Could Jazz Answer Some of the Universe’s Deepest Questions

You’d never think that jazz could hold the key to understanding some of the universe’s greatest mysteries, but astrophysicist and Brown University professor Stephon Alexander is looking into just that. In his new book The Jazz of Physics: The Secret Link Between Music and the Structure of the Universe, Alexander makes a compelling case, in some ways linking the deep mysterious vibration of the universe to that to that of an instrument. These are deep questions for Alexander, questions he has spent a lot of his career working on.

A seasoned jazz musician himself, Alexander has befriended music icons including Brian Eno, which has enabled him to change the way he thinks about physics. Playing music since 8, Alexander has always closely correlated the  two. We asked Stephon a few questions about his latest book The Jazz of Physics and how he managed to make such an obscure tie between these two areas.

How did such an idea of the correlation between Jazz and Physics arise for you?

The first time I heard Coltrane’s Giant Steps I swore I was hearing some deep geometrical structures in his improvised lines and the chord changes. And Geometry is at the heart of the various branches of modern physics such as General Relativity, String Theory, Quantum Field theory.

Jazz musician Yusef Lateef was an influence on your thinking as well as John Coltrane, can you explain how they influenced your ideas around physics?

My conversation with Yusef Lateef was important because it once again confirmed that Jazz musicians draw from concepts in modern physics to generate new strategies for their improvisations. Lateef welcomed my speculations about Coltrane’s use of relativity/invariance in the diagram Coltrane gifted to him. And this inspired me to continue my investigation which became a key element of The Jazz of Physics. Had Lateef not embraced my speculation I probably would have not written the book.

If John Coltrane was a physicist do you think he would do well?

I think that Coltrane would have been a world class physicist. His diagram which reflects Einstein’s idea of invariance is a clear example of this.

Physics and jazz would seem to be quite a mismatch from first appearance wouldn’t you agree?

Some may think that physics is about logical and mathematical structures; right or wrong.  Some may think that Jazz is about spontaneity and maybe even defiance.  But there are some parallels between Jazz and Physics that I explore in my Book that even surprised me.

Brian Eno influenced your understanding of cosmology. Can you tell us about that relationship? Did you make music together?

One of the most profound lessons I took away from hanging with Eno was the power of simplicity.  At that time I was working on what seemed to be a complicated mathematical physics problem.  But I started to think like a child and was able to see through the complexity and make progress.  I also was inspired to think of aspects of structure formation in the universe (networks of galaxies) as analagous to Eno’s approach to frequency modulation synthesis.

It begs the question, do we need to be more creative about how we approach the sciences?

I think that the sciences already has its share of creativity. I think that scientists need to be more explicit about this mode of inquiry.

Are there more ancient cultures or ancient communities that have played with ideas like yours?

I think that the Hindu philosophy has some deep connection between sound and the universe. In the Rag performance the development and subsiding of the drone is thought to represent the creation and destruction of matter in the universe, a fundamental process in modern particle physics.

It has been said, ”There are a lot of implicit assumptions made about the universe such as the origins of the universe, the origins of life, and the origins of consciousness. In order to get there, you have to go beyond science and create a kind of meta-science.” Do you agree with this? And how do you make that leap of faith personally?

I agree about needing a meta-science to explain the issues of the origins of life and consciousness in the universe. In that, I’m intrigued by the work of cognitive scientist Donald Hoffman who believes that matter emerges from consciousness and not the other way around. This will have deep implications for our theories of quantum gravity and quantum field theory which underlies the fundamental processes of matter, energy and space-time.

So you hypothesise that there is something in the early featureless patterns of the universe that resemble forms of improvisational jazz?

I merely try to make parallels between the origin and development of structure in the universe and the unfolding of a jazz improvisation. This analogy is possible because both music and the early universe are governed by the physics of vibration and resonance. Also, the early universe was occupied by quantum vibrations, so another parallel between improvisation and the probabilistic dance is that quantum vibrations also become possible in making the parallel manifest.

What pushback have you had about the work you do, especially linking these two incongruous areas together?

The pushback I tend to get is that folk misinterpret my ideas as saying that the universe is jazz or that there is quantum mechanics in jazz. This is not the case. I’m merely riffing on some interesting concepts in modern physics and cosmology using jazz as a metaphor. It’s just a new way of talking about the physics I find exciting. However, it is interesting that the analogies went further that I even imagined.

Tell us about your work with DJ Spooky?

In collaboration with other Dartmouth scientists and the Neukom Institute, Paul, Dan Rockmore and I put together an installation that has been showing in planetariums around the U.S. It explores various themes in quantum physics and relativity. Paul produced an album called The Hidden Code and I played saxophone on a few tracks. We did a cool version of Coltrane’s Niama.

What do you think of this new breed of interesting jazz musicians like Kamazi Washington and Thundercat?

It is so refreshing to see a resurgence of Jazz expressed by those cats. Truly incredible musicians.

Your book touches in general on the interface between the Arts and Sciences, what are you thinking about these days ?

I have been looking at new connections between visual arts and physics.  I am currently collaborating with artist Sam Heydt, especially in the scratch film and photography meduim. The idea is to use art as a tool to inspire scientist to have ideas that they ordinarly would not have.  I recently wrote two pieces.  One is about the tension between relativity and quantum mechanics that Heyd’s work of art evokes.  The other is  about emergent symmetries and the move from order to disorder in Cosmology and how that is also reflected in art.  What’s interesting is that this particular act of writing takes me in a new direction and can be used as a reserach tool especially for the theoretical sciences.
To see some of this work go to:

The Jazz of Physics: The Secret Link Between Music and the Structure of the Universe by Stephon Alexander is out now