Interview: Vijay Iyer

Interview: Vijay Iyer

KGNU’s Indra Raj speaks with renowned musician, composer, producer, and scholar Vijay Iyer ahead of a performance with his sextet at Denver University’s Newman Center for the Performing Arts on May 9, 2019.

April 18, 2019

Vijay Iyer is a Grammy-nominated musician, composer, producer, writer and scholar who has been described as “one of the world’s most inventive new-generation jazz pianists.” Iyer received the MacArthur Genius Award in 2013, and has been voted DownBeat Magazine’s Artist of the year four times in the last decade. In 2014, Iyer joined the Harvard University faculty as the Franklin D. and Florence Rosenblatt Professor of the Arts in the Department of Music. This May, he will be performing a short run of dates with his sextet and making a stop at June Swaner Gates Concert Hall at Denver University on May 9th.

Indra Raj: We’re excited that you’ll be making a stop in Denver. Have you been to Denver before?

Vijay Iyer: Yes, a few times, although not lately. I played at Dazzle and I think I’ve also played in Boulder. My long time partner in crime Rudresh Mahanthappa is from Boulder so we’ve done stuff around there in the past, but not very recently.

IR: During this concert you’ll be performing with your sextet. Can you tell us who is going to be performing with you that night?

Iyer: Yes, this is a band that has been out and about for several years actually. I formed this particular configuration in 2011, and then we put out this album in 2017 called Far From Over, so it’s most of the same people: Graham Hanes on cornet, horn, and electronics, Steve Layman on alto saxophone, Mark Shim on tenor saxophone, Stephan Crump on bass, and a young drummer who I’ve been working with for the past year – Jeremy Dutton, phenomenal. And, he’s half my age, so it’s pretty exciting.

IR: You perform with many different groups, including a trio and several one-on-one collaborations, including a recent collaboration with pianist Craig Taborn on your latest release The Transitory Poems, which is a recording of a live performance you did with Craig at the Liszt Academy in Budapest. I’m wondering what about your work with the sextet is different from the other collaborations you participate in regularly?

Iyer: Well, I guess a lot of these duo projects – like that one and Rudresh – those are really exploratory and open. Especially the project with Craig. We create all the music spontaneously in performance, so it’s not like we have repertoire that we then invoke. It’s more that we build together and that’s the process that you’re hearing. With the sextet, it’s more playing of my compositions that are orchestrated for the ensemble and there’s a lot of soloing. I think maybe part of it is that its in this format that’s more familiar – for example Kind of Blue is in the exact same format. It has the same lineup, the same kind of instrumentation, the same spread of personalities. It’s kind of in that vein. I remember one critic when we were playing in Belgium one time asked me, “Is this your hard bop band?” I thought it was a funny question, but maybe it invokes those points of reference. Musically speaking, it has a lot in common with my trio which I’ve been performing and recording with for more than a decade and a lot of that similar material just sort of expanded outward with this canvas of horns. I think people who are familiar with my trio music might hear this as kind of in line with that, just kind of expanding on that. It’s got this real groove orientation, and we pay a lot of attention to rhythm. There’s a lot of great soloists in the band and so you’ll hear soloing over these various kinds of forms, and it’s very interactive in that sense.

IR: Personally, I’ve always been really interested in your story, as I’m also a first-generation Indian-American who has pursued music in a professional context. There are a lot of stereotypes surrounding first generation Indian Americans including this idea that our parents all want us to become doctors, lawyers, and engineers. For me, the stereotype was kind of true, as my parents were pretty worried about me pursuing a career centered around music and kind of discouraged it early on. So, I’m wondering if you experienced anything similar growing up, or maybe it was completely different for you?

Iyer: Journalists often ask me some version of this question. It’s different coming from you since you’re living through it in your own way, but usually when a journalist – who’s almost invariably a white man – asks me the question, I ask them, “Do you want your children to be musicians?” Then it’s kind of like, “oh, when you put it that way… no.” Nobody would want their child to be subjected to a life of uncertainty and no safety net; the vagaries of the market, and all that kind of stuff. They want security for their children, of course, anyone does. It may be worth thinking about where these cliches come from. It basically comes from certain kinds of experiences of precarity and uncertainty, so if you don’t trust the surrounding system to take care of you, then your first priority is going to be to find a way to take care of yourself and your family. So, that’s where I think that mentality comes from.

