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An interview with MacArthur 'genius,' jazz pianist, and composer Vijay Iyer

Iyer's mutant style—at the intersection of two rich but usually parallel traditions—should make him one of the most interesting draws at this year's Chicago Humanities Festival.



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Pianist and composer Vijay Iyer belongs to a breed apart, alongside the likes of pianist and fellow MacArthur "genius" Jason Moran, drummer and bandleader Tyshawn Sorey, and flutist and music professor Nicole Mitchell—they all move with confidence among styles and artistic disciplines. Iyer's oeuvre has its roots in jazz's improvisational impulse but expands from there to encompass chamber music, abstract electronics, hip-hop, Indian classical music, and more. (He also has a PhD in the cognitive science of music.) Last year he was named a MacArthur fellow, and earlier this year he joined the music faculty at Harvard University. These high honors have provoked occasionally bitter complaints among Iyer's peers, some of whom have called into question his bona fides as a jazz artist—after the MacArthur announcement guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel took to Facebook, writing "no touch, no tone, no melody."

Notwithstanding such criticism, Iyer remains best known as an A-list jazz pianist, whether playing solo or with bassist Stefan Crump and drummer Marcus Gilmore in his agile working trio. That said, the first two releases under his recent deal with ECM Records consist mostly of notated music, not improvisation—Mutations is a series of pieces for piano and string quartet, and the forthcoming Radhe Radhe (due Tue 10/28) is the score for an experimental documentary of the same name about the Hindu festival Holi, based on the structure of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring and performed by members of the International Contemporary Ensemble.

Iyer's position at the intersection of two rich but usually parallel traditions should make him one of the most interesting interviews at this year's Chicago Humanities Festival—on Sunday afternoon at the Logan Center, he'll talk to Monica Hairston O'Connell, executive director of the Center for Black Music Research at Columbia College. I spoke with him by phone last week about his current practice, the fluidity of his compositions, and the influence of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians.

Peter Margasak: The two big releases from you this year, Mutations and Radhe Radhe, probably seem like a departure to the general public in that they're both mostly focused on composition, but the first piece on Mutations you wrote almost a decade ago, right? How satisfying is it now that this aspect of your work is getting out there more? And has it been frustrating that it took this long?

Vijay Iyer: I wouldn't say it was frustrating. I mean, plenty of other stuff was going on. It just took its own time.

A year ago Silk Road Ensemble released an album that led with a piece I wrote for them. And just last month Brooklyn Rider released an album that has a piece of mine. There's a violinist named Neil Dufallo who released an album that had a piece of mine on it. But it's sort of folded into a larger spectrum of work, so it's not seen as the composer's deal, you know?

The other thing I should say is that a lot of these works came because I was invited to make them. There was an external impetus that set it in motion. I have a sense that otherwise, it just looks like I'm this careerist who can't focus, who keeps just doing stuff ambitiously. And really what I'm doing is accepting invitations to step into a different space or a different community. And that to me is the most important thing about it.

When you started out, how was it writing for groups that play contemporary classical, dealing mostly with notated music? Was it difficult for someone who's essentially self-taught?

My main inspiration was people from the AACM—working directly with Roscoe Mitchell with chamber musicians, seeing him deal with notation and find a way to get people who are from that mentality to open up and feel in the moment a bit more; watching Muhal [Richard Abrams] pull music together for chamber ensembles. He's also self-taught, and learned a lot by apprenticing with elders and by being in a continuum of musicians. George Lewis was a huge guiding light for me. When I wrote an orchestra piece several years ago, he took me aside when he knew that the commission was under way, and said, "You need to check out this, this, this, and this." He loaned me these orchestration books and he loaned me a bunch of scores. He didn't want me to mess up.

And the thing is, these guys didn't go to music school either. They definitely didn't go to jazz school. They didn't even study composition in the academy. They studied it by looking at the world and checking out a lot of different disciplines. And that's where I'm coming from. Not even just metaphorically but literally, I was guided by those guys. [Henry] Threadgill showed me a lot of stuff. Wadada [Leo Smith], working with him, seeing him put music together. These guys think transidiomatically, to use Braxton's term, and that's a big part of my method.

So has it been a kind of accretive process, where you do it more and become more comfortable with it?

There's always a learning curve. When I make music with my bands, it's always in flux—what's on the page is just the beginning. So I think the biggest challenge [in writing fully notated music] is really delivering everything on the page as much as possible. In these two cases, in Mutations and Radhe Radhe, I'm a performer too. So I can actually still steer things and fix things and change things, and I do. That's what keeps it alive for me. But yeah, when you just write a piece down and send it out into the world, that's a very different feeling.

