Composer-pianist Vijay Iyer can be as funny in person as his music can be serious. When he cracks jokes, he delivers them with a quiet half-smile and takes a beat for your laughter. This past December we sat down with Iyer in an office at The Met Breuer building. He talked about the New York City ambience as the sound of sirens crept into the windowless room. We had just finished checking out a space where we will be mounting a collaborative sound art installation in March 2016, which is part of a performance series he created during his residency at the Metropolitan Museum. Since he started the residency last spring he has presented Holding It Down (2013/15), his collaboration with poet Mike Ladd and veterans of color, and given a solo performance on the museum’s 1830s organ.
We met Vijay online through our community of artists in the early 2000s, around the time of the performance and album In What Language (2003). But we probably had our first face-to-face conversation backstage after one of his gigs at the Jazz Standard.
After a slew of awards, a Harvard faculty appointment, and much critical acclaim, Vijay’s journey full of creative music and risk-taking projects might seem like an obvious career path, but we know that he had to build his own road to this life as an artist. We wanted to hear how he thought about putting the aesthetic, professional, and political pieces together.
—Mendi + Keith Obadike
Keith Obadike We’re here at The Met Breuer building, where you’re in the middle of your residency. How have you been thinking about the programming, what were the conversations like?
Vijay Iyer We are in a concrete box with a hole in the wall, literally. (laughter) We are checking out the space as it’s under construction, being retooled and rebranded, as they say. So since this year coincides with this grand reopening … What did you call it?
KO The architectural reboot.
VI Yes, that’s great. So that reactivates the space in a new way. Since it’s the former Whitney Museum, it’s a space that a lot of New Yorkers already know, but now there’s a shift in its identity. But it still has the same layout, the same bones. Now what will it do that is Metropolitan Museum-like? I saw that opportunity of an opening, and the phrase I used was, “How about we open by not closing?” Meaning we just populate the space with our people, fill it with the work that we all do, make it just feel like New York. So it’s almost democratizing the space, bringing the street in.
I’ve done these week-long runs at places like The Stone, where audiences come into your space, but that is very different from what we’re used to. As touring artists, we sort of bounce through the community, but never get to claim any part of it, to have a space that is ours, where we can stretch out and be ourselves…
What I do most of all is collaborate with my favorite people, like you guys. To build together—that’s the spirit I’m trying to bring in here. It’s very much a we-thing.
KO You’ve played in many different kinds of venues—jazz festivals, clubs, and now a space like this. What does it do to the music? Does it change how you think about the content?
VI I think about that a lot. When you’re at a festival, people are in a state of distraction, because maybe they’re milling around between acts, they’re like, “Oh, who’s playing right now? Let’s go see that.” So there’s less intentionality than when you play at a ticketed event, whether it’s a club or a concert hall setting, where people come to see you—whatever that means. But they have a motivation tied to what they think you’re offering and that creates one kind of opportunity for connection. The more distracted state is another opportunity for connection—you can catch somebody where they didn’t expect to be caught.
This environment here is going to be similar to that, even stranger, because no one will be here specifically to hear music or to see performance. They’re going to the Met. Unless they’ve been amply forewarned, I imagine that in March thousands of people, tourists and students, will be coming in off the street, with zero expectations about me or us. That’s an interesting chance to meet non-music audiences and to see what we can experience together. It’s a very different framework from what I’m used to. Maybe you guys are more familiar with these kinds of spaces. When you came in, you knocked on the wall and said, “Same as it ever was.”
KO That’s just what I do everywhere I go—check the walls.
Mendi Obadike I feel that you have many creative homes—music, theater,the academy, the art world—even though it’s clear to your audience that your home base is jazz. How do you think about communicating where you’re coming from or where you may go?
KO If I can add to your question…
MO That’s fine. Joint brain.
