Vijay Iyer: A Scientific Musician

Perhaps it is about time to kick this old blog back to life. I will start with a post about Vijay Iyer. I came across an interview with him, of all places, in Nature (483, p. 157). Vijay Iyer is a jazz pianist who plays a kind of progressive jazz, very interesting stuff although not entirely my cup of tea. It is nice, but not very groovy. What is extraordinary about Iyer is that he has a scientific background which he applies to his music. He started out in physics, but took a PhD in music perception and cognition. In his dissertation, he studied the perception of rhythm. From the Nature-interview:

Why focus on rhythm?
At the primal level, music is rhythm first, the sound of bodies in synchronous action. That is why there is a pulse in music. Rhythm perception is an imagined movement in the motor centres of the brain. Our skill for coordinating our actions is the real foundation of music, and possibly of civilization.

I have listened to Iyer and his trio quite a bit the last couple of days. Rhythm, and the seeming lack thereof, is an important part of Iyer’s music. What he does with the rhythm on Mystic Brew is simply amazing. No doubt, he is a highly skilled musician. It is also fascinating how he applies scientific ideas to his music in a very direct way.

How do you use scientific ideas in your music?
Some composers might write a string quartet ‘about’ string theory, but that is just inspiration, it is not really discovery. I’m more of an experimentalist. There is an auditory illusion of a constantly ascending pitch, known as Shepard tones: the musical equivalent of M. C. Escher’s infinite staircase. As the pitch goes up, the distribution of harmonics shifts down, and your ear can’t find the place where it doubles back on itself. I used this illusion in a string quartet by asking the players to perform a synchronized glissando in parallel octaves and imposing a bell curve on their amplitudes. It worked. After that, I asked, can we do this with tempo? At the end of the title track on Historicity, there is a rhythm that constantly decelerates. On Accelerando, there is a piece giving the illusion of constant acceleration, of a tempo that flexes.

What is the future of music?
People walk around with headphones on, thinking of music as a solitary, personalized pursuit. But it has connected us by synchronizing our actions throughout human history. Because we are so engrossed in the technical aspects, it is easy for scientists, and even for musicians, to forget that the effects of music are primarily emotional. That is why people keep it in their lives.

The emotional side of music is what makes it interesting, and why mainstream, popular music seldom has much appeal to anyone with more than a superficial interest.


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