There’s kind of this cliche thing about Asian parents, but that I think is a bit of a misreading. I think really hardly anybody gets to pursue a life in the arts. Even framing it as a career is almost the wrong model. The other thing about it – I don’t know when your parents came to the US, but mine came in the sixties. They’ve been here for fifty five years, so they’re of a generation who are mostly scientists and engineers and medical people and professionals that had technical training. The idea of being a musician is so foreign to that particular category of immigrants. It’s not because they’re Asian, but because the kinds of Indian immigrants or non-western immigrants who were curated by the state, who were allowed to come here in the first place, were the kind of people who the arts were not a professional priority whatsoever.

When I was growing up, there was nobody out there doing it, for someone who’s in high school or college today you can turn on the TV and see and Indian person on every TV show, or somehow you’ll have major figures in comedy and in film and in literature who are South Asian, or even just non-western in general and that is new. It wasn’t there. It wasn’t like that thirty years ago. So, that what we kind of need to notice also in this larger conversation: the idea of being a non-western cultural worker in the United States is new.

IR: That’s an interesting perspective and when you ask someone, “would you want your kids to be in the arts?” – I think that says something about our society’s respect for the arts and music as a profession, and viewing it more as a hobby rather than something you can make a career out of.

Iyer: Yeah or as something that’s a bit of a pipe dream, you know? We have these almost lottery like systems, like America’s Got Talent, or American Idol, or these things where this person, against all odds, won the favor of a panel of judges and an audience and now they get to have a career in music, but otherwise that will never happen to you. Or somebody, by chance, has a viral YouTube clip of them singing a song in their bedroom and then they have a career in music. It’s like this almost strange folk wisdom – basically this fantasy about what it is to have a career in the arts that’s a complete crapshoot, or something happens to you that’s a one in a million type of thing. The fact is that there are people that have careers in the arts – or lives in the arts – as I like to frame it that way more. What does it mean to have a sustained life in music? That’s more than just striking gold. It’s more of a long game – you have to think about your priorities differently. How do you arrange your life to be an artist? What does that entail so you can do it for six or seven decade? That’s the real question, and that’s not about having one viral YouTube hit or something. It’s a much bigger question than that.

IR: It is interesting with technology and websites like Bandcamp and Soundcloud, it seems like more people are able to engage in the arts in a real way and create music and share it with other now than ever before. In that way, it becomes a part of their life and what they do, but maybe not the only thing and I think that’s really valuable as well.

Iyer: Yeah, I think part of the mainstream perception of being musician is all about the mainstream culture industry, but there are other spaces that are quite roomy where you can be a musician and it’s not about going platinum. It’s not about winning awards. It’s actually about being part of a community and serving through music-making. That’s a very different perspective, and that’s kind of like teaching. At Harvard, of all places, which is supposedly for successful people to become more successful – that’s sort of the mainstream narrative about Harvard. But, just being close to the ground with students, particularly undergrads who are in their teens and early twenties and are figuring out life and part of being an artist is being vulnerable and being open and caring about emotions and these things that are not valued by the success driven model, I find it to be more useful to use these other models rather than entrepreneurial ones to think more like community organizing as a model. For an artist, what you’re really doing is trying to do good in the world rather than trying to win something.

IR: You mentioned that representation for South Asians is higher than it has been ever before, and I certainly feel that, but growing up it was rare that I saw a brown person up on any musical stage, and definitely not on a jazz stage. You have often been described as one of the first musicians of South Asian descent to break into the jazz scene as we know it. I wonder what that experience has been like for you, and if you’ve noticed any specific advantages or disadvantages to being ethnically Indian in the jazz world?

