What's New?
The PoD Roundtable
moderated by Bill Shoemaker

What’s New? is an email roundtable that draws together persons of diverse backgrounds to discuss the issues shaping jazz and constituent experimental musics in the early 21st Century.

The panelists for this roundtable include:

John Butcher John Butcher, a London-based saxophonist and composer whose activities center about free improvisation and the integration of live electronics, amplification and feedback. After receiving his doctorate a PhD in Theoretical Physics from Imperial College in 1982, Butcher left academia for music. Several of his earliest collaborations were documented on the ACTA label, which he formed with Phil Durrant and John Russell to issue their co-op trio’s first album, whose catalog also included recordings of Butcher with Chris Burn, Ensemble and News from the Shed. During the same period, Butcher began playing with John Stevens in Spontaneous Music Ensemble and with Derek Bailey in a variety of setting, including Company. Beginning in the 1990s, Butcher began working with Georg Gräwe and Phil Minton in various situations. Electronics have become a growing part of Butcher’s work since the inception of his electromanipulation duo with Durrant in 1997. Butcher has subsequently done research as STEIM and ZKM, collaborated with Christof Kurzmann and Toshimaru Nakamura, and assumed membership in Polwechsel. Butcher’s current projects include Contest of Pleasures, Cortet and Thermal; he also composes for and performs with ELISION Ensemble. Butcher has lectured and conducted workshops on the saxophone and improvisation at the Barcelona Conservatory, Newfoundland Sound Symposium and other venues throughout Europe and North America. His first CD with Torsten Muller and Dylan van der Schyff, Way Out Northwest (Drip Audio), is reviewed in this issue. For more information, visit: www.johnbutcher.org.uk.

Vijay Iyer Vijay Iyer, a New York-based pianist and composer. In addition to leading his own ensembles, Iyer co-leads Fieldwork, a trio with Steve Lehman and Tyshawn Sorey, and Raw Materials, a duo with Rudresh Mahanthappa, and collaborates with writer Mike Ladd on multidisciplinary projects. In addition to his small ensembles, Iyer has composed works for string quartet, wind quintet and orchestra, as well as music for dance and films. Although he studied physics at the undergraduate and graduate level, Iyer received a PhD in Technology and the Arts from the University of California at Berkeley; his research in music cognition has been featured on the radio programs This Week in Science and Studio 360. He is currently on the faculties of New York University, The New School University, and the School for Improvisational Music, and has given master classes and lectures at California Institute of the Arts, Columbia University, Harvard University, Stanford University, Manhattan School of Music, and Berklee College of Music. His writings appear in Music Perception, Current Musicology, Journal of Consciousness Studies, Critical Studies in Improvisation, Journal of the Society for American Music, and the edited anthologies Uptown Conversation: The New Jazz Studies (Columbia Univ. Press) and Sound Unbound (MIT Press). In April, Iyers’ sTragicomic will be issued by Sunnyside, while Pi Recordings will release Fieldwork’s third album, Door. Iyer’s information-rich site is located at: www.vijay-iyer.com.

Giancarlo Schiaffini Giancarlo Schiaffini, a Rome-based composer-trombonist-tubist. After receiving a degree in Physics from the University of Rome in 1965, he participated in the first free-jazz concerts in Italy and subsequently presented his own compositions widely throughout the late ‘60s. In 1970 he studied at Darmstadt with Stockhausen, Ligeti and Globokar and formed the contemporary chamber ensemble Nuove Forme Sonore. He also worked with Franco Evangelisti in 1972 and has since collaborated with the Gruppo di Improvvisazione di Nuova consonanza until 1983. In 1975 he founded the Gruppo Romano di Ottoni performing Renaissance and Contemporary music. Schiaffini has collaborated with John Cage, Karole Armitage, Luigi Nono and Giacinto Scelsi in various performances and works for solo trombone or tuba have been dedicated to him by Scelsi, Nono, Amman, Alandia, Dashow, Villa-Rojo, Renosto, Laneri, Guaccero. Schiaffini teaches at the Conservatorio “A. Casella” in l’Aquila and at the Summer Courses of Siena Jazz. He has also given clinics and seminars in Contemporary Music,, Jazz and Improvisation at New York University, Acanthes-Villeneuve d’Avignon, and UNEAC-Cuba); in 2000, he was composer in residence at the International Composers & Improvisers Forum Munich His treatise on contemporary trombone techniques is published by Ricordi. Schiaffini’s ongoing projects include membership in Italian Instabile Orchestra, various collaborations with Silvia Schiavoni, and leading Phantabrass. For more information, mostly in Italian, visit: www.giancarloschiaffini.com.