KO Why choose jazz as your home base? I mean, clearly you’re entrenched in the tradition, but we have friends in common who are in the same tradition and they’ve chosen another label or another shingle for their office. You could be a hip-hop producer or many other things.
VI We can choose, but we also get chosen in a certain way, or we get tagged by our affiliations. It’s easy for people outside of jazz to call me a jazz musician, but you may also know, some people inside jazz don’t. And that’s the most interesting to me—none of these tags are stable or constant. They are fragile. They are constructs of genre, fictions really. It’s a way of talking about the music without talking about the people. And it has allowed us to stereotype how people behave in music. That’s what genre-labels do—they’re not accurate, they don’t tell us enough about what’s actually happening. I basically keep them all at arm’s length. But when those words appear near me, on the cover of a jazz magazine, or on a so-called jazz record label, that’s where those terms have any meaning. They’re not descriptors of what we’re doing, they’re descriptors of the field of transactions around it. Which isn’t to say that there isn’t a heritage or tradition I’m dealing with, but there are a lot of those traditions and heritages that intersect and overlap, and those are also unstable and in flux; they’re in dialogue or even in competition with one another so you can’t really unify them.
I go where I’m invited. That opens up its own set of valences, and also its own impossibilities.
MO Did you say “impossibilities”?
VI Yes, because there are some places where I will not be invited and I am aware of that, too.
KO You do go where you’re invited, but you also speak to that “jazz tradition” a lot and directly too, and I think that is something. It’s a political choice, an aesthetic choice. It means something to have the jazz label associated with you and to be in a space like this.
VI I see it both ways. Some people see the word jazz as something that’s been co-opted and institutionalized, or something from another era, or something like “high art.” But that is not what it used to be. When I think of jazz and its people, I see it as a history of communities, a history of ideas, a history of struggle. These people are still around and active, it’s a continuum. I also look at, say, the half century of music that still gets tagged as jazz—it’s actually so diverse, broad, and open that the tag becomes a nuisance. Really, most of the people we admire have sought a mobility that was outside of genre. And that term creative music came about more than half a century ago—as an alternative framework. That put us in critical distance to or in a critical field around the word jazz. If jazz is a hundred years old—which is all we can really say because that’s how old records are—then we’re talking about half of the history of this music being cracked open, and being trans-idiomatic, to use Anthony Braxton’s term. You saw people seeking to work across disciplines—poetry, dance, theater, also working with different musical communities, like chamber music, opera, and stuff like that.
What is rarely pointed out about my work is that it is in conversation with that lineage. Trans-idiomatic creative music. It’s not just that I’m trying to do a bunch of stuff without focus; it’s actually that I’m inspired by people who had that broad purview. That includes all the people in the AACM [Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians], founded in 1965—Braxton, Muhal Richard Abrams, Henry Threadgill, Roscoe Mitchell, Wadada Leo Smith; but it also includes Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, and many others.
KO When you’re writing for the Vijay Iyer Trio, do you respond to the evolution of the individual musicians, Stephan Crump, and Marcus Gilmore? For example, how does knowing that they’re working on ideas of their own and that they’re changing as people affect what you write for them?
I like watching you guys in the trio listen to each other. You’ve been together for a while; I’m curious how your relationship has evolved over the years.
VI I find that I write less and less these days, in the sense that I write only the most skeletal material for the trio because it’s been more about what they bring to it and how it’s brought to life in the course of a performance. So my composerly self, when it comes to that group in particular, tries to stay out of the way as much as it can. It becomes more about us and less about me. I do a certain amount of steering in the course of a performance, like I make choices about what could happen next. And that’s partly based on what just happened, you know. Like, this tune bloomed into a certain kind of energy that we couldn’t foresee exactly, but now being there, what would be the most productive move for us to make? Am I taking us away from that, or am I deepening that? Those are the kinds of choices that I’m making. They’re invisible, but for me there’s this constant cognitive pressure—what is the right thing to do next? It’s more of an emotional, gut kind of thing, it’s not calculated. I’m trying to make space for everybody, including everyone else in the room. I have to think about what it feels like to be on the outside, and that’s really hard to do, it takes listening.
