The musician and composer on the art of self-transformation, resisting cultures of exclusion, and what he calls ‘easy camaraderie.’
Photograph by Barbara Rigon.
When Vijay Iyer plays the piano, he plays with his entire body. His fingers move across the keys, his right shoulder sways, his head nods, and his feet tap out rhythms on the floor. His eyes are closed—in fact, the members of his eponymous Trio rarely acknowledge each other during this 45-minute set—and yet, it’s clear they are in constant conversation; at the top of one of Iyer’s crescendos, drummer Marcus Gilmore hits the cymbals, and when bassist Stephan Crump needs to reinsert his earplugs midway through a piece, Gilmore taps out a solo. The three musicians exude the ease and calm that must come from having played together for over a decade.
As the artist-in-residence at the Met Breuer this March, Iyer performed with his trio several times a day on the ground floor of the newly opened building on 75th Street and Madison Avenue, former home of New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art.
As the room filled to capacity—standing room only—a woman outside the exhibit urged us to walk directly past the musicians to find seats. “They want you to,” she assured us. And soon, the Trio is surrounded on three sides by a packed crowd.
This residency is one of a series of accomplishments for Iyer. A Yale graduate and UC Berkeley PhD, Iyer—a second-generation Indian American—was also a 2013 recipient of the MacArthur “genius” award. He tours globally and is currently a member of Harvard’s music faculty.
The day after my visit to the Met Breuer, I’m seated across from Iyer in his Harlem piano studio, on the ground floor of a brownstone, where it is cool and quiet. The bookshelves are full. I glance at a few spines: Thelonious Monk; On Non-Violence by Mahatma Gandhi; a book about the tabla. On the coffee table is a volume on artist Nasreen Mohamedi, whose work is also on display at the Breuer, one floor above Iyer’s piano. Perhaps, I think, this Harlem music room is where Iyer and trumpet maestro Wadada Leo Smith sat and discussed her work before composing their latest album, A Cosmic Rhythm With Each Stroke, or where the Trio may have come up with ideas for their 2015 album Break Stuff.
For all his fervent creativity, Iyer is poised, even restrained on the couch, patiently fielding my questions. Often, he laughs before responding. Inspired by what I’d witnessed the day before, I request that Iyer and I begin our dialogue in ‘sustained antiphony,’ or call and response, as musicians do when they riff off one another. Like the gracious and professional musician that he is, Iyer obliges.
—Aditi Sriram for Guernica
Vijay Iyer: You want me to free-associate? It means being among others, and taking others into account in a way, to act.
Vijay Iyer: A physical process through which similarities are highlighted.
Vijay Iyer: Three people. In a mystical sense, three can become one, in the sense that two is not one; three is a way of resolving difference between two. It’s about creating balance: of energies, of dispositions. Sonic balance. That’s the approach for me, what it means.
Vijay Iyer: Wish I had one! I’ve had lots of mentors and they’ve been very important to me. Sometimes it took me a while to realize that’s what they were. That’s the case with Wadada Leo Smith; I’ve been collaborating with him for over a decade now. I remember a few years ago I had him as a guest faculty at the Banff workshop that I direct, and at the end of it, I told him, “I just realized that you are my teacher.” That was after many years of sustained antiphony: lots of interactions, lots of music making, just observing him in action, learning how he speaks about music in very human terms. I’ve had a good half dozen figures in my life: Steve Coleman, George Lewis, David Wessell passed away a couple of years ago, Amiri Baraka, Roscoe Mitchell, Butch Morris—they’ve all nurtured me.
Vijay Iyer: Electronic technology has been a part of music making and music listening for a century. We always treat it like it’s new, and cutting edge, but it’s actually omnipresent, so we should just treat it as part of the arsenal today. That said, what I find the challenge is with working with, say, digital machines—performing electronic music—is that when we play instruments there’s a physical act that results in a physical vibration. There’s a mapping between our exertions and resultant vibrations, or resonance.
With electronic music it’s often a little more hidden—the relationship between gesture and sound—which makes it confounding for audiences. But the ingredients of electronic music are the same ingredients of nonelectronic music. What we call music is what reminds us of ourselves. And sometimes electronic music helps lead the imagination to a space that seems outside of ourselves. But it never really is.
