Written by Sally Frost  |  Photo by Albert Hirasen

Can physics meet jazz? Yes, say the experts, in the principle of complementarity – on the one hand both are bound to rules, on the other both are free.

By pushing the boundaries of established rules, deviating from them and improvising, the physicists and jazz aficionados agreed that both disciplines have burst through into novel paradigms to create something new.

The Nobel in Africa Jazz Session recently brought together prominent jazz musicians and top physicists for interaction and dialogue at Morris Place in Glenwood. The evening was the culmination of the 183rd Nobel Symposium in Physics Outreach Programme, which saw the world’s leading physicists gather in Africa for the first time under the auspices of the Nobel Foundation, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences and the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study.

Featuring the much-loved Umlazi-based Samkelo Njinji Quartet and the Bheki Khoza Quartet, jazz lovers and physicists jived away the evening in a celebration of physics and music, and the magic that emerges when boundaries are pushed and improvisation reigns.

In a session of dialogue and conversation Professor Salim Washington, saxophonist, multi-reedsman, composer and jazz educator at the Centre for Jazz and Popular Music at UKZN spoke to the history of jazz, explaining that it is rooted in the African American tradition and has taken elements from both African and European music to create something new. ‘Whereas in European music descending cadences resolve the tension of the music on the tonic, in jazz the tension remains unresolved,’ said Washington. ‘Western music is like the American dream – girl meets boy, falls in love and goes happily into the sunset. In jazz, [the] boy takes your girl …’

Representing the physicists, Professor Mogens Hogh Jensen – former President of the Royal Danish Academy of Science and Letters and Professor of Complex Systems and Biophysics at the Niels Bohr Institute, University of Copenhagen – spoke to the area of traditional deterministic physics versus quantum mechanics. ‘Classical physics is about determinism,’ said Jensen. ‘If you drop a stone it will fall and you know where it is. The great news about quantum mechanics is that it refuted deterministic physics. It showed that in certain situations there is uncertainty, indeterminism and complementarity. In quantum mechanics, you don’t know where the atom is or at which position it is in, you just have probabilities where you can find it.’

‘Complementarity was a term introduced by the Nobel physicist and quantum theorist Niels Bohr. It explains how you can know one property but at the same time you cannot know the other property. For example, you can know the velocity of a particle but you don’t know it’s position.’

So where do physics and jazz meet? Jensen and Washington agreed that the meeting point is in the deviation from old rules and the discovery of new territory. ‘Both jazz and physics have rules,’ said Jensen. ‘In physics one has to question the established rules and deviate in order to create new paradigms and go on to new horizons. Whilst in physics one has the paradigm shift into the realm of quantum mechanics, in the world of music, jazz has been the new pathfinder.’

For both disciplines, however, there is an important caveat: ‘You have to improvise over the rules. If it is only improvisation without rules, then you don’t get anywhere.’

The evening was the brainchild of UKZN physicist Professor Thomas Konrad who hosted the event and local jazz impresario Mr Dumi Ginindza from Jazz Xpressions, who organised the bands and the grand piano.

‘This was a special occasion which brought together scientists, musicians and artists. It was a new paradigm, and the result was electric!’ said Konrad.

This article was first published on UKZNDABA online on 10 November 2022.
The thumbnail image is of Umlazi jazz impresario and left-hand guitarist, Mr Bheki Khoza.