Math That Swings



Via Nautilus, “Rhythm’s the Thing“:

A 2013 recipient of a MacArthur Foundation ‘genius’ grant, [Vijay Iyer] is versed in seeing the world through the lens of science. Iyer’s Yale undergraduate degree in math and physics paved the way to his Ph.D. in technology and the arts at the University of California, Berkeley. His dissertation explores how our minds and bodies beat in sync with the rhythms of West African and African-American musics.

“The pianist, who has recorded over 15 albums of jazz, ranging into raga and hip-hop, has applied science to his own compositions. He rescored the beats of the ’70s soul tune “Mystic Brew” to the Fibonacci Sequence, the series in which each number is the sum of the preceding two (1,1,2,3,5,8…). The ratio of any two successive Fibonacci numbers, the “golden ratio,” is seen in nature, from atoms to sunflowers, and has inspired artists such as Da Vinci and Debussy. (Iyer’s Guardian essay on his music and the golden ratio was reprinted in The Best Writing on Mathematics 2010.)

On jazz pianist and composer, Thelonius Monk:

“There’s a persistent and unified perspective on sound and rhythm in every corner of Monk’s music,” Iyer says. “You can hear him challenging himself or challenging the ear, reaching for something that has a certain kind of roughness or pungency, something both familiar and unfamiliar.”

An instrument disappears in the hands of a masterful musician. He is playing the notes in his imagination rather than on the piece of technology in his hands. Monk went further. The piano itself, its resonance, the act of playing it, constitute his sound. “You hear his hands at work,” Iyer says. “It’s not about transcending the relationship between the hands and the instrument; it’s about featuring that process, that interaction with the instrument as a body. There is a sort of physics going on here. He’s going for a vibratory exhortation with the instrument.”