Vijay Iyer: [laughs] I sold mine! This is the last sentence of my dissertation: “What is soul in music if not powerfully embodied human presence?”
Vijay Iyer: I quit it, in 1994. The thing about physicists is that they tend to think that everything is physics. I don’t. That’s not what music is to me. You can explain aspects of it in physical terms, including the physics of anatomy: how our bodies move, the torsional moment of inertia, the way you move your body to a beat, the inherent periodicities of the heartbeat, the gait. That’s physics, too, I guess—maybe they’d call it biophysics. Music is made of that stuff, it’s made of what we do when we move, and we can only move in certain ways, in certain ranges of tempo because of the inherent constraints that our bodies offer, or you can call them ‘affordances’—that’s another word for me. It’s a little more positive; doesn’t make it seem like a limitation, but rather, a set of opportunities. You can say that that’s part of music making, but there’s also the imagination. The power of the imagination is kind of trumping—sorry to have to use that word.
I think what music can offer is the feeling of forward motion, also the feeling of accumulation of information, of sensations, of feelings, like we’re going somewhere.
Vijay Iyer: They tell you you’re supposed to do that; that’s what you should do. I think what music can offer is the feeling of forward motion, also the feeling of accumulation of information, of sensations, of feelings, like we’re going somewhere. When I say ‘feel like,’ I don’t mean to suggest that it’s not real, but that it’s the work of the imagination, which is what narrative is.
We can create the sensation of community through the accrual of actions, and that’s often the clichéd way that [storytelling is] talked about, as someone taking a solo—Sonny Rollins taking a solo, having his motific development as formal logic—and that’s great for lots of reasons. But I don’t really like to feel like I’m forced to listen to it in a certain way, or that there is one master reading of performance. I think what we want from performance is multiplicity, which is lots of ways in and through it, because it’s for lots of people, and it was created by lots of people, often.
I find myself skeptical of music that forces you to have a certain experience, emotional reaction, or specific constructive arc of experience. But performers should still take care of that, to a certain extent—how does it add up?
What you want from performance, because we’re all in a room together, is that somehow we’ve gotten somewhere at the end, together. You could call that a sense of narrative, but it’s not so obvious how that happens. One way it happens is by everyone caring about it happening.
Guernica: Sounds a little like a Choose Your Own Adventure book. You pick the chapters you want to read, and by the end, you’ve read the whole book.
Vijay Iyer: But you can’t capture everything. When I give a concert, I know they’re not going to hear everything; there might be a lot going on. My individual perceptual and cognitive path through the music is just that: one path through music. My experience will be probably at some level different from other people’s, and that multiplicity of experience has to be supported by the music. I might just focus on the cowbell the whole time—maybe I have a fever for more cowbell!
There are records I’ll listen to one time and zero in on what’s happening, and then I’ll listen again to something I didn’t notice the first time. The art of making records is something like this: you want to provide a multiplicity of experience in a single object, which is to say you want layers so that people can revisit and have something revealed to them that wasn’t apparent the first time. We often will listen to the same music over and over again, and that tells you something, too.
Guernica: Ben Ratliff, a New York Times music critic, has just released a book subtitled Twenty Ways to Listen in an Age of Musical Plenty. He wants to do away with genres of music, and focus instead on categories of listening, like repetition, slowness, and density. What chapter would you add?
Vijay Iyer: I’m not going to add a chapter to his book. My concern with this approach is that music becomes a substance devoid of people. It’s a consumer model of what music is: subjects listening to objects. For me, music is subjects listening to subjects. It’s about intersubjectivity. What I’ve learned from my gurus is that when you hear music, you hear a person, or you hear people, and you hear everything about them in those moments. They reveal themselves in ways that cannot be revealed any other way, and it contains historical truths because of that. To me, that is the most important thing. It shouldn’t be a footnote, or the last chapter. It should be the complete thesis about a book on listening.
We think of music as this substance that flows—you turn on the tap, and there it is, streaming off your computer—but that’s not how we evolved as a species. We evolved to listen to each other, and the reason we’re able to listen to music in the terms [Ratliff] is talking about is because we’re really good at listening to each other. But this kind of technology has allowed us to forget that music is the sound of each other. That’s the problem in a nutshell.
Guernica: Did you feel playing at the Met Breuer was, in a sense, creating an opportunity for an audience to acknowledge they are listening to another human being—“subjects listening to subjects”?