Vijay: How much time do you have? [laughs] I guess it’s a question of what it is for me, and what it is for others, and then also the question of which others. Theis music that’s called jazz is black music, so first of all what’s my relationship to that culture, to those communities, and that history? That’s an ongoing question that every American needs to ask themselves, because we are all participating in this system that was built on enslavement and built on exploitation of black bodies and of black people. This music was born of that circumstance. So, then to be successful in jazz, what does that mean exactly? Does that mean you that you have been able to control that narrative to your own benefit? And if so, what good does that do? I’m always asking those kinds of questions. I won some awards according to this panel – they voted for me – but, those are almost all white men and I’m not exaggerating. It’s not an exaggeration to say that it’s 99% white men who are doing the talking when it comes to this kind of music. But, then the doing it is something else. Who’s actually doing this music, and what does it mean to earn the trust and build community with those people? First of all, can I kind of surrender to that history and be humble in the face of it and learn from it and can I build with people in that community in a way that is not threatening or exploitative, but is actually productive for everybody? So, then again it’s more about serving a community then mastering it.

So, that plays out publicly, but also plays out internally for me. Like I said, what’s my relationship to this and how can I work through it creatively and how can I behave ethically as an artist in this world? It’s always, for me, been about collaboration and building community with other artists. When you look on the surface at all these different projects that I have, it looks like I’m jumping from project to project. But, really if you look at it that way as a set of conversations about that, about what is this music today or what can we do in building on this history and on this body of knowledge, this history of ideas, how can we pay tribute to the people who suffered to bring it into being? How can we kind of continue in that lineage?

Those are the questions I ask myself, and those aren’t always the frames that are put around me because people start with some set of assumptions about me. And you can probably imagine what they are, because you’ve lived it, too. It comes out in the language about me. The way journalists write about me is that I’m “mathematical” and “cerebral.” Almost any critic, even the positive ones – the ones that give me five stars on reviews – will still say I’m “mathematical” and “cerebral.” That, to me, is not about the music whatsoever. It’s about their anxiety with having to deal with me as an artist – me, being this person who is in a body that they associate with everything except emotion, being an Asian man. They assume that’s my orientation, and then they find it in my bio. Somewhere in my bio it says that I studied physics thirty years ago, and that becomes this ongoing trope in the way that I’m characterized by journalists. That used to get to me. I used to rage about it, because it was just every single time an album would come out, there would be this flurry of journalists that would try to mathematize it. And I know they would never say this about anybody else. You wouldn’t say this about Coltrane, who was trying to work through formulas and diagrams and formal mathematical organization of material. That’s literally what he was doing – it’s abundantly obvious if you look at his work, but no one says that about him. They wouldn’t say it about Miguel Zenón, who even says in interviews that’s what he does. He’s a Puerto-Rican American – totally brilliant composer and saxophonist who also won a MacArthur several years ago. No one ever calls him mathematical because he’s Latino, so no one could imagine a black person or a Latino person might be dealing with similar information and so that to me is the problem. It’s not about what they think of me, but what that then says about what they think of others.

I guess I’ve just had to learn how to dodge that kind of stuff or just kind of bypass it in my own way, or also to just kind of neutralize it through creative means I guess I would say. So, for example, I think when Craig and I made this duo album, we both had this sense that someone might take it at this purely formalistic exercise or as a sort of display of virtuosity or something like that. What it was like for us was something much more emotional, and it’s essentially a series of homages to artists who were very important to us artistically and personally who passed away in the year that we made this album. So, they were all kind of with us in a certain way, to connect it to something larger than ourselves and it turned into more of a spiritual meditation or emotional experience for us to try to put that frame around it. It was genuine of course. It’s completely genuine, but it also seemed important to just lightly frame the event in that way, so that it’s not taken in some other way. So, sometimes I think we can address or respond through creative means and that seems to be the power that an artist has to not just defy, but reshape conversation.

IR: I’m glad you brought up the racialized language and micro-aggressions that have come from critics, as you say 99% of them are white men who are talking about this. I heard a Ted Talk the other day by a professor here at CU named Pat Ferrucci, and he was discussing the racialized language that’s used to describe athletes, talking about how we often describe white athletes and black athletes based on different things related to race – things like white players are “intelligent,” “smart,” or “leaders” and black players have “natural talent” and “physical strength.”

Iyer: Yes, that happens in music too.

