Astrophysicist and Dartmouth professor Stephon Alexander connect the mathematical realization of quantum gravity to John Coltrane's Giant Steps in his seven minute TED Talk entitled, "The Physics of Jazz." He explains how the Western musical canon resembles space-time—all while holding and occasionally playing a golden tenor saxophone. Though it might immediately sound like untestable pop-philosophy, Alexander's talk is a compelling cross-disciplinary investigation that was recently published by Basic Books, the publishing house behind Stephen Hawking's A Brief Period In Time.
After a chance encounter led experimental producer Rioux to Alexander's TED video, the pair decided to meet for a jam. During their first practice, the—perhaps cosmic—energy between artist and scientist coalesced, and they decided to pursue a collaborative full-length concept album, Here Comes Now. The record is a conceptual exploration of the parallels between scientific phenomena like vortexes and dark matter with music theory and noise.
The ten-track LP could be described as a post-modern collage of sounds and influences, ranging from Sun Ra to Brian Eno (a personal friend of Alexander's) to tropicalia-influenced electronic music with a free-jazz bend. Alexander and Rioux sat down with The Creators Project to discuss everything from their unexpected first encounter, to how certain tracks on the album reflect specific scientific phenomena as captivating as the physics of Coltrane.
The Creators Project: So you guys met in an unlikely manner. What exactly went down?
Rioux: So, it was a summer day in 2012. I was living in Brooklyn and I was going to a coffee shop down the block to just make music. This man walked in and happened to sit next to me. He asked me what the WiFi password was and noticed that I was working on music, because I had Ableton Live open and headphones on. He asked me about it, and when I asked him what he did, it struck up a conversation.
He said, “Well you know, I’m an astrophysicist by day but I blow sax by night.” I won’t forget that one. I asked what that entailed and he Googled himself and the result was a TED talk he gave on the relationship between physics and cosmology and the harmonic structures of John Coltrane’s music.
What I think drew us together into the conversation was that we were learning from one another’s perspective. I was interested in science and was like cool: he’s full of knowledge. And I think Stephon was probably seeing something. “Yo, a musician who went to college for music, making some cool stuff in this coffee shop.”
Stephon Alexander: Like Schrodinger’s Cat, we experienced the same event, but there are two experiences and perspectives of it. [laughs]
Rioux: So he came over at the end of that day with his sax.
Stephon Alexander: I almost didn’t go over. But I found the urge to blow my horn, because I was stuck on this proof I was working on. When Albert Einstein got stuck on problems he religiously used to turn to his violin and piano. So for me, that has been my religion as well. When I get stuck on problems, I kick my horn up because it helps inspire subconscious realizations.
Rioux: I had a room set up and I had like a mini drum pad going into the computer and an electric bass. And so I was recording Stephon’s saxophone kind of off-the-cuff and we jammed for a while and he had left. I ate dinner and went back into my room, where we were recording. I listened to the rough takes and thought it sounded like something I would’ve loved to make, but I would’ve never made on my own. Stephon has a jazz background and a Caribbean background, which are not related necessarily. And then the hip-hop roots background, because he grew up in the Bronx. Plus, the intense academic training. So I was like, this is really cool I love all of it but I’m not collaborating with people who have that experience.
So how did you two decide you’d actually make a record?
Rioux: I don’t think the day I met you I realized I was going to make an album. We kept meeting up and soon we had a few demos. When I say demos, we were recording sort of like long form, improvisations where we would repeat beats so we would have something to play over. And we would have this big stream of consciousness thing and we accumulated several of them.
Alexander: The first song on the album, “A Brief History Of Time,” was the first song we recorded, and it was done in more or less one take. That was the real spark.
Rioux: I don’t remember if it was the first time we played music together or the second time, but Stephon said 'wouldn’t it be interesting for there to be a record with spoken word dance music—but with these kind of cosmic undertones or even overtones.' And the second time we were playing music, Stephon set his sax and was like alright 'Where’s the vocal mic? I want to do something with it.' Stephon just goes: 'The universe was created some 15 billion years ago….' And kept riffing from there.
I thought: ah shit, this is hot! We put some dub reggae kind of echo on it, and I was like pitching his voice up and down sometimes to make him sound a little less like a person, I guess. And the fact that that was just like a one take, like barely knew each other kind of deal. I was like, that’s rare, that doesn’t happen with everyone I play music with.
