Science and Soul: Emergent Themes & the Improvising Classroom

In 2007 I left the NYC jazz scene to attend a PhD program in ethnomusicology at the University of Texas at Austin. One of the reasons I chose the program was for its reputation as one of the strongest programs in the country for incorporating anthropology and the social sciences into music research. As someone interested in studying, writing about, and teaching both ethnomusicology and jazz, I knew that performance wasn’t enough, and that, for what I wanted to pursue and the road I wanted to forge, some people would not care about which clubs or halls I’d played in or how many tunes I knew. So I chose a program that I thought would help my academic “chops” to go along with the playing experience I had accumulated. The move to Austin worked out well in ways that I had planned–I got that anthro education and then some–and in unexpected ways, such as finding a welcoming community of musicians in San Antonio with whom I played frequently and had several chances to record, in between the hours, days, and weeks in the academic woodshed. When it came time to punch my ticket out of Austin and write my dissertation, I found the only way I could make that happen was to go back to the piano bench: to write it as the pianist I’d always been and the ethnomusicologist/social scientist I’d become. Bringing those two perspectives together scored me that ticket, brought me right back to NYC, and opened up another great series of opportunities.

I carried all this down with me in my time as a postdoctoral fellow here at Swarthmore, so I expected to work with professors and teach courses across disciplines–humanities, the fine arts, and those social sciences that I had shed so hard. But then something unexpected happened: a surprising and emergent theme among my conversations, classes, collaborations, and even some impossible-to-ignore coincidences. I tell students in my piano studio that a large part of improving as an improviser is cultivating an awareness of emergent ideas and shared moments, an ability to listen and adapt to music (individual and collective) as it arises. And in my classroom, improvisation figures prominently every day in my course planning, prep, and discussions, as I try to maintain a collective openness to where individual students’ contributions might redirect the discussion or shed light on new understanding and emergent thinking, while managing the collaborative conversation within the framework of advancing some preset goals for the day. So, taking my own lesson to heart, I couldn’t help but be aware of this emergent theme. After a while, it seemed to suffuse everything I was doing, nearly every interaction I had. What was first coincidental, then serendipitous, became a challenging shift in thinking, and finally an overwhelming, productive, collaborative resonance teeming with potential.

Science and Soul.

Not those social sciences, though. Not those disciplines and theories that I had sought out and shed. But the Hard Sciences. The Natural Sciences. Biology, Animal Communication Studies, Cosmology, and Theoretical Physics. Those quantified, calculable, computational sciences. Those “man, I took my gen ed req’s and got out so I could go back to shedding” sciences. The “what’s a piano player gonna do with astrophysics anyway” sciences.

Now I’m hip. Well, actually, let’s give Jimmy Heath the first word here. Check him out at 3:15 in the video below where he’s talking about balancing music theory and personal expression in jazz performance:

“You got to have science and soul.” The day after I watched this video, I went ahead with my plans to teach George Russell’s Lydian Chromatic Concept, including his discussions of tonal gravity in “Stratusphunk“; and on the same day the physics world announced the discovery of gravitational waves from the Big Bang. (The physics professor and his student in my jazz class that morning broke the news to all of us.) That same night I went to a scheduled talk by Vijay Iyer who early in his career pioneered integrated approaches to the study of jazz and the natural sciences. Coincidences? Serendipities? I don’t think so. Alright you got me, I thought. I’m paying attention.

Science and Soul.

Let’s go back to that Jimmy Heath video for a minute. In that clip, he’s talking about tendencies for overcomplicating jazz with complex time signatures (presumably as an end unto themselves). His response: “I prefer four-four.” OK, no problem. I expected that. He’s an old cat. Not a moldy fig, but, c’mon, he was recording a decade before Brubeck’s Time Out… Then the unexpected: “Now, you can put all those time signatures *inside* four-four, that’s alright. Then you got something.” Whoa. I did *not* expect Jimmy Heath to just drop that. To Jimmy, maybe three is the new seven is the new three; but we should just let him know when we have things a little more polymetrical, then we’ll have something.