Vijay Iyer: I’ve put live performance in a lot of spaces. Part of what I want to do is take over the takeover. Another way that someone put it is, you climb over the fence and you cut a hole in it, and let everyone else in. That’s kind of what this is. The museum is a repository of great works, but there is certain work that no one ever calls great. This is an insistence on directing their attention to other stuff that’s great, that never gets to be in a museum.
Guernica: I noticed that the audience at your Met Breuer performance yesterday was almost entirely white.
Vijay Iyer: Those are members who think to come out on a Tuesday afternoon. It’s not that they’re not grateful or not respectful. But it’s comfortable for them to move around in these spaces where nothing about them is challenged. That’s what I hope to address.
Whatever we can do to just give people a sense of hope in the face of what seems like hopelessness. That’s a small thing that an artist can do sometimes.
Guernica: Are there other venues—or nonvenues—where you have performed that have stayed with you?
Vijay Iyer: In the 1990s I got to play in a group that played in prisons in California. We would play in maximum security wards. In St. Louis, we played in a juvenile prison: teenage African-American boys being held hostage. And that was just so sad to see how the system has failed these kids. And how somebody decided that this is the only recourse. It was infuriating. Those kinds of situations stick with me. We got to come in and play music for them because that’s a way of caring, just offering something, a gift, basically. They’re basically the most grateful audiences I’ve ever experienced, because nobody’s giving them anything. Mostly they’re taking things away from them—they took away their shoelaces, you know? Whatever we can do to just give people a sense of hope in the face of what seems like hopelessness. That’s a small thing that an artist can do sometimes.
Guernica: Do you find yourself changing the way you play for different audiences?
Vijay Iyer: I know from the elders that it’s not so easy to sustain a life in music, a presence in the music world, for decades on end. And that’s what we’re here for: we’re thinking about the long game. If that is dependent on other people’s desire for me, then it becomes extremely vulnerable to change. Rather than subject myself to that vulnerability, I’d rather embrace change and allow myself to transform, and maybe that means that what I do next week, the people who liked me last week won’t like anymore, but maybe that will also lead people to like something else.
You figure out how to create opportunities to make music, and then, if you take care of the music, audiences will come around. They also might leave. What matters is the moment: the moment of making music, with and for and among others, and what that offers to those people in that moment. They might never see me again; they might never learn my name. But it might still be something they carry with them.
Guernica: Speaking of learning, you’re now teaching at Harvard. Are you enjoying the benefits of unlimited resources, bright students, a comfortable academic environment?
Vijay Iyer: Comfortable? No. I guess there’s the prestige, which is annoying, because it gets in the way. The sense of having to be the best at everything gets in the way of anybody doing anything. I put all that aside; it’s not worth thinking about when I’m there. My agenda as an artist doesn’t go away when I [teach]. It actually gets intensified. What I said about cutting a hole in the fence: that’s real, that’s important to me. Who should be here? What ideas and music and subjects and individuals should be here that aren’t? And why aren’t they? And let’s make everyone deal with it.
Beyond that, it gets down to the nuts and bolts of discipline—not a tradition or genre, I don’t care about that, actually—but discipline in the sense of just working on music and working on thinking about music. It doesn’t matter if it’s jazz or not. It’s about how we listen, how we interact, how we guide our attention when we’re listening, and how we can refine what we’re doing musically. Also how we can create our own music, and what opportunities that can bring us, as creative musicians. And then insisting that musicians put themselves through an intellectually rigorous process, which involves a lot of reading and writing, while insisting that music scholars think about ethics. For example, why are all of their syllabi populated entirely by white authors? Are they thinking white thoughts? What is this about? What does it mean to build whole systems of knowledge around exclusion? That’s shocking.
I teach a graduate seminar called “Theorizing Improvisation” that is pretty interdisciplinary, but really makes [students] deal with black studies seriously. A lot of authors of color, a lot of women of color—those become central to the intellectual trajectory. It considers music, but it also considers areas of thought that might seem unrelated to music. That’s partly because we’re expanding the notion of what music is beyond objects, beyond scores, beyond things.
Guernica: Your course description asks students to “notice [improvisation’s] many guises across the disciplines.”