You said you love watching us listen. What does listening look like, and how do you know?
KO I don’t know, and that’s what is so interesting about it. I wonder if I can see or hear a response to a particular gesture, hear surprise from someone.
MO Thinking about myself with other musicians, I wonder, What does it sound like when I’m listening to someone, or when I feel someone listening to me? Those things have to do with shifts in the way that something feels or the way someone responds to what another person did. I count that as listening.
KO Yeah. The question is, What can we know about what is happening on stage? I’m always asking myself, What can I appreciate about the choices they’re making? Do they all know that they’re going there?
VI It really is about what the rhythm or the foundation feels like. Before I’m even thinking about what it sounds like, I think about what it feels like, how a rhythm lays and what it makes your body do. So you’re right, I could be a hip-hop producer. (laughter) I probably got that just from being part of this generation who grew up with rhythm making us move in a certain way. That’s what gave a song its identity, as much as the lyrics or the samples, maybe. It could be the way the music made you bob your head, or a particular thing it did to you that you couldn’t really identify, but you knew when it had it. That sort of sensibility motivates a lot of what I do, especially with the trio, because the three of us all have that in our guts or in our bones—the desire to make you move in a certain way. I think we all have experienced that with certain kinds of music more than with others. People love J Dilla for that reason, they love FlyLo [Flying Lotus] because the music has some kind of wobble, some lurch, something off about it in a way that’s really attractive, endearing, and mesmerizing.
MO In your work that wobble is here, and then it’s here. (laughter)
VI When you hear it in electronic music, hip-hop or beats that are made that way, it’s the result of some concatenation of audio; it’s not really a body doing something. It’s almost this Frankenstein-like process, putting together different parts into this whole that moves in a certain off-kilter way. How do you make your own body do that? How do you evoke the same thing as a player or as a group of players? That’s when I sometimes resort to hyper-rational means, like, “If we play septuplets really fast…”—that kind of thing. But then you’d only play the first and the fourth of every single one, so you get this kind of broke not-quite-symmetric sound. Musicians can account for it, literally, because it’s metric. But because we feel this way, we can organize our behavior to arrive at that balance, or that nod, or that lurch …
KO I know that you arrive at the ideas through the feeling, but do you play what feels right and then analyze it? Or do the ideas come to you as formal things?
VI It often comes through rational means, like adding together beats of certain lengths that I can account for—this is five-sixteenths and this is six-sixteenths, so if I just play them back and forth we’ll be okay. But what people commonly call a four/four or a duple rhythm—when it’s actually played, it isn’t that. It’s not mathematically symmetric. Asymmetry is part of what makes us human, and it’s what makes our actions feel human. And we only know that because we can have a programmer make something play “perfectly,” and it sounds terrible. It has no micro-timing, it doesn’t have any kind of subtle movement that you might associate with the body—tiny variations that break the symmetry. That’s what I try to orchestrate. And when I do that in either my own compositions or in an arrangement, I like to start with our human nature, because I like that feeling, that particular way of manipulating your limbs.
I tend to feel rhythm in my torso. Maybe that’s because I play seated and my torso is the only part that can move. But when it’s there, everything else follows and the hand is connected to it. I like to tell my students that a lot of music happens below the neck, in your heart and in your gut. They really can get a little heady with things and I have to remind them: music is first and foremost a way for us to move together.
KO I know you started out playing violin. We often return to whatever influenced us as teenagers—
VI We do, and it dates us too. (laughter)
KO What were you listening to as a teenager, what were you trying to make?