And how do you feel about that—when you send something out, like to the Silk Road Ensemble, and your hands are no longer on it?

In their case, I worked with them directly for about a week in a workshop format. In other cases, it varies. The first piece I wrote for Brentano String Quartet a few years ago, it was some months before I got a chance to hear it. So they invited me to a rehearsal, and I gave them some tweaks and then they just developed it themselves. So then it's about their interpretive art: How can they get it from the page to the audience? They're masters at that. They're better at it than I am. So that's why they do it and I don't.

I wrote a piece for Brooklyn Rider that they premiered about a year and a half ago. And they sent me some demos, and I gave them some suggestions. And they kept developing it, and now it's on their new album. Especially when an ensemble or a soloist commissions me, they're open to my input.

Do you see yourself writing music for its own sake? I guess that doesn't really exist these days.

I don't have a lot of time to make what Ligeti called desk-drawer music. I tend to create for an occasion, for a specific opportunity. On the other hand, it's good to practice composing. I check out how other composers have done things, whether it's Ellington or Ligeti or Stockhausen or Kaija Saariaho or whoever. Brahms. That's what everyone does, to be honest. That's what I've always known to be the creative tradition. When I first met Steve Coleman 20 years ago, he was giving me his disquisition on Bartok. Did you know that he knows all the string quartets by heart? It's actually pretty common among people in this area of music to be deeply engaged with other areas.

It tends to be the media that boxes you in—"You do this, or you do that"—but there's a platform now for groups that can embrace a multiplicity of ideas and traditions and approaches. ICE is such a good example, like working with Tyshawn Sorey or George Lewis or Cory Smythe, who can play the shit out of new music but is also an incredible jazz musician. There's also Peter Evans. It seems like finally this kind of musician is being accepted. You're not looked down on as freaks anymore. Obviously AACM people were thinking that way in the 60s, but . . .

They've been doing that for decades—since the 60s, not just in the 60s. Constantly stepping into other spaces, creating chamber music and interdisciplinary works and experimental works with electronics and installation stuff. I think that their impact has to be central to all of this. And particularly their influence on people like the ones you just mentioned: Tyshawn, Peter, me, even Jason [Moran].

They represent a certain kind of revolution in the sense that they sought other means of support for the work they were doing. They started to move into these academic spaces on their own terms, before there was such a thing as jazz studies. They've collaborated across disciplines and they've created this transidiomatic revolution. Braxton is the most visible example, but it's a whole community of people who did that, and who then influenced many, many other people to do it.

This last year, with the MacArthur and the Harvard job, there was a backlash—it seems that with anyone who gets recognized for doing a multiplicity of different things, there's a backlash. I'm sure you've seen this happen before. Were you prepared for it when people turned against you?

I will say, first of all, that none of these people have listened to anything I've done. That's the main thing that characterizes all that "backlash." It's not a real backlash, in the sense that anyone is assessing my work and saying "No, not this guy."

Why is it that people think they can speak without listening? There's something going on there that's not actually about the work. I guess it tells me something about what people want, or need, or desire around this field. I should also say that almost all the backlash was coming from white men. That's something that's kind of key to specify, because then it's just a bunch of white men talking about me without having listened to my work and saying these rather virulent and hateful things. Then it's clearly about something else.

There's a kind of amnesia going on—particularly an amnesia about the work of all these people from the AACM and what they've already done and what they've already been through. They've experienced plenty of snap judgments like that too, based on no genuine assessment of the work. I guess I'm now just more aware of how those dynamics work. But I also am confident that the music, if people will actually sit with it, does its work by itself. But people have to be willing to listen to it. I can't make anybody listen to anything.

Do you find it difficult to balance the different things that you do—all these groups, the commissions, and now teaching?

It's pretty hard. I mean, I'm not balanced; I'm imbalanced. It's a scramble being an artist in America. I guess in my case, I've taken on more challenges than necessary. It's probably because as an artist you want to keep growing and keep learning and transforming.

What all these things do for me is they lead me somewhere outside of myself, and that's nourishing. Because otherwise, I'll just be spiraling in the same area forever—and that sounds, to me, terrifying. Not to say that you can't stay with one thing and go deeper in; that's also very enriching. Often when we go on tour with the trio, we'll be going deep in on one thing, deeper every night—for us, it's its own transformative experience. It's also interesting to then step away from that and do something very different, after being in the crucible of a trio tour. Everything just becomes molten, but when you step away from it and have some other formative experiences doing something else, then come back to the trio, it's new again. And that's really exciting. That keeps it exciting for me.

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