Creativity, Science

A synchronized glissando in parallel octaves — Vijay Iyer’s jazz experiments

“It is very hard to tease out the cognitive universals of music from a sample of white, suburban teenagers listening to Mozart,”

says jazz experimentalist Vijay Iyer in an interview in the current issue of Nature. Iyer started as a physicist but ‘hit a wall in research’ and switched fields to study body rhythmns and music, before becoming a professional jazz pianist and composer. He still carries science with him in his music – much more than other musicians:

“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.” *

His joy of experimentation is felt in his albums, like the highly acclaimed Historicity (2009) and the forthcoming Accelerando (2012):

About Historicity (2009) About Accelerando (2012)

“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.” *

A synchronized glissando in parallel octaves with a bell curve imposed on their amplitudes? Alright! I have no idea what that even means and probably wouldn’t be able to hear it if you put a gun against my head. The next bit seems simpler:

“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.” *

At least now I know where the name of the album came from …



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