Bill Shoemaker: You all have post-graduate degrees in physics. Music is often called the most abstract art; something of the same can be said of physics in relation to other sciences. Both are disciplines, entailing rigorous research and procedures; they both value conceptualization and experimentation. They seem complementary in many ways. How has your pursuit of physics informed your development as a improviser and composer?

Vijay Iyer: In my case perhaps the main effect is that I have a certain willingness to wade through difficult material and try to make sense of it.  Supposedly a lot of physicists go to Wall Street, because almost anything seems easy after doing physics! 

But at the same time I was always lazy and still am – in a specific sense, namely that I admire simplicity and abhor needless complexity.  It's the theoretical physicist's aim to be able to figure out everything from "first principles” – the mathematically expressed physical laws – without cluttering one's head with too much unorganized data.  It's basically an aesthetic; I admire simple answers to complex problems, the kind that you can develop from those basic truths.  Perhaps in my music, I try to have form unfold in this way - start with an elemental idea and explore its implications.  

Of course reality is rarely as simple as theory, either for physics or for music; noise, chance, and chaos are meaningful concepts in both fields and they are important qualities for me.  For me, perhaps it's the dialectic between the two – between mathematical purity and physical slop, between formal abstraction and real-world embodiment – that forms the main drama of music. 

My specialization was in theoretical solid-state physics, which is based on an understanding of the crystalline lattice structures into which atoms arrange to form solids.  Macroscopic phenomena like conductivity or magnetism could be understood based on the particular spatial periodicities of these lattices and the effects on electrons moving through them.  There is an interesting analogy to rhythm and meter, because you are dealing with cyclically repeating, discrete forms that structure the motion of bodies in space and time. 

John Butcher: Well, Physics Today titled an interview with me "From Quarks to Squawks"... Your question would be easier if I'd moved into conventional composition. From sitting at a desk with a piece of paper and a pencil, making calculations in quantum chromodynamics to sitting at a desk with a piece of paper, making ... Also, when I published in an academic journal the work was then off leading its own life – much like how composers send their creations out into the world (both to small specialist audiences?). Improvising, with other musicians, in front of an audience was actually an antidote to the solitude of academic research. And in Physics, if your imagination doesn't agree with physical observation the results are pretty useless, whereas with music you create your own reality. One similarity I do recognize is the desire to try and discover what is hidden around the next few corners. You struggle to understand something and then push on to what you don't yet recognize (in the process often realizing you didn't know as much as you thought). This applies equally at the instrumental level (practice/research) and to the more conceptual/performance concerns. In science and music personal progress is often the result of large number of very small discoveries and realizations, that eventually add up to something.

Giancarlo Schiaffini: My study program was mainly in Nuclear Physics (we did have not so many choices at that time in the early sixties), but my degree was in Biophysics, about DNA and RNA hybrids. Then I worked 8 years in Immunogenetics, Nuclear Radiobiology, and something generally related to Physics and Biology. In 1975, I switched to music full-time. On my experience, I think that physics is not only the most abstract among all sciences, but the work of the physicist is mostly concerned in the "method" of research which involves essentially logic and creative proceedings. We might say – joking, but not too much – say that "Physics is the mother of all sciences". I think that in experimental physics, no matter if bio-, nuclear, astro- or whatever, the proceeding is very similar to improvisation and every kind of creative work. In physics, you start by stating the object of your investigation. After getting partial results, you create a model to explain what has happened, and you then experiment to check whether your theory is valid. Since it rarely will be – at least at first – you must be imaginative and creative in modifying your model and your experiment. Your original idea might end up being radically transformed. This is a lot like the processing of composing and improvising (with different speed of reaction, of course), where you must pay close attention to your environment and continually readjust your premises.