IR: Exactly. So, someone like John Coltrane, even though he was very mathematical and methodical as you’re saying, he’s often described as having this “natural god-given talent” on the saxophone. It’s especially shocking to kind of see this kind of language being used in jazz, which is, as you say, an African-American art form born out of black culture and tradition, and yet we’re still creating these micro-aggressions against black people within their own art forms. So, I wonder what you make of that comparison and how it feels to you as a person of color within that discipline?

Iyer: Well, it’s part of a larger system of problems. The micro-aggressions are a projection of a much more macro level of violence.

IR: Yeah, systemic racism really.

Iyer: Right. So, to understand it in those terms – and I’ve been working in these worlds and these conversations for thirty years now, where I can listen and learn about what it feels like to live that, and working with elders, people who are thirty or forty years older than me and I’m forty seven. Like Wadada Leo Smith – who I did a duo album with a few years ago and we still play together frequently – he’s thirty years older than me, and he’s from the south. He was born and grew up in Leland, Mississippi. Actually, he was born around the same time as Emmett Till and not far from him, so that reality was really close at hand for him. It wasn’t academic, like it wasn’t just a sort of an idea. It was a very much lived experience. Knowing that many of these artists carry that with them and that somehow, in spite of all that, they’re not just adhering to a format, but actually exploding every category and exceeding every frame and imagining beyond what seems even possible right now. That, to me, to understand it in those terms, that’s actually what this music has always been as a way of imagining beyond one’s current circumstances.

Though, I guess I see the history of this music as basically a history of battles on that exact front that you’re asking about. I see it everywhere we go. When we travel in Europe, or around the US, or in Canada, or in South America, or we got to travel to South Africa last year, which was incredible, just noticing how music is represented. What’s on a jazz festival poster? Who was it catering to? What is the venue where it happens? How much are tickets, and whom does it exclude? Those are the questions that I think these artists have always been confronted with. Is the audience for this music as we travel, how distant are they from us and what does that mean? So, then what does that encounter engender? When we’re in front of either and all white audience in Milwaukee, or an all white audience in Charleston, South Carolina, or an all white audience in Berlin, how do we conduct ourselves? What is the agenda? That all happened – I’m not just spinning this – I’ve played for all white audiences in each of those places. That’s the kind of running theme here. What can we do when in that sort of circumstance?

But, then we also find ourselves in more diverse circumstances in New York, or Chicago, or in Atlanta, Los Angeles, or in D.C. where there is a history, a community history that’s been in ongoing contact with this history of this music – in fact, that gave rise to it. This music was born in these cities. You can do something in New York and you’ll find that the history is around you, people who have been impacted by it for generations from Harlem, or the Bronx, and from Fort Greene and so on will be in the room with you and that will be its own education. I find that there’s these different kinds of occasions that we have as performers, some of which are where it’s a room of people who are already with us and other circumstances where our job is to win them over or to teach them something or to carry them somewhere where they didn’t know they could go. That experience is both the one of basically meeting or encountering a room full of people who are nothing like you. That experience is kind of like defiant optimism, because you have to put that aside for a moment and take it in faith that something in the music is going to work, which means it’s going to speak to them and activate them and make them feel something that they didn’t maybe know they could feel, and suddenly join us or link us and create a bond among everybody in the room, including us.

That happens. That’s the thing. It starts out as this experience of difference on display, but then the music breaks through that and actually offers something more genuine and holistic and that it breaks through the facade or breaks through the structural barriers. We have to believe that happens or else there’s no way for us to continue doing it. We have to have that kind of defiant optimism in order to step onto that stage. We have to believe that the music is going to reach those people and its going to bring us together somehow. It’s a peculiar circumstance to find oneself in, as a person of color in general, and certainly for me as a non-black person of color who’s in this space that’s really oriented around blackness and whiteness. My role is what, exactly? I have to figure that out every time.

IR: These are all really important ideas and questions, and I’m wondering, you’ve been on the Harvard faculty for the past five years – how do you work with students there? Do you teach classes? Do you teach private lessons? Both? What does that look like?