Alexander: This led to us pursuing the album, and after a few more jam sessions we had like seven songs and we thought oh this shit is good. Let’s just add two more and then we have an album.
Rioux: Later that summer we recorded our demos properly.
Alexander: We built a studio in Dartmouth and called it Black Hole Studio. We took all of the equipment Erin had up to Dartmouth, and when he visited we had like three intense, sleepless nights where we mastered the whole thing and finished it. Recording an album was something I’ve always wanted to do. But the time was never right.
Rioux: And I always wanted to make a record with someone who isn’t a professionally musician, at least in the traditional sense.
You say that this is an exploration of the creation of the universe in the album title. How did you settle on the conceptual themes?
Alexander: One of the things that was going while we made this project was a lot of scientific discourses in between sets. So we would get together at cafes and say, all right this song has these lyrics, and Erin would ask me to walk him through what they meant in the context of astrophysics.
Rioux: I felt, that if we were going to make a record that makes sense to people we might need some kind of more concrete, and less abstract connections. But even when they get heady, you can use your imagination to figure them out if you dig in a bit.
Alexander: So for the album title, and the overall theme, if we look at electronic music, right, and especially the way that Erin approaches it, he makes his sounds from scratch. He starts off with oscillators, he starts off with waveforms and he plays in that space; frequency modulation. The minute you’re talking about adding and subtracting waves to manipulate sound—and that being electronically modified and then turned into pressure waves—you’re talking about the transformation of energy from one form to the other form. If you think about what the universe is doing, as a physical entity, it’s doing a similar thing. We kept creating parallels between music and science, not unlike my TED Talk and book.
Can you give me some other concrete examples of where this album directly reflects science?
Alexander: So our album starts off with an acknowledgement and a discourse (in the form of spoken word) about the universe’s creation and expansion, and how scientists figured that out.
The album starts with that. And then it goes to other cosmological phenomena, but its hindered by some of the titles. Dance of the Illusion that touches on the idea of quantum mechanics. What you think you’re seeing in the universe or in quantum mechanics is really a function of your role in the observation. Before you watch a phenomenon, this quantum thing is a ghostly thing. Electrons can be many places at the same time, and then when you watch, it’s suddenly there. And we still don’t understand why that is, researchers still don’t know about it. So that’s what Dance of the Illusion is about.
And today most of the universe, right in front of us, is empty space filled with this energy called dark energy and it’s some really weird shit. And check this, as the universe continues to expand as it’s doing right now, this energy is just being self perpetually created, and we don’t know how an why. So a lot of the album is about the unknown. Unknown phenomena in cosmology.
Rioux: Another example is the song “Ornette’s Vortex.” The phenomena of a vortex is when two different forms of energies meet to create something that is self-perpetuating. So, that reminded me of an auxiliary echo set, like a feedback loop basically. I think the science of the record is a meeting half way between Stephon’s technical understanding and my slightly more intuitive, or spiritual, conceptual understanding.
Something I’ve been attached to in music is hearing the hidden possibilities in a recording of a sound because of course, it’s not all that. We hear something, but we don’t hear the entirety of it. But you can warp it and flip it so many different ways and that seems to directly sound like the totality of something. So, on the album we’d often these sounds that were pitched down and reversed, like Stephon’s saxophone in the intro of one song.
A mixture of electronic music and an analog instrument like the saxophone are an interesting combination.
Alexander: As a sax player, I am fascinated by the fact that if you look at the breath of the tenor saxophone—in terms of how you can manipulate the sound of the horn—it’s like what an electronic producer like Erin can do with machine-manipulated noise. You’re doing something similar with a sax because the metal creates electronic tones. The electronic shell structures and the non-linear responses are like a frequency modulator. The saxophone, even though it’s organic, is actually an electronic instrument, in that sense. You can manipulate that sound.
And with electronic music and large-scale structures of composition, you share information by having an interplay among repeated patterns and deviations from that. If you really look at that metaphor of sound and what sound really is: it’s a physical thing, waves complicated waves—how waves get integrated and how it transforms from one medium to another medium. This is exactly how the physic universe organizes itself. And this is just the most surface level explanation of how deep these parallels between sound and science run.