Neil DeGrasse Tyson Compares Jazz to Astronomy

…and makes my heart skip a couple of beats.

Jazz pianist Judy Carmichael has this radio show where she talks to creative people about being creative (and, I’d wager, awaits the day when Marian McPartland challenges her to a duel of pistols at dawn). She also blogs for JazzTimes, on which she posted an excerpt from an interview she did with none other than Neil deGrasse Tyson.

I’m going to play this like I was playing a favorite jazz track for someone and post a few quotes with very little commentary. That is what it deserves.

If I’m driving a car and I stumble on a radio station that’s playing the blues, particularly the kind of blues where you’re feeling the pain of the person singing, I’ve got to just pull over into the right lane and go real slow. Or maybe just pull off the road entirely and just listen to the entire song because it is so emotionally wrought with pain that you can’t do anything else but commiserate with that pain. And for me, that’s what music should do. It should take your emotions to places that maybe you can’t get there yourself or maybe you are already there and you seek a resonance with the music.

I rate myself as a pretty happy guy, so why would I even like the blues? It’s because it’s a deep reminder that not all the world is sunshine and blue skies. Without that reminder, you lead a deluded life, a completely misrepresentative understanding of how most of the population of the world lives.

Tell me where it hurts, Neil.

When you do science, there’s emotion when you make a discovery, when you’re hot on the trail of some new idea about how the world works. But for the most part there’s a lot of bookkeeping to make sure your data is sound and you’re not making mistakes.

So there’s a lot of science that thrives only because it is done without passion, without emotion. Because emotion is one of the strongest forces to interfere with your ability to evaluate and understand and interpret data. That’s why scientists have this stereotype of being dispassionate. It is a fundamental part of so much of what has to happen to be a good scientist.

So, there are times when I’m doing that. And then when I’m done or I’m ready to take a break, I’ve got to reach out and feel what it is to be alive again. And nothing does that for me like the blues.

The reason that people think creativity and rationality are mutually exclusive, all there and tied up with a nice little bow.

We would always compare what the portfolio of music that we’d all bring to the telescope dome. The telescope dome has this acoustic resonance that goes on within the dome. No matter how bad your playback device is, the sound comes out much richer because of the geometry of the telescope dome itself…and it’s just you, the music and the cosmos.

I am incredibly jealous right now.

Before I got into blues and jazz in general, I spoke with a friend of mine in college who was a college radio announcer for the radio station. He was the jazz announcer and I said, “Give me a list of albums that the jazz aficionados would praise, just so I can start where I need to start if I’m going to gain an appreciation for this.” On there was Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue. So I first played it and it was okay, alright kind of a lot of slow trumpet in there, alright. So I didn’t think much of it. I said, “Well, I wonder if there’s anything more exciting on these other albums.”

…So I said, “Alright, let me put it on a tape and just play it in the background while I’m cooking dinner. You know, just maybe there’s something I’m missing.” And then one day I was making eggs or something and I dropped the spatula because the music had finally penetrated. There, I called on my defenses – this wall I had had up that prevented me from understanding or hearing or listening or feeling what was out there, what these performers were trying to tell me.

Trying to tell me, right? Because he wrote it for me, there it was. Because when I dropped my spatula, those notes were communicating with me. Not only were the notes communicating with me, the space between the notes was communicating with me, particularly in “Flamenco Sketches.” Again, I just had to stop, I turned off the burner and I sat down on the couch and I just listened.

The world is not a juxtaposition of objects, not solely a juxtaposition of objects. It’s also a juxtaposition of the space between objects and in some cases the space matters more than the objects themselves because, of course, you live in the space.

…the universe is mostly empty space, punctuated by remarkable expressions of nature, be they exploding stars, colliding galaxies, comet impacts on planet surfaces. So, the space is the stage and the objects within the space are the actors. So when I get into a deeply performed jazz piece that takes full advantage of what the silence can do, I’m transported out in space.

Excuse me one second. I have to go outside and look at the stars.

Ashley Hamer

Ashley Hamer (aka Smashley) is a saxophonist and writer living in Chicago, where she performs regularly with the funk band FuzZz and jazz ensemble Big Band Boom. She also does standup comedy, sort of, sometimes. Her tenor saxophone's name is Ladybird.

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  1. “…the space matters more than the objects themselves…”

    Thank you for this extraordinarily great post.

    There is so much for contemplation here. And it makes me want to listen to “Kind of Blue” yet again.

  2. I didn’t think it was possible to like Neil deGrasse Tyson any more than I already did. Thanks for disproving that in the best way possible.

  3. I’m with krelnik. Neil DeGrasse Tyson is made of awesome.
    (Going to listen to Miles Davis now.)

  4. Ugh. How absolutely wonderful. I’m with Tim on this one; I didn’t think I could like Tyson any more than I already did. If it stays all grey and cloudy today (as it is now) I’m going to listen to jazz all day.

  5. Fuck, I can’t find a word that will convey just how great I think that piece is. NDT gives us a glimpse of the true music of the spheres AND ties it into the human experience…just wow.

    I also love how he hits on an aspect of music that maybe doesn’t get enough attention: silence. The only definition that I’ve heard that’s sufficiently broad to cover every possible form of music is “organized sound and silence.” The prof that told me that was quite adamant about the silence part. His contention was that there’s no greater accent than the move from silence to sound. A bit of hyperbole that, I think. Twenty minutes of pp strings broken by a sudden FF horn shot is going to startle more than silence followed by a pp oboe for instance, but the point is valid.

    It’s got me wondering what the visual equivalent would be. White space? I’m not sure that’s really the same thing because with exception of video media the piece is static, it’s all there to be seen so how can it move from nothing to something? Interesting.

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