[14 February 2007]
LEXINGTON, Ky. - Math just isn’t the kind of thing rock stars talk about. Leather pants and antique studio equipment and how the music feels, man, yes, sometimes. Math, never.
Robert Schneider, who happens to be a bit of a rock star, loves math. In recent years, as a dad in his mid-30s, he signed up for physics and calculus classes at Bluegrass Community and Technical College. He did it without telling teachers that he was Robert Schneider of The Apples in Stereo, the sticky-fingered, corduroy-wearing kid brother of the indie-rock set.
He certainly did not tell his manager that he was busy pondering the infinite series of logarithms instead of writing the band’s new record.
Now that the latest Apples album, “New Magnetic Wonder,” is on store shelves, Schneider can talk all he wants about numbers and equations. He used them to create a musical scale of wacky tones, unfamiliar to the Western ear, that appear on the album.
Word of this creation spread quickly through the indie-rock scene, which shook its collective heads in confusion. Among hipsters who pride themselves on knowing and criticizing everything before it has a chance at popularity, a rare sense of awe surrounded this news. Critics were curious. Bloggers were impressed. These people, for the most part, also do not talk about math, but they knew this: Schneider’s scale was odd for pop music and weird for this band with the edgy “School House Rock” sound. But neat.
“I’m just as interested in mathematics as I am in music,” Schneider says, in the breathless, rushed pace he always seems to have. “Everyone wants to write and draw to be creative. You have the ability to be just as reckless and self-taught with math.”
When he was younger, Schneider said, he wanted to learn two languages: Chinese and math. Chinese because it was the language of his favorite poets, and math for its mystery. But as a scrawny, Beach Boys-listening, religion-and-music-studying college kid, he didn’t have much use for math.
Later, by making a living as a musician, Schneider was given a free pass to never think about math again, except for the occasional contract. But every so often, simple formulas or concepts he recalled from high school, such as V=RI, would haunt him. For a budget-conscious musician, the ability to calculate voltage was paramount. Equipment was old and in frequent need of soldering. That little equation, Voltage = Current x Resistance, could put a delay on any and all rocking out.
“My whole life was music and electricity,” Schneider says. “It was all connected to this simple mathematical equation.”
There were other math moments, too: Schneider always had a strong sense of stereo - hence the band’s name - and balance. In the studio, he wants to hear an equal number of instruments in each speaker. If the sound is unbalanced, like an equation, it’s no good.
Math was everywhere, in a mystical kind of way, Schneider realized. But the study of math is rarely conducive to a rock star’s schedule. After sharpening his math skills at community college, he contacted the University of Kentucky math department. The tour for “New Magnetic Wonder” loomed, so he couldn’t sign up for courses, but Schneider’s ideas about numbers attracted the attention of David Leep, a professor and chairman of the mathematics department. Leep was immediately impressed by the shaggy, hyperactive man who pulled out a notebook filled with scribbled ideas and theories.
Mathematicians talk about math all the time, Leep says, but it’s rare for a student to start dishing about number theory. For a non-student who’s a pop musician, it’s unheard of. (Regular people don’t talk much about math either, he says, unless it involves their bank accounts.) Schneider’s ideas weren’t new, but they were creative, Leep says, and the best judge of a mathematician is what path he takes to find answers.
“There are so few people who really love mathematics, so few people who really see the beauty behind it,” says Leep, who grasped the magnitude of Apples in Stereo’s fame only after seeing Schneider on “The Colbert Report” on Comedy Central in December. “There was lots of raw talent that’s quite unrefined. Clearly, what was going on in his mind was good, accurate mathematics.”
When those short, cheery hooks that define The Apples’ sound weren’t swirling in Schneider’s head, math made his mind into a playground. He wrote math and music the same way - in short spurts, whenever he had a chance. It’s not a neat process, but the scribbles can be the start of something big.
“I get in the same space when I’m doing them,” Schneider says. “It’s like I’m daydreaming, really deeply daydreaming.”
Once, in a daydream, Schneider pondered what a musical scale could be, starting not with a tone but with the math behind it. “What would it sound like? Would it be beautiful?” he wondered. “Would it be elegant? Or ugly?”
Knowing that the pitches we hear from a piano key or a guitar string are based on the frequency of sound waves, he plugged those numbers into mathematical calculations called logarithms, enough to produce a full 12-note octave scale. The result, created on a computer, was not at all like the equal-tempered scales taught in schools; he called it, simply, a non-Pythagorean scale.
The first tone was 264 Hertz, what Western music would call middle C. After that note, everything changed. The tones weren’t evenly spaced, do-re-mi style. The space between notes grew shorter as the pitch grew higher, and at the top of the scale, it’s tougher to tell one high tone from the others.
To trained ears, the scale isn’t just oddly spaced; it’s out of tune. The frequency of each note is close to what we’re used to, close enough to sound OK, but certainly not “right.” But in music and math, right is relative.
Different tuning systems have been used roughly forever in Eastern music, but it’s all new to the Western ear. More people are experimenting with other tuning systems in classically styled electronic music, but in pop music, the biggest trends often are defined by hairstyles and acoustic versus electric. Mention the word logarithm and the audience tunes out, at least to the explanation, if not the music. New, really new, is a tough sell.
Non-Pythagorean scales aren’t new. They’re sometimes used by vocalists, but most of the ones we hear aren’t like the one the Greek mathematician Pythagoras devised by looking at the ratios between harmonies. Pythagoras’ scale works in only one key, a no-no for instruments like the piano, which rely on quick key changes to make music.
What makes Schneider’s scale different from other math-made scales and man-made music is that he knows why it’s different, and how it sounds on a record.
The tones from Schneider’s logarithm are not all beautiful, or elegant, or ugly. He found one “particularly beautiful” chord to open the album, he says, and added two short tracks based on the scale, called “Non-Pythagorean Compositions.” A third track, a cheery piece of alien-sounding tones, was “too poppy,” Schneider says, perhaps marking the first time anything was too poppy for The Apples’ brand of sunshiny pop. It was relegated to the enhanced portion of the CD, along with videos about the scale and sample tones so listeners can create their own compositions.
The tracks that made it onto the CD are a precious bunch that fans waited five years to hear. In that time, the band’s label, members, locations and side projects were in flux. Given time to create instead of a deadline to be creative by, they wrote, recorded, mixed and calculated what Schneider calls “the essential Apples in Stereo,” a record that works best as a whole.
“Your best song might be on a given record, but it’s with songs that fall short of what you needed,” he says. “On this record, there are none.”
The luxury of time meant Schneider could “geek out” in the studio, and add all the sound effects and feedback he desired. He wants to re-create the sounds for audiences on the tour the band launched last week. That means adding musicians, screaming less, harmonizing more, putting all the music together in new ways.
Math isn’t like a brain game, Schneider says: “I’m not very quick in that sort of way. It feels like poetry or painting, feeling around with abstract shapes and putting them together in different ways.”
For the record, that’s what rock stars say when they talk about music, and math.