Art Talk with jazz pianist and composer Vijay Iyer
Vijay Iyer. Photo by Hans Speekenbrink
"[Art] has to do those things that nothing else can do. It has to take us to places where nothing else can take us. It has to connect us in ways that nothing else can." -- Vijay Iyer
Grammy-nominated musician Vijay Iyer didn't plan to grow up to be a jazz pianist and composer. For one thing, it was his sister who received the piano lessons. For another thing, he was a science guy who made it as far as enrolling in the doctoral physics program at Berkeley. Lucky for us, Iyer had an epiphany: music was his true calling. While he did eventually earn that PhD---in the science of music---at the same time he started earning a name for himself as "the most commanding pianist and composer to emerge in recent years" (Village Voice) and "one of today's most important pianists....extravagantly gifted" (New Yorker). While Iyer has left the lab coat far behind---as he told us via telephone last week---what he discovered as a scientist continues to inform his work as a musician, and, in fact, his entire understanding of what "art works" really means.
NEA: What is your version of the artist's life these days?
VIJAY IYER: Too many things to do, but they're all good things. I feel very fortunate to have a lot of opportunities to experiment and take risks, and to collaborate with some amazing folks in a lot of different fields of music, and also in a lot of different disciplines outside of music. So, just trying to divide time between practicing, composing, being a father and husband, and trying to enjoy life.
NEA: Can you talk about any of the collaborations you’re working on outside of music?
IYER: There are two main things that are on my plate right now: one is something that's premiering very soon. It's a project that I've been doing with Mike Ladd, who's a poet I've worked with for about a decade now. This is a project that we're doing in collaboration with young veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It's a large-scale project in which we have former soldiers talking about their dreams, the dreams that they're having. Most of them are dreams related to the war, but it's really about what it's like for them to re-enter civilian life, and the stories they carry inside themselves. I'm working with a poet, but also with people who aren't necessarily artists, or are beginning to just discover the possibility of being an artist. So it's really about collaborating with regular folks who have lived through something extremely dire and life-altering, and [who] are trying now to investigate what it is to be “normal.”
This project is called Holding it Down, and it's premiering in September. We also made an album that will hopefully come out next year. It was commissioned by Harlem Stage, which is an arts presenter here in New York City, and most of the veterans we're working with are veterans of color. We have a couple of veterans working with us who are actually in the project as performers, doing their own poems. [Mike] did a lot of interviews with veterans, so there are also poems based on interviews with them. We're working with a theater director named Patricia McGregor, and there's [also] some video footage of soldiers talking about their dreams. So that's the one large thing that I'm doing that involves collaborations across disciplines and even outside of disciplines, in a way.
When you're dealing with veterans in a performing arts environment, it's not just a project that's about them, or that's depicting them… it is them. So you have the reality of their presence erupting into the work, kind of intervening in this artistic experience. So it's a different kind of feeling, which, for me, was always an important component of this project, which we've been working on for about three years now.
The other large project I'm working on now is a collaboration with a filmmaker named Prashant Bhargava. He recently made a film called Patang, which is about the kite festival in Ahmedabad. I was commissioned by UNC-Chapel Hill---Carolina Performing Arts is the name of the presenter---and they're having a year-long festival of new works in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring. So we're doing a project that's about the rite of spring in India, which is called Holi.
NEA: Is that the festival with the colors?
IYER: Exactly, the festival of the colors that everyone in the world knows about. In fact, [our project] going to premiere on Holi next year, which is at the end of March. It's called Radhe Radhe: The Rites of Holi, and I was able to get my collaborator, Prashant, over to India to film Holi as it is celebrated in the Baraj region of Uttar Pradesh, which is a state in Northern India. it is the mythic birthplace of Krishna, so all these original myths about Holi actually started in this place… so when you go there, instead of one day it's eight days of complete chaos and all these amazing rituals, and lots of color, as you can imagine. So he got this eye-popping footage from there that completely blows my mind. I'm creating a piece that's going to be performed live with the film. It's a piece for a chamber ensemble, International Contemporary Ensemble, or ICE, as it's called. Basically, the film will be our ballet, and we'll create a piece that's working with some of the sounds, the field recordings from the footage, but also creating new music around that, and dialogue with a counterpoint with that. So I'm looking forward to that, too. It's very different from... any of the other works that I'm doing.