VI I was really into Michael Jackson. Thriller came out when I was eleven and it became omnipresent in our lives. Prince too, Purple Rain wasn’t that far behind. I was also really into The Police, and a lot of classic rock. When I was in high school I started figuring out that there was this thing called jazz that I liked and wanted to know more about. I’d see that Branford Marsalis was playing with Sting, so then I checked out Branford, and then Wynton Marsalis, who was on TV a lot, and Herbie Hancock, of course. That was the mid-’80s. Also, playing Western classical violin, I grew up being in orchestras and playing solo repertoire. I first got into Thelonious Monk when I was sixteen or seventeen and that was pretty cataclysmic for me. I also remember checking out De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, Ice-T, LL [Cool J]—a lot of that stuff was part of the fabric. Especially all of the Native Tongues stuff—that was really pivotal for me in my college years.
MO We’re the same generation. I remember knowing that first by listening to your music.
VI Yeah, you can’t hide. You are what you eat. That’s also what I’ve enjoyed about getting to know you guys all of these years. The same things speak to us. It’s like, this is our stuff—David Bowie is in there, Grace Jones, the arty and playful and surreal of that generation. Exuberance, newness, romanticism were part of that time too, as you remember.
I did a graduate seminar called “Theorizing Improvisation,” and one of the students did a paper on realness in hip-hop, and I detected this nostalgia for a pre-corporate version of hip-hop. I think nostalgia is a big part of how we listen—we listen for songs that we know, or aesthetics that we relate to. It’s a listening back in time.
KO I meant to ask you about teaching, as Mendi and I are wrestling the teaching-artist thing ourselves. On the one hand, as an artist, you have this deep desire to keep moving and reinventing, but as a teacher, you spend a lot of time working on the syllabus, you know, putting things on the list …
VI The way I teach is, “Okay, I know you guys did all this reading, but because of what happened in the world last week we’re going to talk about something else instead.” (laughter) Reality comes crashing in, you’ve just got to shift; it’s a moving relationship to what’s happening. I tell them, “Look, I’m here as an artist, and what that means is that we’re going to synthesize ideas from a lot of disparate places and we’re going to build knowledge, and it’s going to be assemblage. It won’t really feel unified, and part of it will just be that process of assembling.” It’s a notion of study I got from Fred Moten’s work. The Undercommons is a great example of how we can be in relation to these very powerful institutions. It’s never finished; it defies the idea of mastery—it’s the constant turning of information.
MO I find myself saying that there’s not going to be a center here, and so we will have to get used to that, or get comfortable with the fact that we’re not going to have a center.
VI Yeah, but we also want ideas that are empowering. George Lewis said that you want theory to be empowering and it shouldn’t just be this system that you have to work under. You want it to work for you.
MO How do you implement that idea as a teacher?
VI Well, with this course, “Theorizing Improvisation,” in particular, rather than imposing a subject matter, I gave the students a lot of reading and we basically examined various systems of thought in which improvisation seems to reveal itself in some form. Whether it’s called agency, or subjectivity, or diaspora, or embodied experience—they all seem to have something in common with this thing we call improvisation. Basically, the students could bring these ideas to whatever they wanted to talk about, and that’s why we had this incredible spread of subject matter in their final presentations.
One woman from the Divinity School gave a talk on the possibility of same-sex Hindu weddings in Minnesota, because her family is currently involved in this very real-time conversation. Another student is an artist working across mediums and across communities. She trained in South India in Carnatic percussion, but then she worked with Steve Coleman and with me and various other people, so she developed some theoretical ideas based on her observations as a performer.
Someone else talked about the ritual of response in academia to moments of crisis, like all of these things that have happened this year, and about observing the improvisations and the musicality in these non-musical situations, moments where rhythm, timing, and sound matter. Basically I teach reading political moments as improvisation, and tracing out the musicality in them—in other words, applying our music-listening strategies to real events in the world.
Since my course wasn’t subject-specific, it was more like: I want you to run with this; I want us to build something together so we can empower each other with ideas that we can all use in the work that we’re doing. I could see people really owning it. There’s a language that emerges at these institutions where they seem to commodify learning and I resist that, I try to make it more about collaboration or co-construction. And that’s the same thing I do with musicians, I make them build music together and help them do it, by serving as a listener.