Iyer: I teach classes. I don’t really have time for private lessons, although I have doctoral students whom I advise and that’s more on a one-on-one capacity. That’s more like mentoring, I guess. But, that takes a lot of different forms, too. I guess I teach two categories of courses: one is something like a workshop for musicians, and the other are more research oriented academic courses. I do a lot of both of those, but they also kind of overlap in ways. I should say that you introduced me earlier as having founded this doctoral program in cross disciplinary music studies, but actually that’s an old title. We changed a couple years ago. Things ride around in bios that don’t get updated every now and then, but it’s actually now called Creative Practice and Critical Inquiry, which kind of spells it out. We’re doing those things, and they’re in relation to one another, and they feed off of each other. We’re involved in music making. We’re also involved in whatever the academia calls “knowledge production.” So, how do those things relate is the ongoing question. We’re tracing that somehow through our work.

IR: It sounds very interdisciplinary, and kind of breaking the mold from what you’d expect from a lot of music departments or conservatory programs.

Iyer: Well, it’s not a school of music, in the sense, that it’s not something that offers a degree in performance or something like that. So, a undergraduate music major – or music concentrator as they’re called at Harvard – they can do a lot of different things, they can take mostly academic courses, they can take a lot of music making courses with me, or with Esperanza Spalding, or with Claire Chase, or with the Parker Quartet. They can play in the symphony, or they can play in the jazz ensemble. Those are all courses that they take for a grade and count towards a music major. We’re sort of allowing it all to live together and interpenetrate in a way that there’s crosstalk among these different ways being in music.

IR: I wonder what you think of some of the more formal jazz music education pathways? It seems like more and more young people who are interested in that are finding their way to conservatories, and using that as a way to break in. What do you think about that model versus what you’re doing at Harvard?

Iyer: Well, they’re pretty different. I’m certainly well aware of the proliferation of jazz studies and performance programs. Some of them are more distinguished than others. Some of them are more competitive than others, in the sense that they draw exceptional musicians. I’m the Artistic Director of an international workshop in jazz and creative music, which I’ve been doing for seven years now. That’s a three week summer program that is very competitive to get in to, and people apply from all over the world, actually. Most of the applicants are from these schools, so I guess I get a snapshot of what these people are doing, but I also know quite a few people that are teaching in those schools and so on. It’s a very mixed bag, I guess I would say.

I’d say that’s a strange thing to sign your kid up for because, basically, in most of these programs, there’s no intellectual component whatsoever, so you don’t really learn how to read or how to think. That means you’re not really setting someone up to function in the world, and if you’re going to pay one hundred, one hundred and fifty thousand, or two hundred thousand dollars for someone’s education, then it should include something [academic]. I just worry about a lot of these folks because they don’t have the benefit of exposure to a lot of things.

I would also say that a lot of these programs are very narrow aesthetically and historically. They don’t tend to really take in or consider music from the last fifty or sixty years. When people think of what jazz is, they’re mostly thinking about stuff from the late fifties and nothing on either side of it. There’s all that stuff that happened before starting in the teens and all that stuff that happened afterwards since 1960, and if you can’t account for any of it in this thing that’s called jazz, then what are we doing? That’s the strange thing to me. And then the other thing is a lot of these career educators have not had a life as an artist, so they’re often asking the wrong questions. Then, the last problem, probably the biggest most glaring problem, is that most of these programs are ninety something percent white and male, so that’s like a glaring issue that plays out every year when I see these applicants. Oh, you’re another white male saxophonist who went to Manhattan School of Music? There’s a lot of these people. I’m not trying to diminish their personhood or something like that, but if these programs can’t even make it safe for women to be in the room – and I mean literally safe for women to be in the room – let alone for an underrepresented minority, then we have a problem. It’s a huge systemic problem, and I’d say the gender balance is worse in these programs than it is in the music world itself. I do everything I can to address that. What I feel is that, where I am at, I may as well try to build another model for how to be an artist in the world.

