By day, Dr. Stephon Alexander, Associate Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Dartmouth College, is a theoretical physicist specializing in the interface between cosmology, particle physics and quantum gravity. By night, he “blows sax”. Born in Trinidad and raised in Bronx, NY, Alexander draws music heritage from Jazz, Caribbean Reggae and Hip Hop. His ambition in science is big – to unify quantum theory, Einstein’s theory of relativity, and string theory, which have fascinated him since childhood, into a theory of quantum gravity! When he gets stuck, he turns to music like Einstein used to do, except his instrument for relaxation and subconscious realization is the tenor saxophone, instead of violin and piano.
“Exploring a physics problem is like jazz improvisation—understanding the basic rules and themes lets you take off in spontaneous new directions. Music allows me to understand physics on a simpler, yet deeper level.”
He explains. And not just for him, a rigorously trained academician with several advanced degrees. He believes music can make the complexities of physics more accessible for young minds too.
“Music is a wonderful device to communicate the beauty of physics. Matter isn’t a boring, dead, solid thing. It’s vibrating energy that maintains its consistency through resonating, just like a unified harmonious orchestra playing. I like to demystify the Big Bang by breaking it down in terms of sound. By connecting physics with music, I want to inspire young people and open their eyes to new possibilities.”
Alexander also wanted to record an album, but never found the right timing, until one day, at a café in Brooklyn, when he ran into a professional musician by pure chance.
Erin Rioux is an electronic psychedelic record producer, vocalist, and curator specializing in experimental pop acts. He admires science, and had always wanted to collaborate with someone who is not a professional musician.
The two’s chance encounter led to Here Comes Now, a full-length album of electronic dance music intended to take the listener “on a trip through the human experience and the greatest curiosities of the universe, while pushing the boundaries of contemporary music”.
Below is an interview by The Creators Project, with the scientist and the musician about their joint exploration.
By Zach Sokol for The Creators Project Blog
In his seven minute TED Talk entitled, “The Physics of Jazz,” astrophysicist and Dartmouth professor Stephon Alexander connected the mathematical realization of quantum gravity to John Coltrane’s Giant Steps, and explained 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 was a compelling cross-disciplinary investigation that will soon be published by Basic Books, the publishing house behind Stephen Hawking’s A Brief Period In Time.
After a chance encounter led experimental producer Rioux (whose recent System Preference EP we shared back in April) 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. Two years later, Here Comes Now is officially out via Connect, and 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.