MO We have a long-standing collaboration. The conversation in our collaboration has changed over time due to personal aesthetic and external political shifts.
KO I mean, when we started working together we didn’t have kids, many music tools were analog, the web was new, and Bill Clinton was still in office. To put it simply, we now have other concerns and new ways of working.
MO You’ve been working with poet Mike Ladd for more than a decade on a trilogy of politically engaged theater works: In What Language?, Still Life with Commentator, and most recently, Holding It Down. What has changed for you in the different aesthetic and political climates?
VI The aesthetics and the politics have been intertwined, I think, even though aesthetically at the time it felt like it all happened organically. It’s been a progression, to be sure. I remember that The Boston Globe called In What Language? ”a genre that doesn’t exist”—and that was taken as a compliment—so we were emboldened to keep following our haphazard process. At first there was almost a utopian underpinning to it, in the sense of assembling all these great performers of color to portray moments of human dignity, with lyricism and righteousness. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, in the early days of the Global War on Terror, thinking back on our choice to focus on these moments—there was practically an irrational exuberance to the effort, which is exactly what I love about it.
Things turned a lot darker in Still Life with Commentator where we depicted atrocities like Abu Ghraib, satirizing the absurdity of cable news during wartime, and moving into some fierce, disturbing abstractions. Much of that shift is in the central role of electronic sound—synthetic textures, samples, disembodied loops, live processing, glitch, noise, sub-bass. If the prevailing aesthetic in In What Language? was spinning, ordered, and majestic, Still Life with Commentator was almost the opposite: lurching, disordered, fractured. Instead of heroic solos by the likes of Rudresh Mahanthappa and Ambrose Akinmusire, we had not-quite-synchronized, not-quite-virtuosic electronic sounds from multiple sources populating the sonic image. It wasn’t that we were using new technology; rather, it felt right to use improvised electronic chatter to describe our heavily mediated relationship to endless war at a distance.
MO For Holding It Down: The Veterans’ Dreams Project, you collected actual dreams of young war veterans of color, soldiers who had served in Iraq and Afghanistan. This was a courageous project where you opened yourself to experiences most of us can’t even imagine.
VI With Holding It Down, we started fresh and focused on collaborating with veterans—Maurice Decaul and Lynn Hill, in particular, but others too. It became much more about bodies, presence, and the paradox embodied by veterans of color. We return to narratives of dignity in struggle, but the noise of war and its aftermath still haunt the frame. A lot of these folks had some pretty harrowing things to share, and at this point, we are dealing with our own complicity with the American Empire, so I didn’t expect it to go down easy. But we also approached it like a band making songs together. So it’s more about the social sphere of mutual presence, and the politics of accountability for one another’s bodies—almost as an antidote to the virtual landscape of Still Life. That’s why we brought a live drummer in, Kassa Overall, playing with and against the electronic rhythms. We needed that kick and that fire—someone to set it all off in real space.
My friend Manu Vimalassery offered an inspiring political reading of the closing melody from Maurice’s “Derelict Poetry,” which becomes Lynn’s theme for “Dreams in Color.” It’s a song that toggles between major and minor, and simply carries on. There’s a balance of optimism and pessimism—like that Antonio Gramsci line: “Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the spirit.”
MO Does collaborating with vocal performers mirror your collaboration with instrumentalists? Another way of posing this question is: How do you approach working with artists from other creative cultures?
VI As a New Yorker, I’m not sure what Other means at this point. Cultures are not unities to begin with. We live in cities that are high-density networks of people from a lot of different corners. These cities are the birthplaces of most music that we hear. They are spaces of encounter among people and among communities, concentrations of power and capital, and sites of rapid “circulation of information, discourse, and commodities,” as Sianne Ngai puts it.
