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Math Curse: Vijay Iyer on Funk and Fibonacci

My seven year-old girl loves a book called Math Curse, which begins when a girl’s teacher, Mrs. Fibonacci, notes that “you can think of almost anything as a math problem.” The girl starts seeing crazy patterns and cruel fractions in everything from schedules to snacks. Later she conquers fear and makes peace with her semi-irrational world…at least until Mr. Newton, her science teacher, tells her everything is also a science problem.

Mrs. Fibonacci came to mind when I found Indian-American pianist Vijay Iyer’s recent essay, Strength in Numbers—which followed and partly explained his trio’s fascinating 2009 album, Historicity. Iyer’s graceful essay is a great read even though its subtitle, “How Fibonacci Taught Us to Swing,” brought back uncomfortable memories of math majors at school dances. The real-life Fibonacci (Leonardo of Pisa) was a rabbit breeding-obsessed 13th century Italian mathematician. His signature sequence starts with 0 and 1 and gets each remaining number from the sum of the previous two ( 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144, etc.)

The ratios of consecutive Fibonacci numbers approach the golden ratio (i.e., 1.6180339887 and change). That number (phi in Greek and geek-speak) has captivated everyone from Euclid to Le Corbusier and Dali–as well as conspiracy theorists, sellers of bad stock market tips, readers of Dan Brown novels, and people who’ve spent too long playing Dungeons and Dragons or Spore.

Iyer’s essay describes the recurrence of the golden ratio in settings ranging from the architecture of the Parthenon to the opening chords in “Billie Jean.” But he isn’t some boneheaded numerologist. Having grown up with American R&B and the karnatak music of South India, Iyer makes music for the body as well as the brain. Iyer argues that the golden ratio also appears in the rhythmic durations and pitch ratios used by Bartók, Debussy, and Coltrane, as well as his former collaborator Steve Coleman.

Historicity includes a cover of Ronnie Foster’s seventies soul number Mystic Brew, a song some will recognize from its sample in A Tribe Called Quest‘s “Electric Relaxation.” Iyer gives “Mystic Brew” a Fibonacci-inspired makeover, getting surprising warmth out of a pair of asymmetric chords (three beats followed by five)—and I can almost hear Beavis and Butthead snickering at this sentence. So let me be more direct: Historicity rocks, dude. Bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Markus Gilmore are fierce and fluid throughout; the pulse swirls around but never relents on the title track and numbers by the likes of Stevie Wonder and Andrew Hill.

Two other knockout covers on Historicity deserve special mention: the slow-building, smoldering funk of Julius Hemphill’s early cult classic “Dogon A.D,” and a blowout version of M.I.A.’s amazing “Galang.” For the three minutes of “Galang,” Iyer seemed more magician than mathematician, since he fooled me into into thinking that my favorite rhythm track of the Zeroes may really have been written for a piano trio of math majors.

Vijay Iyer Trio, “Galang”

Vijay Iyer discusses “Historicity”

5 Comments
  1. shacker permalink

    Magnificent piece Roger. Dovetails perfectly with a section on web design I teach at the J-School. Part of that lecture covers Fibonacci, phi, the Golden Mean, and ratios of harmony in nature. We also see this ratio in the spiraling proportions of coiled fern heads and in the shell of the chambered nautilus. In terms of web design, we boil it down to the importance of not centering things with blocks, of laying things out with a basic nested 2/5 to 3/5 proportionality (compare to Mondrian’s rectangles).

    Funny, I had just put this Iyer recording on my emusic queue but passed it over in this month’s haul in exchange for Whitefield Broters’ “Earthology.” Now wish I hadn’t – this is magnificent stuff.

  2. shacker permalink

    p.s. Observe some joker stealing Vijay’s watch right off his piano at a gig, caught red-handed.

  3. thanks guys. so glad you like the music and the article.

    for the record, i didn’t choose the title or the subtitle – that was entirely the editor’s choice, and it made me cringe.

  4. patrick permalink

    I’m working on putting a chart together for Mystic brew…. is it 4/4 to 13/8 to 21/16 ??? or is the 13 and 21 just superimposed over the 4? any help would be appreciated. Mostly wanting to do this just for practice with my trio…and then to maybe apply the concept to something else….

  5. Cordell permalink

    Interesting but no need to look for a European source for such a wonder as swinging.Mr iyer is playing the music invented by African Americans in this hemisphere.Their ancestors long before Fibonacci,according to the most ancient sources constructed Thor’s hammer and odin’s spear;both objects imbued with electromagnetic power to affect matter.Check that near second line in Galang.Immerse yourself in new orleans funk’check sun ra,hendrix and monk.Improvisation,call and response…..oh yeah there are vimanas in there too..

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