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”

About Roger Moore

rocklobster3.JPGRoger Moore is a writer and musical obsessive who plays percussion instruments from around the world with an equal lack of dexterity. An environmental lawyer in his unplugged moments, he has written on subjects ranging from sustainable development practices to human rights and voting rights, as well as many music reviews. A native Chicagoan, Roger lives in Oakland, California with his wife Paula, who shares his Paul Weller fixation, and two young children, Amelia and Matthew, who enjoy dancing in circles to his Serge Gainsbourg records and falling asleep to his John Coltrane records.

Roger Moore’s Musical Timeline

1966. Dropped upside down on patio after oldest sister listened to “She Loves You” on the Beatles’ Saturday cartoon show. Ears have rung with the words “yeah, yeah, yeah” ever since.

1973. Memorized all 932 verses to Don McLean’s “American Pie.”

1975. Unsuccessfully lobbied to have “Louie Louie” named the official song of his grade school class. The teacher altered the lyrics of the winner, the Carpenters’ “I Won’t Last a Day Without You,” so that they referred to Jesus.

1977. After a trip to New Orleans, frequently broke drumheads attempting to mimic the style of the Meters’ Zigaboo Modeliste.

1979. In order to see Muddy Waters perform in Chicago, borrowed the birth certificate of a 27 year-old truck driver named Rocco.

1982. Published first music review, a glowing account of the Jam’s three-encore performance for the Chicago Reader. Reading the original, unedited piece would have taken longer than the concert itself.

1982. Spat on just before seeing the Who on the first of their 23 farewell tours, after giving applause to the previous band, the Clash.

1984. Mom: “This sounds perky. What’s it called?” Roger: “ It’s ‘That’s When I Reach for My Revolver’ by Mission of Burma.”

1985. Wrote first review of an African recording, King Sunny Ade’s Synchro System. A reader induced to buy the album by this review wrote a letter to the editor, noting that “anyone wishing a copy of this record, played only once” should contact him.

1985. At a Replacements show in Boston, helped redirect a bewildered Bob Stinson to the stage, which Bob had temporarily confused with the ladies’ bathroom.

1986. Walked forty blocks through a near-hurricane wearing a garbage bag because the Feelies were playing a show at Washington, D.C.’s 9:30 Club.

1987. Foolishly asked Alex Chilton why he had just performed “Volare.” Answer: “Because I can.”

1988. Moved to Northern California and, at a large outdoor reggae festival, discovered what Bob Marley songs sound like when sung by naked hippies.

1991. Attempted to explain to Flavor-Flav of Public Enemy that the clock hanging from his neck was at least two hours fast.

1992. Under the pseudonym Dr. Smudge, produced and performed for the Underwear of the Gods anthology, recorded live at the North Oakland Rest Home for the Bewildered. Local earplug sales skyrocketed.

1993. Attended first-ever fashion show in Chicago because Liz Phair was the opening act. Declined the complimentary bottles of cologne and moisturizer.

1997. Almost missed appointment with eventual wedding band because Sleater-Kinney performed earlier at Berkeley’s 924 Gilman Street. Recovered hearing days later.

1997. After sharing a romantic evening with Paula listening to Caetano Veloso at San Francisco’s Masonic Auditorium, purchased a Portuguese phrasebook that remains unread.

1998. Learned why you do not yell “Free Bird” at Whiskeytown's Ryan Adams in a crowded theater.

1999. During an intense bout of flu, made guttural noises bearing an uncanny resemblance to the Throat Singers of Tuva.

2000. Compiled a retrospective of music in the nineties as a fellow at the Coolwater Center for Strategic Studies and Barbecue Hut.

2001. Listened as Kahil El’Zabar, in the middle of a harrowing and funny duet show with Billy Bang, lowered his voice and spoke of the need to think of the children, whom he was concerned might grow up “unhip.”

2002. During a performance of Wilco’s “Ashes of American Flags,” barely dodged ashes of Jeff Tweedy’s cigarette.

2002. Arrived at the Alta Bates maternity ward in Berkeley with a world trance anthology specially designed to soothe Paula during Amelia’s birth, filled with Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Ali Akbar Khan, and assorted other Khans. The project proved to be irrelevant to the actual process of labor.

2003. Emceed a memorable memorial concert for our friend Matthew Sperry at San Francisco’s Victoria Theater featuring a lineup of his former collaborators, including improvised music all-stars Orchesperry, Pauline Oliveros, Red Hot Tchotchkes, the cast of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and Tom Waits.

2003. Failed to persuade Ted Leo to seek the Democratic nomination for President.

2005. Prevented two-year old daughter Amelia from diving off the balcony during a performance of Pierre Dorge’s New Jungle Orchestra at the Copenhagen Jazz Festival.

2006. On a family camping trip in the Sierra Nevadas, experienced the advanced stage of psychosis that comes from listening to the thirtieth rendition of Raffi’s “Bananaphone” on the same road trip.

5 thoughts on “Math Curse: Vijay Iyer on Funk and Fibonacci

  1. 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. 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.

  3. 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….

  4. 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..

Comments are closed.