2019 Best Time-Based Art – Alain Sullivan

A Jazz Improvisation on the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics, and Entropy in 3 Movements

The Second Law of Thermodynamics describes that the state of entropy for the entire universe, as an isolated system, will increase. This means that as a whole, the universe gradually declines into chaos and disorder. This law is infinitely important in understanding how the world came to be, and how life exists. It can be used to help understand how spontaneous chemical reactions are possible, and how every living creature evolved over time by natural selection. The idea of entropy and a gradual decline towards chaos is an idea that I think about all the time as a jazz musician.

Fundamentally, jazz music is improvisatory. The music is made up on the spot, so to say. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the music is random, and you can play whatever you want and call it “jazz.” There is a degree of order to jazz. This order is maintained through the building of the jazz idiom, playing the music with people, and learning from professionals, much like the order of a cell is maintained through the spending of energy and specific chemical reaction to makeup and sustain the cell. As a result, jazz has developed a rich pedagogy, including the study relationship between chords and harmony, an extensive library of songs to learn and play, and a diverse jazz language that is the main encyclopedia of improvisation. Jazz is like a language, and there is vocabulary to learn from the masters of the music. By learning and playing solos of jazz masters, you internalize the “licks” and “lines” (words and sentences, respectively) of musicians. These musical ideas sometimes only work over certain sets chord progressions, like an enzyme specifically attaching to its target.

However, sometimes jazz can become so much about maintaining the roots of the music that many players can fall into the trap of playing what they know works over the music, much like a formula. The creative aspect of what jazz is meant to be can be lost, which is why many musicians explored jazz from the context of outside those specific formulas: Free Jazz. Free Jazz takes the language and concepts of jazz, and superimposes it over whatever the players decide; a musician could play a lick or line that is completely unrelated to chord played at that time. Free jazz is a collaboration of the musicians that can either be very structured, or chaotic and unpredictable.

This piece played by myself, Mohan Ritsema on bass, Eliza Salem on drums, and Jordan Anderson on piano is meant to illustrate not only the concept of the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics and Entropy, but also to demonstrate the evolution of jazz as many innovations to the genre lead to more complex harmony and “disorder” in the music. As were thinking through the music, a three movement idea of matter phase changes game to mind: solid to liquid to gas. Solid is hard and unchanging, and can be seen as a foundation, as solid structure can be used to make things that last. This movement will be playing standard jazz over a set of chord changes, with a “solid” foundation of the fundamentals of jazz. Movement 2, Liquid, will feature a jazz concept introduced by John Coltrane, where specific chord changes are superimposed over the standard jazz chords (in this case, the technique is imposed over the song from Movement 1), resulting in music that is more chaotic, but still flows and is tangible, much like liquid. Lastly, Movement 3 will feature a complete breakdown of the music, with random ideas and musical phrases having input from every musician, clashing and hitting each other like Gas particles. By the end, the music will be stripped down to show how despite being in chaos, the energy state is at its lowest and has equilibrated.