When you grew up like all of us did, at a nexus of different diasporic populations and “mainstream” culture in its highs and lows, you find yourself code-switching all the time. I think of diasporic communities as improvisational: they are continually engaged in movement, a spatiotemporal and informational flow, with and against power, across gradients of difference.
So, to put it simply, I think that the artists I deal with, even the ones who are “different” from me, are also experienced and adept at navigating difference. In other words, they are good improvisers. They know how to listen, they know how to adapt, and they know how to act with self-assurance.
Specifically regarding vocalists, I should say that all the voice parts on the projects with Mike Ladd were created by the performers themselves. In our collaborations, I create a musical environment, the text might come from Mike or from someone else, and then the vocalist cocreates his or her own way of performing the text. The melodies belong to the performers. It’s similar to how some theater and film directors (Mike Leigh, for one) create works through incrementally refined collective improvisation. Except that we give performers a share of the writing credit!
MO Our work as sound artists requires us to think a lot about the acousmatic, or how we receive music or sound without images. We often approach the projects as one part music composition and one part media art production (like filmmakers). While you are best known as a pianist, you’ve done a lot of research and writing on how we receive music. What does liveness versus recording mean to you? For example, do you ever create sounds (electronic or otherwise) or textures in the studio with the understanding that those sounds will never be used on stage?
VI As a performing musician, I think more of how we receive sound without bodies. Before recorded music, the sound of music almost always meant the presence of another person; music was the sound of bodies in motion. We could go so far as to say that music was defined by this simple fact of sonorous copresence. I like this claim, because it destabilizes the “score” as the embodiment of a musical “work.” With recorded music, we became accustomed to hearing the music of others in the literal absence of others. Now disembodied music accompanies images all the time, including almost every movie we see and the visual flow of our own surroundings when we drive or walk down the street, or the constructed environments where we eat or shop.
In a recent lecture, Jacques Attali said that since musical recordings are crystallizations of time, our habitual stockpiling of records or MP3s is our way of buying time—that is, taming the fear of death. It’s a way of consoling ourselves that we will not be alone in the future, and creating for the solitary listener the illusion that he cannot die. The solitary listener is a strange construct. He has antecedents in the bourgeois concert hall, where music operated as a mildly decadent diversion; works were commissioned from “genius” composers, whose perfect ideas were then delivered, via the bodies of servile musicians, for the enjoyment of concert attendees. This was secular, non-functional, entertaining music: presenting objects to subjects.
Now our devices do the work that further reinforces our amnesia about music’s obvious source: other people. We trick ourselves out of asking who made it, where they came from, what they looked like, for what purpose they made the music, or with what parts of their bodies and in exactly what way. Instead we engage in pure fantasy about these questions. Pop music is good at enabling these fantasies, using performers’ bodies and a few vague biographical details as sites for fantasy. But there’s an element of this in every area of music.
In the sphere of performance I’m in—you used the word jazz earlier, but like Coltrane said, “Jazz is a word they use to sell our music, but to me that word does not exist”—I find that there is a demand for the perception of liveness. What that means is that the more electronic the music is, the harder it becomes to source or imagine the live acts that gave rise to it. Electronic sounds—samples, synthetic textures, sequences, etcetera—seem to destabilize the fantasy of liveness. I’ve experienced this in performance. The better I am at manipulating sound electronically, the less embodied it sounds, to the point that people just assume that it’s all prerecorded and that I’m not even present. We’ve had this experience with the projects with Mike Ladd, which are almost completely rejected or shunned by the jazz world. I have to think that the role of electronics in the music is part of the disconnect.
Obviously DJs don’t have this problem—if anything it’s the opposite, where people ascribe ultimate musical agency to DJs (and pay them accordingly) even when they actually exert very little of it in performance. But I’m pretty sure that part of what defines this field called “jazz” is the desire to hear (and thus fantasize about) the exertions of performing bodies.