Shoemaker: Do your pursuits of science and music address the same intellectual, aesthetic or spiritual needs, or do they have significantly distinct motivations?

Schiaffini; I think that science and music use the same kind of logic and proceeding, which are similar in every creative context. For science I mean experimental physics, which was my field of studies and work for several years. In this case I think that there are some main differences: in science you start from a real point of departure, then you develop your research and creativity pursuing a result which must be somehow “concrete”. I mean the solution of a problem, the understanding of a phenomenon, and this may become a further point to start a new research and so on. In music it is not necessary to have a real point of departure. The process is much more important than a definite achievement. I think that, under this point of view, music (abstract stuff) is more similar to mathematics or theoretical physics, or, let me say, philosophy. I remember my teacher of “Mathematic methods in Physics”, stating a really intricate demonstration of an absurd theorem, then stopping and changing everything because “I need to find a more elegant demonstration”. This for his aesthetic needs!

Butcher: Much as we might like to think our consciousness is creating, analyzing (judging?) music, it is at heart a sensory experience. Importantly, the auditory pathways have many connections to the limbic system, where emotions and appetites are generated subconsciously. We also have learnt responses (personal neuronal connections) – and I'm interested in how this interfaces with how we attempt to rationalize our musical tastes – and both mean the sensory input of music affects us very subjectively.

What might seem like logic in music has more to do with pattern recognition and experience, not the mathematical logic we need in science (once our axioms are determined).

As an aside: We can "hear" in our mind without external sound stimulus.

Is this learnt from experience? Does anyone know what research has been done on the "internal" hearing (if any) of people completely deaf from birth?

Iyer:  Our entire grasp of music is definitely deeply experiential.  I imagine it starts in utero.  I'm not up on the studies, but I wouldn't doubt the musical experience of the totally deaf -- I would recommend the virtuoso percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie's "Hearing Essay," which can be read at: http://www.evelyn.co.uk/live/hearing_essay.htm . Although she isn't totally deaf, she makes a case for other, more tactile modes of hearing.  When you get into subsonic frequencies you enter the domain of rhythm.  In that realm I'd imagine that anyone with a body can have a musical experience of a purely rhythmic nature, regardless of hearing ability.

Bill, to answer your question – the simple truth is that I left physics for music.  Physics is basically my "ex."  Specifically, I left physics for lack of whatever it was I found in abundance in music – namely, instant gratification; living out my childhood fantasies; the inclusiveness and real-time participatory joy of interactions with other musicians and audiences; self-actualization as a creative person; and above all, an obvious resonance in my heart.  Physics (in the limited sense that I understood it, as a graduate student) could only vaguely and inadequately fulfill any these very human desires.   Maybe you could call them intellectual, aesthetic or spiritual needs, but I'd rather not over-dramatize it.  It was a moment in time – 1994 – when physics job prospects were slim, so what did I have to lose, really?  By leaving physics, maybe I wasn't being exactly practical, but I was trying to preserve my mental and emotional health.

John and Giancarlo raise very interesting and important questions with regard to our inner experiences of either "world."  But maybe it is also interesting to compare the social realities around science to those around music.  Both spheres are strongly ideological; there are notions of correctness into which one is indoctrinated in order to become a practitioner in either field. There is a culture of suffering for the work, a mythologizing of the idea of intuition, and a belief in the absolute autonomy of the work.  In the rarefied genres such as jazz/improvised music and classical music, one is dependent on one's peers and the critical apparatus specific to "the field" to validate your work, at least in order to have a viable career.  There is a certain tolerance for the lone (nearly always male) maverick genius figure; yet the overwhelming norm tends much more towards the banal, conformist, and conservative.  And there's a lot of noise in both worlds.