IR: I would love to read your entire doctoral dissertation at some point, but instead, I watched a three-part series from NYU’s MusEd Lab, in which you talked about embodied cognition, which is a concept that you explored in that dissertation, and also where you explore some large questions about music, including why humans make music in the first place. I won’t get into all the specifics, but some of the ideas and concepts that stuck out to me include the idea that the human race has used music as a method of communication since the beginning of the human race, and that our ability to mimic one another and do things in unison through chanting or singing or clapping our hands in the same rhythm is unique to humans as opposed to other species. And that this way of communicating with one another is a way of connecting with one another and in turn actually empathizing with one another. I think this is a really powerful way of looking at music and why it exists and why we make it. Then, it got me thinking about the listener, and specifically in a western concert hall, who just kind of sits in the audience and they’re completely still, their feet on the floor, and they kind of just look at the performer and listen to them. In the 21st century, we’re seeing audiences in traditional concert halls diminish quite a bit and listening to what you had to say, I wonder if that has something to do with the lack of bodily connection to the music in those spaces beyond just listening with our ears. I’m thinking of other traditions Indian classical music – the audience will count along with the meter of the piece on their fingers, and this is a kind of a simple, but effective way of engaging with the music and in countless other music traditions, dance is a natural partner to the music. In western style concert halls, where we hear mostly classical music, and now jazz a lot, there’s no room or expectation for that kind of embodied engagement with the music. So, I’m wondering what your take is on this kind of model of western concert halls like the ones I’m describing, and whether or not these are actually the best places to experience music?

Iyer: Well, this music that’s called jazz was born in more intimate context like clubs and basements, places where people were kind of thrown together and piled up on top of each other almost and there’s something about that. When we play at the Village Vanguard, which is for all it’s kind of hallowed historic significance, is actually this dirty hole in the wall. It’s this basement hole in the wall, like it’s really kind of gross, and you’re really piled up together. But, yet there’s something that happens in that kind of space, there’s something kind of primal about it. It’s like being in a cave together or something like that. You’re breathing the same air, and the air is the same air that’s moving around to make music, you’re hearing each other breathe and you’re in it together. It really feels like the separation between the doer and the observer is foreshortened, or is barely there. You’re still sitting, but it has to do with the proximity, I guess.

The artist or the performer is kind of like a conduit for all of those forces in the room and all of that energy. The question is, does that scale outward to these larger venues? It can, and it ends up being a slightly different experience in the sense of intimacy, but you’re also still immersed in this collective environment and that there’s something that happens. You still do hear people breathing together. At the end of a piece of music, you’ll hear them all exhale, like really everybody. It’s incredible when you hear it, when you feel it, but also know that it’s the music that brought them to that place. The fact that can happen is pretty important, it’s pretty central to who and what we are as beings, that we can have this profoundly intersubjective moment together. We work with amplification and other methods to get the music into peoples bodies from where we are. There is this technology involved I guess to extend the reach of the music and in the same way that instruments are their own technology that extend the reach of the body you could say. Why is it that I can blow into a tube and then across the room somebody starts crying? There’s something about it that kind of allows us to kind of transmit feeling, to have it happen in a unifying way, have it become a unifying force in the room. It doesn’t always have to be this kind of sterile experience, even in the large space like that. It can be a celebratory one. It can be something where everybody is joined in feeling.

IR: I suppose the sterile stuff is a bit more prevalent in a classical music context rather than jazz. I know that people clap for solos to appreciate them, and that’s a way of interacting, although I’ve found in some spaces it seems like people are trying to follow rules about when they should be clapping for a solo instead of just reacting to the music in a natural way. It’s just something I’ve been thinking about, and I’m glad to hear it still feels like there is that connection even in those larger spaces.

Iyer: Yeah, I mean we move pretty frequently among these different kinds of spaces. We’ve played for outdoor audiences of five to thirty thousand people and we’ve also played for thirty people. I think you just try to make it your business to reach and connect with whoever is out there. You scale your actions accordingly. Most of our early gigs were outdoors, what kind of brought it together was an outdoor festival, and you’re playing for a thousand or few thousand people that are out on lawn chairs or something like that and, basically, we’re using our “outside” voices. When we made the album we were like, “Oh wait, this isn’t working. We’re like shouting.” [laughs] We kind of had to rethink things on a more intimate scale. It was kind of a more interesting shift we had to make. It was helpful for us actually.

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