Vijay Iyer: Music making features real-time creation, real-time decisions and actions. It’s basically improvisation, which is the stuff of everyday life. In the realm of discourse about music, improvisation is marginal, but in the realm of doing it, it’s omnipresent. Strange distinction here: we’re improvising all the time, but when we tend to talk about music, we tend to talk about objects that are fixed, like recordings, scores, pieces. I like the idea of the objecthood of music being destabilized by process and things like improvisation. That’s what empowers us; that’s how we make each day new as players, as people.
Guernica: I’ve heard that you prefer the term ‘African American creative music’ to the term ‘jazz.’ Is this part of your educational agenda?
Vijay Iyer: No. All the terms I use are provisional terms, and they usually put any proper nouns in critical distance. I’m in a tradition of people who resist naming, fixity. That means it’s a tradition of people who insist on mobility, who defy proper nouns and genres and those kinds of things. When I push back against the word ‘jazz’ it’s because I’ve learned that from many, many elders who think that way. I’m not just being a jerk.
This is a tradition of resistance to the term that’s as old as the term itself, especially because that term has been used to commodify and reduce black creativity, and also to appropriate and sell it. That’s what Coltrane said in an interview with a Japanese journalist: “Jazz is a word they use to sell our music, but to me that word does not exist.” And he’s treated as one of the central figures in the history of jazz. So if he rejected it, then why is it weird when I do it? I’m in the tradition!
Guernica: Are you advocating for people to move away from the term ‘jazz’?
Vijay Iyer: If we reject the word, or any word that labels music, what’s left? That’s the question we should all ask ourselves. Ben [Ratliff] asked it, and he came up with aesthetic categories. That’s not what I would say. What’s left are communities who make music together, or among whom music circulates. That’s it.
What I’m hoping to offer are different notions of community. If you look at the list of people who are involved in this month that I’ve put together at the Breuer, or the little festival I’ve curated at Harvard in April, or the Ojai Festival which I’m music director for next year—these are all people who are dear to me, and what holds it together is that we all care about each other. But that doesn’t tell you anything about what the music sounds like. To find that out, you have to go check it out. One day, one hour is not the same as the next. It’s about people, basically.
Guernica: Does your ethnicity matter? Do you—or others—dwell on your being an Indian-American and a successful, recognized, ‘Harvard-worthy’ musician?
Vijay Iyer: It matters in a few different ways. I’m what they call a ‘non-black person of color’: NBPOC. It’s easy and seductive and common to mobilize around these identity issues, but often that’s done at the expense of considering structural anti-blackness. That puts everything in a slightly different light for me, especially because of where I am and why—where I am in the world of the arts, where I live, in Harlem—and the music that I’ve been able to make, whom I’ve been able to make it with, who has nurtured me. It’s not just about solidarity. It’s actually about debt.
The phrase I use is ‘easy camaraderie.’ Non-western immigrants of color and their progeny like me—my parents came here fifty years ago and I was born and raised in Rochester—whether it’s Teju [Cole], or Rudresh [Mahanthappa], or Himanshu [Suri], or Miya Masaoka, or Barack Obama [laughs], we all have that in common. And that’s different from being descended from enslaved African captives. I am very conscious of that difference, and conscious of how easy it is to forget about it. I find myself always coming up against that.
I notice that Indians love to tweet about each other. So, Sree [Sreenivasan, from SAJA] will tweet something about me doing something at The Met and all these other Indians—specifically Indians—will be like, yeah, go India, we’re awesome, Indians are awesome, here is another example of an awesome Indian. That’s a dangerous false nationalism that I am not interested in. There’s a huge amount of diversity within our so-called communities; within the South Asian community, there are people who would never talk to each other. All those privileged Indians who retweet Sree’s tweets won’t acknowledge Indo-Caribbeans, for example, or their housekeepers. I find that often, in these coalitional discourses, people aren’t checking their privilege. And there’s where I feel deep ambiguity.
I’ve realized that a lot of people come to me because of what’s called identity. In the sense of “he’s like me”—more like identification. Identity is one of those nonsense words: it’s been used so much it doesn’t mean anything. As individuals, we don’t want to stay the same; identity means sameness, and we don’t want to be the same, we want to keep changing, we want to grow, we want to become something else. We want to evolve. So when people come to me, it’s about resonance—it goes back to that word.