What’s his next line? “You have to have science and soul.” Alright, again, this time Jimmy got my attention. So, what did we do with science and soul?

I teamed up with a colleague, Dr. Tristan Smith, a theoretical physicist who was teaching a course on “The Dark Universe,” to hold a joint meeting of our two classes. The topic was “Afrofuturist Cosmologies, Sun Ra, and the Physical Nature of Time.” We discussed Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, and how the asymmetrical divisions of physical time in swing is a musical expression of the African American experience as “out of sync” with dominant, white experiential time. Tristan then outlined some of the current problems with scientific understandings of space-time, most especially that it doesn’t account for the asymmetries of experiential time, and that there is, for example, no law of physics to distinguish the past from the future. I emphasized how these asymmetries of experiential time also included asymmetries of power; and we discussed Afro-Futurism as a creative philosophy that takes up these questions of how the physical universe is perceived and experienced in order to carve out space for a complex and multiply experienced present, drawing on many pasts that both critiques and subverts these asymmetries of power. Listening to several examples, we focused on some of Sun Ra’s compositions that disrupt the normal flow of physical time by inserting references to different musical eras and making multiple moments and experiences of the past co-present within the same composition. Sun Ra put all those times inside his four-four. And I found out, in the moment, that sometimes the best way to show students that bebop contrafacts were intended to counter the “facts” of contemporary social progress—and that neatly arranged historical narratives, musical manuscripts, and spacetime diagrams often obscure the polyrhythms of diverse experience—was to take all those sciences with me back to the piano bench.

Shortly after the class, Theo Croker’s album AfroPhysicist (OKeh Records) arrived in my mailbox. Rooted in jazz traditions by upbringing and formal study, Croker had already recorded a couple albums related to the repertoires of U.S. jazz history, but what struck me about AfroPhysicist from the first bars was Croker’s fresh and individualistic take on that history on this new record. To riff on Herman Gray’s metaphor in Cultural Moves, Croker has spent some time on the well paved street, but was taking up his own road now. Like Sun Ra, Croker exhibits an empathetic ear to the past but reworks it through technological means—looping, layering, tracking, and processing some of that tried and true repertoire for a more multiple, present moment. In its diversity of players, timbres, traditions, and techniques, AfroPhysicist demonstrates the heights achievable through opening one’s ears and mind to diffuse inspirations, past, present, and future—soulful, scientific, and otherwise. By bringing a vast array of individual and communal experiences of the past and their musical soundtracks into a unique focus and singular vision, Croker has emphatically punched his own ticket on this album.

Check out Theo Croker and his ensemble performing his composition, “Light Skinned Beauty,” from AfroPhysicist here:

And so, after last year, when Jimmy Heath, George Russell, Sun Ra, and Theo Croker hipped me to the soundtrack for my improvising classroom, where (or when) are we now? I like to think I’ve been listening to the resonant serendipities and moving forward. Next month, Science and Soul are taking over the Swarthmore campus. In an all-day symposium, artists and scholars from around the country are visiting classes, presenting research, and sharing their artistic and scholarly work on improvisation and community outreach. In keeping with the liberal arts model, the symposium, titled “Sound Breaks: Improvisation, Interdisciplinarity, and Social Advocacy,” will include topics in the arts, humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences; and will feature a double concert of the Vijay Iyer trio and Tirtha. (Stay tuned for more information, including a full schedule, soon.) At the symposium, we’re going to continue the work of these emergent ideas, see where they’ll take us, and try to open our students up to the multiple experiences of any one timeframe or approach. To show them that improvisation doesn’t just happen on the bandstand. And that, if we can cultivate awareness of and empathetically adapt to the world’s asymmetries—if we can listen to the polymetrical temporalities of individuals and collectives as they arise—then we’ll really have something.

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