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Alumnus Mehta responds to technical and trumpet callings

Rajesh Mehta (SB 1986)
Rajesh Mehta (SB 1986)

When Rajesh Mehta (SB 1986) came to MIT as a freshman, he started off as a "pure electrical engineering student" with a passion for mathematics. A talented trumpet player, he also brought a passion for music -- but with no intention of pursuing a career as an artist. His plans changed, leading him to create a self-designed "history of ideas" course of study, and he earned a degree in electrical engineering and humanities. In 1986 he was awarded an Eloranta Fellowship to study jazz in France, which he says "turned me into an avant-garde musician."

Today, Mr. Mehta is an internationally acclaimed jazz musician -- an experimental trumpeter, composer and instrument builder known for his recordings as well as for his invention of the "hybrid trumpet."

Born in India, raised in New Jersey, an MIT graduate who found his artistic voice in Europe, Mr. Mehta is not your typical jazz musician. He's also not -- if there is such a thing -- your typical MIT graduate.

This week he'll travel from his home in Berlin, Germany to make a rare US appearance at MIT in three public events on April 25, 26 and 28. He'll be joined by another emerging virtuoso of the international improvisational music scene, percussionist Paul Lovens. The duo are artists-in-residence at MIT from April 24-28.

The following are excerpts from a recent telephone interview with Mr. Mehta by senior library assistant Forrest Larson of the Lewis Music Library.

What is the connection for you between math and music?

Doing math is very much like improvising -- it requires an incredible amount of preparation. You need to know your tools and your formulas. I always had the same feeling of inspiration from doing mathematics that I have from doing music and from improvising. There is a sensory component in music that's different -- to really be able to hear sounds and to feel it emotionally in your body. So for me, it's still very important that it sounds like music, no matter what formal tools you use.

Was it at MIT that you began to explore free improvisation?

I was in the Brass Ensemble and the Concert Jazz Band for two or three years and I made it into the Festival Jazz Ensemble, but the real space to improvise came from my own ad hoc ensembles I formed early in my second year. But it was [Lecturer] Mark Harvey's IAP seminar on free improvisation that year that gave me my first introduction into improvising music. I would say that the significant impulse and support to be the musician that I am came from Mark. He's a trumpet player and he taught jazz history, but Mark is a teacher of so many dimensions. He's also a minister and I was so impressed by how his ministry manifested itself. His range of expression in bringing out the creativity of each individual musician is a spiritual phenomenon. Mark was the one who I really trusted when I was on the point of deciding whether to give my life over to music.

As a composer, how are you applying math to your music?

I've started designing my own number and metric cycles for compositions with a group called the Collective. Carnatic music has also been a big inspiration for me because of its metric permutations. In Reconfigurations [newly released on CD], I started developing little algorithms -- pattern-generating tools that I would test musically. I'm not sure exactly in which direction I'll go, but I'd like to focus more on applying mathematics to the entire piece.

Tell me about the modifications you've made to the trumpet. What is a hybrid trumpet?

I wanted to reduce the trumpet and make it almost disappear. It started with taking a slide out of the trumpet while improvising, which allowed me to play percussively. With the slide out, every time you press down the first valve, the sound goes out of the disconnected slide and hits your chest. The disconnected slide sound was a wooden, flute-like timbre. I started seeing more transparently what a trumpet was -- that it was actually tubes and pistons and redirecting sound flow. The hybrid trumpet is basically two trumpets or more connected with plastic tubing.

What do you think about the fusion of music from different cultures?

I've been disappointed by a lot of those experiments, even though historically, they opened up a certain kind of dialogue and [raised knowledge of] the existence of different cultures. I'm faced with that challenge myself. I was raised in the States and was influenced by jazz, contemporary and South Indian traditions. I feel these languages can coexist and enrich each other if one doesn't force them into certain sonic results. Don't remove the edge of those confrontations between languages, because those moments actually help develop new musical languages. At this point, I've absorbed these influences and I'm making my own work that integrates these inspirations.

What are some of the things you got from the MIT environment that you might not have gotten from a more traditional school?

The spirit of research and of innovation is what I really admire about MIT, even though at the time I was fairly unconscious of what that meant to me. In recent years, my instrumental extensions and innovations and my interest in using mathematics in music is really coming to the fore. I don't know where else you can find that kind of combination. On top of it, I got to study at Wellesley and at Harvard. I could sit in on a seminar in jazz there and go to Berkeley for seven months at the University of California. That I actually could is a testament to MIT's openness. If you look for it, you really have a chance to create something unique in terms of an education. MIT had the flexibility for someone like me.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on April 25, 2001.

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