The musical sphere is not a unified one; the musical paths that each of us has taken lead clearly in opposition to the musical/cultural mainstream.  Aside from differing schools of thought that still exist under the larger umbrella of science is there any analogous "renegade" culture in physics that any of us have known?  (I guess I know some anti-string-theory activists, and I must say I sympathize) Maybe a more interesting analogy comes with the differences between physics academia and industry - is this like the difference between "art" music and "commercial" music?  Is this a useful distinction?

More generally I'd love to hear from both John and Giancarlo about what they see as similarities and differences between the cultures of music and science.

Butcher: I think I can only look at this personally. I suspect my practical experience of Physics had more to do with the culture of University research than with the broader culture of science. I felt out of my depth during much of my Ph.D time at Imperial College, where the head of department (Abdus Salam) had just got the Nobel Prize (the first Muslim to do so). There were some extraordinary minds there – and visitors (Stephen Hawking would come by, in the days when he could still talk a little) – and it was an inspiring privilege to see them working up close.  

My musical direction was partly formed through not having a natural musical culture to grow in. I had to find bits here and there – and eventually seemed to be working in opposition to what most people, at the time, viewed as musical culture. Here, the example, support, company and criticism of a handful of colleagues were vital. It came as a bit of a surprise when there was some outside interest in what we were doing. 

Perhaps the only similarity I can draw is that, for me, both are best done for their own sake – and the surrounding circumstances (survival, ambition, pride, frustration) just have to be dealt with as peripherals.

Schiaffini: I agree with John: both are best done for their own sake – one just has to do things, and we must try to do well. Any intrusion of psychological categories (as John puts it, ambition, frustration, etc) deals with the big mess of motivations, a very private and often inarticulate, mess. I guess all this deals with ethics, in a very large sense.

On the other hand, in sociological terms one has to reflect on the product, on its nature and function. Here we could trace some differences. In experimental physics, that was my field, you can’t do anything outside of a real context that lives and works for and with you. But you can experiment as long as you wish and all by yourself in music. And in doing so you are making something, in terms of production. In physics the outcome is continuously and severely tested, the context, apart from your équipe, is the scientific community. In music the outcome is something that deals with self-expression, some call it art.

Shoemaker: Does the imperative to create a product in music shape, to use a nickel term, the research protocol for better or worse?

Schiaffini: First, we should state what kind of imperative we have to deal with. Is it in terms of time? Let’s consider it as a deadline. You have to deliver, say, a structure or whatsoever, a recording, and so on (not too much in improvisation, naturally). Sometimes it works. It can stimulate you. It can improve your ideas or your protocol on research. This is, of course, if you have enough time. Sometimes you don’t need too much time. It depends.

If by imperative we mean a limit or a “must” in your music it depends again. It could help you in investigating something new. You may live it not as an imposition, but just as a challenge. Are you willing to run any risks? Or are you not so self-confident at the moment? As a matter of fact, we should understand, in my opinion that we are not really speaking about music here, but that we are posing questions concerning a general method of elaboration of reality. 

Iyer:  Yes, I agree.  That's a nice way to put it.  We can get bogged down in the specific lore of music or science, which can eclipse the general principles and the simple human qualities at the heart of things here.  Maybe this discussion helps us step back and see that larger (or smaller?) picture. 

What I would add to Giancarlo's point is that it's not only an individual process.  We rarely do anything all by ourselves, in either science or music.  The interpersonal nature of either culture suggests other "imperatives" and implicitly shapes our actions.

Bill, if I understand you right, you're suggesting that our musical "products" - compositions, improvisations, recordings, performances, etc- are applications of musical theories or principles, which themselves are presumably the results of what you call a "research protocol."  If that's the case, then maybe for some people that makes the research itself somehow "impure," because you are directly concerned with obtaining results that you can put into practice. 

To me there's nothing wrong with having specificity and short-term goals in your artistic work.  I think science proceeds in terms of concrete results too.  Results may be incremental but they have to be publishable, since publication in peer-reviewed journals is the basic benchmark of science. 

Meanwhile, in improvisational music (and in fully composed music, too) the musical "product" is often merely a snapshot of a larger creative process.  The development and refinement of that process is a much larger project that has no beginning or end.

Vancouver Creative Music Institute

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