The Fourth Wall Podcast: Dan Tepfer’s Natural Machines Merges Math and Music

Jazz pianist Dan Tepfer uses algorithms to create structured, automated accompaniment for the improv performance on his latest album.

Dan Tepfer plays piano with visuals

Imagine a player piano that can play along with a live human, weaving intricate harmonies and rhythms based on what the pianist is playing but modified by algorithms that invert, echo, or otherwise mimic the live performance to provide, in essence, a robot accompanist. It may sound like something out of Westworld, but it’s actually the method jazz pianist Dan Tepfer uses in his improvisational live performances and on his new album, Natural Machines, which has its digital release on May 17, 2019. We spoke with Tepfer about how he came up with the idea of playing alongside a computer and using math with music.

Tepfer’s robot accompanist is actually a computer working in conjunction with a digital player piano made by Yamaha called the Disklavier. Whatever Tepfer plays is read by the computer and fed through an algorithm back to the Disklavier, which then echoes, harmonizes, or plays rhythmically with the input based on what the math tells it to do. “This is a free improvisation project,” Tepfer explained. “Improvisation is very important to me as a jazz pianist and the computer in real time responds to what I’m playing at the piano according to any number of different rules that I’ve programmed into the computer.”

Even the title of the album reflects the idea of having a live performer work alongside a computer. “I call it Natural Machines because it’s all about exploring the intersection of the algorithmic and the spiritual,” Tepfer said. “What I mean by that is that if you look at the music of somebody like Bach, he loves to paint himself into a corner, but it’s never such a tight corner that he doesn’t leave degrees of freedom for himself. So with Natural Machines, I’m kind of starting from this idea that music gains from being supported by constraints, but the difference is that I’m having the computer take care of the constraints for me.”

Because the computer can’t read minds, it does perform its part slightly behind whatever is being played, but Tepfer uses that delay in interesting ways. “Once you introduce lag into music, you create rhythm. That’s what rhythm is. Rhythm is resonance in time between events, and that demands delay. So I play around with that delay a lot,” said Tepfer. “With rhythm, the more you feel it in your body [and] in your bones, the more there will be this kind of magical feeling in the music that the rhythm is more than just where the notes fall in time… So that’s something with this project that I have to connect to a lot, that internal sense of time, because ultimately everything the computer does is a response to what I do. So if I play deeply rhythmically, then the computer’s going to respond also with a lot of rhythm.”

It’s possible that Tepfer’s degrees in both music and astrophysics make him uniquely suited for this sort of experimentation. “I mean, I’ve been really fascinated with science and music since I was a little kid, and it kind of runs in the family. My dad is a biologist, and his father was a biologist. And my mom is an opera singer — she sang at the Paris Opera Chorus for 25 years — and her father was a jazz pianist. So I don’t know if it’s the fact that I studied physics and music, but it’s definitely in my blood to be passionate about those two things.”

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But Tepfer disagrees that the combination of math and music is unique among jazz performers. “It’s not that unusual for those things to come together. A lot of great musicians have those two facets to them,” he told us. “Herbie Hancock has a degree in electrical engineering, and a couple great jazz musicians on the New York scene who are a generation ahead of me, Jean-Michel Pilc and François Moutin, both have advanced math degrees from one of the elite schools in France. There’s a lot of examples of that.”

Although Natural Machines won’t have the visual aspect represented in the video above, Tepfer promises that the published album will have a separate appeal for fans of jazz and improv. “The YouTube versions have visuals of course… but the sound for the YouTube version has been mastered to basically sound good on a cell phone. So it’s a lot louder; it’s a lot more compressed, less dynamic range. But when I was making this record, it was really important for me… that this project not be in any way a technological gimmick,” Tepfer said. “And I think for me it’s actually really interesting to contrast the two experiences because if I listen to the CD and I close my eyes, I get my own worlds of visuals that that come up, and it might actually be quite different from what I’ve made in the videos.”

Jazz is Tepfer’s style of choice, but the automated Disklavier can be adapted to any form of music. “What I love about this approach to making music, this idea of imposing abstract constraints on the music, is that it’s style agnostic. You can make something that’s like an inverted canon and it could be any style. That’s true if you think about the rules that govern architecture, like the law of gravitation that you have to contend with. It doesn’t really say much about the style in which you’ve got to build your building. It just says that essentially if you’re building a bridge, it’s going to have to have a certain type of structural design in order to counteract gravity. And so it’s the same kind of constraints that I’m dealing with here.”

Experience the paradox of structure and improvisation for yourself when Dan Tepfer’s album, Natural Machines, comes to CD and digital platforms on May 17, 2019. There’s much more to our discussion of individual tracks from the album as well as other topics in the full audio of this interview on The Fourth Wall podcast, where our interviews with authors, composers, set designers, and others give voice to a whole host of artists we wouldn’t normally get to hear from. Subscribe so that you never miss an episode, or simply listen to this episode below.

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Michael Ahr is a writer, reviewer, and podcaster here at Den of Geek; you can check out his work here or follow him on Twitter (@mikescifi). He co-hosts our Sci Fi Fidelity podcast and voices much of our video content.

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