Stephon & Music

The Creator’s Project

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.

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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.

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