla player that's recorded on the app. When we finally played that back to him, it sounded so realistic to him that he basically accepted that as a recording of himself. That's the level that we wanted the app to be on.

There's a whole other side of the work that we can talk about at length. We had to find a way to combine the sounds that we recorded into these ornaments that would sound realistic. So for example, he had played sounds on the tabla that would be one sound with the ring finger, and another sound with the index finger, and another sound with the left hand. Those sounds coming together would create an ornament that is called "tirkit," just to give an example. We had to go into the mathematical model and create compounds of those recordings that would sound as if he played the ornament in real time. We spent a long time perfecting it.

AAJ: I think you were successful. One of the first things that struck me when I opened it up is just the audio fidelity and the way that it sounds very naturalistic, even as you're changing settings and patterns. It's very seamless.

VM: Thank you!

AAJ: When you think about using this for a practice tool, what do you think this offers for players, or learners, who might be coming from a different background, a more Western musical background? What is this more cyclical approach offer that is different from the more traditional linear approach?

OT: I think that maybe the best way for me to answer this question is to talk about my own journey. So I was always very interested in rhythm. Growing up in Israel, the Israeli jazz scene is full of compositions in odd meters, and that's in some way native to the genre. You learn to feel that as a texture. That's something that you learn to feel because it exists continuously.

When I started playing Indian classical music, I was introduced to these cycles that are a lot slower on average. So there is nothing immediate in terms of the texture of the cycle that you can learn to feel. It is a much more global sense of the movement of time, if that makes sense. That's when I started thinking about these visualizations as something that represents time as a place. I was studying from Hariprasad Chaurasia, who is my teacher and an amazing flutist. What I noticed that he's able to do in these cycles, again, going back to the cyclical nature of the music, is that the whole music is set in a certain cycle. You could play the cycle for 30 minutes, 60 minutes, 90 minutes, and something would always be changing and evolving, but you would always be in that cycle, and it seemed to me like he's able to see time, almost. He always knows where he is and he has this complete command over it. That really fascinated me. I tried to think about a way that I can attain that level of rhythmic proficiency. That's where the shapes come from. This was maybe 15 years ago when I started thinking about that, and I was just trying to encode the rhythmic information in a visual form.

These visualizations, or these shapes, have several characteristics to them. Every moment in that shape is distinct—that's one attribute. Another attribute is what is called "chunking," which is the ability of the brain to break apart the task into smaller individual tasks and master them individually and then master the whole. That's how the brain of a child goes about that, like when they learn to tie their laces. Then there's a third aspect, which is the fractals, which is how the small shape and the big shape are the same.

AAJ: So were the shapes something that you saw others using as well, or were they something that just arose as a matter of necessity, where you said "I need a visual way to do this?"

OT: Yeah, it arose that way for me. It was exactly the time where in my personal life I was discovering things like meditation and really coming face to face with the reality that Indian classical music is a spiritual pursuit, and I was very interested in these mandala-like designs that are also in Tibetan Buddhism, where the visual is a vehicle of meditation. When we're playing this music, we are practicing a form of meditation, so that just seemed to make sense to me. Another aspect where this comes into play is, as a jazz musician, I was always interested in playing with the tabla player or with the drummer in the jazz context and not relying on the drummer to tell me where I am or to keep time. So when I came into Indian classical music, I really wanted to have my own device that allows me to know where I am so that I can communicate with the tabla player rather than just rely on them.

AAJ: As the app was nearing the point where it's almost ready to release to the world, did you have a testing cohort that you shared it with who provided you with feedback?

VM: Yeah, absolutely—we went through about three to four months of beta testing, where we invited a bunch of musicians from the Indian classical music scene, as well as people who straddled both worlds, Indian classical music and jazz. They tried it out, and we got a bunch of feedback from them that we incorporated. One really validating thing that we found out was a lot of them actually thought that the tabla was being played by an actual tabla player. They would say, "Oh, can you tell the tabla player to do this slightly differently here?" [laughs] It's all code!

AAJ: It seems like you plan to keep iterating and adding to Timeseer. What are your goals as far as this new niche that you've carved out for yourselves, this partnership as app developers?

OT: After we finish everything that we want to do with Timeseer, then we're going to try to solve the discrepancy between quantum physics and general relativity [laughs]. It's a joke, obviously, but it's interesting that in the app, time and place are interchangeable! Timeseer, as an app, is such a fertile environment. We're really just thinking about how to make it even better, how to add a few more features that we've had in mind as well, and create this environment that in the future would support not only Indian classical music, but also other forms of music. I think that's our main idea for the future.

AAJ: I hope you do. You clearly have something special here!

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