Coltrane insisted on the possibility of self-transformation through music making, and that’s why I do it too.
Guernica: You collaborate with a lot of South Asians.
Vijay Iyer: I make a lot of music with other desis—that’s hugely important to me, but it can’t be the sum total of who I am and what I do. It’s not accurate; it doesn’t reflect my life experience. I love hanging out with desis—we have a lot of fun. I love my community, but my community is porous and open, and welcoming, and I owe a lot of people who are not Indian American or South Asian American. I insist that we always honor and acknowledge what we owe to African Americans who made everything I do possible. Coltrane insisted on the possibility of self-transformation through music making, and that’s why I do it too.
Guernica: You have worked with artists across many genres: Teju Cole the writer, Prashant Bhargava the filmmaker. How do you decide on these interdisciplinary projects?
Vijay Iyer: it usually comes through an invitation or an opportunity. In the case of [the film] Radhe Radhe, for example, Emil Kang, who runs the performing arts at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, came up with this huge pot of commissioning funds for the hundredth anniversary of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. So he approached some of his favorite artists and asked, what would you do if someone asked you to do a substantial project commemorating, or inspired by, or stealing a page from Stravinsky? We just took that ball and ran as far away from Stravinsky as we could. It’s not that I don’t care about Stravinsky, but enough people care about him that I don’t need to add to that discourse. What I want to show instead is, well, here’s what we do. This is us—whatever us is, that doesn’t line up so neatly in the framework here.
Working with [Teju Cole] came about initially because we had a sense of community, just from riding the subway together, going to shows, and then we’d ride the subway home together. Over the years it just became this easy camaraderie.
Later, Montclair State University commissioned me to do initially what seemed like ‘big band’ music. I really didn’t want to write ‘big band’ music for its own sake as genre. What I thought instead was, let me just make a big band of people I love, so I just called together the greatest musicians I know whom I can trust. Then when I looked at them all, I thought, we’re Open City! So I called up Teju and said, “we’re going to steal your title,” and he said, “of course, use whatever you want,” and then I called him back and said, “you need to be in this!” and he said, “of course, what do you want me to do?” I said, “the project’s called Open City, so do whatever you want!” He had been doing these readings from the book using the narrator’s flâneur-like musings, but there’s a whole series of moments about birds in New York that the narrator is contemplating, so Teju pulled all of those passages together. It was Open City monodrama. It was him and all of us, and so we were kind of birds.
Guernica: You and Wadada Leo Smith have recorded an album in response to the art of Nasreen Mohamedi [currently on display at the Met Breuer].
Vijay Iyer: And her diaries. All our titles, the album and the tracks, are from her diaries.
Guernica: Mohamedi’s work is described as mathematical, geometric, and precise. Do you agree?
Vijay Iyer: Some of it was done with a compass and a straight edge. You can say that other contemporary works are done in a way that seems to remove the sweep, the arc of the hand or tries to transcend it. And yet it doesn’t. It always bears traces of the human hand. I like that tension. I think there was a movement in American art around that time, like Warhol and so forth, that just radically removed the hand from the artist. Maybe nobody touched this thing, maybe it just came off a press. Nowadays, maybe somebody just 3D-printed this thing.
Her work lives right at that fault line, that boundary between presence and absence, and there’s something activating about that.
Guernica: Thinking back to our word association, would you consider the combination of Mohamedi’s art, Wadada Leo Smith’s music, and your own, as a ‘trio’ of sonic balance?
Vijay Iyer: It gives us a way not to dwell too much on ourselves. It gives us a path outside of ourselves. It’s like that saying about marriage: a successful relationship is not about two people staring into each other’s eyes, it’s about two people looking ahead together. I think in order to construct, it’s not just, “you do this, then I’ll do this.” It’s more like, “let’s work on these ideas together, and just move together, with these ideas.” It does create a balance.
Guernica: I have one final word association: transformation.
Vijay Iyer: At Harvard, I basically represent black music. That’s fucked up, actually. Why me? Why am I the only senior faculty of color at Harvard in the music department? Why aren’t there any black people as musicologists, music theorists, ethnomusicologists, or composers? That’s true not just at Harvard, that’s true across the board. These bastions where privilege is concentrated—those structural differences are policed and maintained. I’m trying everything I can to change it.
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