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Once a physicist: Vijay Iyer

Vijay Iyer is a jazz pianist based in New York, US, who was voted the number one rising-star jazz artist and composer in Down Beat magazine’s international critics’ poll for 2006 and 2007.

Vijay Iyer

Why did you choose to study physics?
I liked physics when I studied it at high school, though I did not have an advanced introduction to it until I was an undergraduate at Yale. It took me a while to develop what physicists call “intuition”, but I always liked the connection between mathematics and physical reality.

How did you become interested in jazz?
My school had a jazz ensemble and I had been playing piano since childhood, so I auditioned a few times and eventually got involved. Our local library had a lot of jazz albums, so I began investigating, and a few of my friends and I started a quartet that mangled jazz standards. I kept at it throughout university and started writing music for small groups that I was leading. I saw the documentary Straight, No Chaser about the great composer-pianist Thelonious Monk around this time, and I was inspired – it was like I had been struck by lightning.

How did you switch from research to being a full-time musician?
When I moved to Berkeley, California, to begin my PhD, I found myself playing professionally around Oakland and San Francisco. I did not expect things to develop as rapidly as they did, but one thing led to another and I found myself pretty deeply involved in the Bay Area’s music world. For a while I led a double life – budding physicist by day, musician by night. Soon it was not just about playing gigs; it started to be more about becoming an artist.

What made you decide to leave physics?
A couple of years into my PhD, I had done well in my classes but was reaching an impasse with my research project, which was in theoretical solid-state physics. I decided to put the research on hold, take a teaching assistantship, and regroup. It was a real soul-searching moment. In the early-to-mid-1990s, job prospects were sort of grim for physicists, so I had to face that reality. At the same time I was getting a lot of satisfaction as a musician, and I soon realized that I loved that more than anything else. All walks of life offer their own frustrations, and music and physics are no exceptions. But if you really want to be happy, I realized, you have to love what you do.

What did you do after you decided to leave physics?
I started touring in Europe and recorded my first album in 1995. I also hooked up with some key academic mentors – primarily David Wessel, a research pioneer in music perception and director of the computer-music centre at Berkeley. With guidance from Wessel and a few others, I switched to an independent interdisciplinary PhD programme that we created called “Technology and the arts”. This allowed me to take music performance and composition seriously while doing academic research in music perception and cognition. I completed this PhD in December 1998 and immediately moved to New York, stepping right into the city’s vast and diverse arts world. I have been a full-time artist for the last decade, while keeping a toe or two in academia.

Do you see any relationship between your music and physics?
I have this love for mathematical rigour and elegance, which influences the rhythms, forms and structures of my compositions. Often, I approach composition as solving problems with constraints. I look for the simplest solution, which is a cherished aesthetic for physicists. I always admired this about Paul Dirac, for example. There are other connections, too. Rhythmic periodicities can be likened to the crystalline lattices of solid-state physics; once I went so far as to consider the implications of a rhythmic Brillouin zone. I also think about harmony in terms of the physics of sound: the overtone series, resonances and psychoacoustics. But let’s face it – I am not doing quantum mechanics anymore. I “left” physics for music. I think that the playing of music gives me what physics did not: a visceral excitement, and the spark of real-time collaboration. I am sure that physics can do those things too, but in my case music did it first.

Do you still keep up to date with physics?
I read the science section of the New York Times each week, but because of my research in music perception, my scientific interests have drifted more to neuroscience, so I follow that a little more closely.

What are you working on now?
There are a couple of new albums that will surface in 2009 under my name, and I will be touring Europe several times in the coming year with my various ensembles. I am also developing a couple of new projects: one a site-specific installation in collaboration with a filmmaker named Bill Morrison at an abandoned prison in Philadelphia, and another with the poet Mike Ladd about veterans of the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And I have been asked to think about “interplanetary” music in conjunction with some physicists who are working on the atmospheric acoustics on Mars, Titan and Venus.

This article originally appeared in the April 2009 issue of Physics World

last edited: September 11, 2018

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