I'm still touring around with my ensembles... It's nice for me to explore all these different facets and different possibilities that are born from these different collaborations, and different kinds of encounters, and different sets of opportunities. In a way, all these things live in different spaces, but that's totally a sign of me. I can dart among these different projects and they all inform each other in a way. I can come back from the veterans’ project, and then when I'm playing piano in my trio, I feel that the sensibility is enlarged, like there's a sense of purpose that's larger than music that I can bring to the musical occasion. It's all very inspiring, I'm very fortunate to have all of these inspiring opportunities.
NEA: What do you remember was the first time you really engaged with the arts?
IYER: Well I started playing violin when I was three. That was my first instrument, before I started banging on the piano, [but] not long before. There were violin lessons from that early age, and I don't really remember anything before that, so everything I remember has had some engagement with music associated with it…. The piano was something I gravitated to on my own and developed completely on my own, in my own time. There was no agenda. There was no guidance or training, and this is while I was taking violin lessons. I had fifteen years of violin lessons; I had very significant training in Western classical music on violin. With piano, I basically learned by improvising. My sister was taking piano lessons, so we had a piano around, and I just started poking around on it, and banging on it. Little by little, I started figuring things out. I remember trying to play songs off of the radio, and stuff like that. That's the arts, right? In terms of actually participating in arts events… I grew up in Rochester, New York, so I remember going to see the Rochester Philharmonic. I remember going to see The Nutcracker ballet. I also remember going to see performances of Indian classical music, Carnatic music in particular, when I was very young and didn't really know what was going on…. I grew up in the 70s and 80s when the arts were easier to come by. Is that fair to say? I think it's true.
There's this stock notion of what "the arts" are, and I've been talking about orchestras and ballets, and stuff like that, but I also feel like what's on the radio is the arts, and what we do together, as people, even as children, becoming musicians or learning about music, that's the arts, too. The arts are not something separate from us. I think that when we deal with these hierarchical notions of culture, we tend to think of the arts as something we go to, rather than something that is a part of us. And I guess my life experience with music has always been the opposite. It's always been that we are the arts. And I say that with the utmost humility, because when I say "we" I don't mean "we artists," I mean we, as humanity. It's something that has to be continuous with our daily lives, and I'm not interested in creating some kind of distance, or some sort of divide, between the arts and life as we live it every day.
NEA: That's a good segue into the question I had about what you think is the artist's role in the community?
IYER: I think of what we do as a service, and there are a lot of levels to it. On the one hand, you can imagine that it's about giving people what they need. It's also about giving people something that they might not know is possible until you find it and are able to share it. In a way, those sound like opposing perspectives, you know, one in which we're entertainers, and one in which we're on the frontiers of what is possible, and what is known and what is unknown. I guess I don't necessarily see those two things as opposed, but I see myself more in the latter sensibility. But also what I've found in the course of performing a lot, especially in the last few years as I've been on the road almost constantly, I've found that… the occasion of performance is an opportunity for connection. Not just from performer to audience; it's not just a one-way street… so that connection happens within the audience, too. It's a collective experience that we're all having together in the same space. It's deeply interactive.
I feel there's something so profound, and primal, about those kind of occasions, those opportunities for connections that happen when we gather and experience something together. I feel like that's one of the foundations of civilization, is our ability to do those things. And when I say us, I mean humanity's ability to gather and have synchronous experience. Rhythm can be part of that, in the sense that it unites us, it gives us this moment-to-moment synchronicity of experience. The fact that the arts can do that, particularly that music can do that, I think that's the reason we're able to do anything together as people. In a way, the performing arts become this ritual moment where we are able to access the deepest roots of our humanity. That sounds really highfalutin, but I've found it to be true. I've seen it happen time and time again, so I want to state it, again, with utmost humility, that this is just a statement about who and what we are.
NEA: I was interested when I was reading up on you to find out that you studied science in college. I'm curious if your roots as a scientist inform your arts practice, and also I’d like your thoughts on the link between the arts and the sciences.
IYER: I spent a good amount of time pursuing a life in science before I arrived at the path that I'm on now. It wasn't until I was 23 that I realized that music could and would be the center of my life. Prior to that, I did an undergraduate in physics and math, and then I entered a PhD program in physics, which I [did not complete]. I was going to leave academia, but then it turned out that I was able to create my own PhD program, this was at UC Berkeley, and I ended up studying the science of music. I got a doctorate in music perception and cognition… and it's basically about, I guess, the catchphrase you see now on the New York Times Bestseller List is "music and the brain." This was in the 1990s, so the brain imaging thing hadn't quite yet exploded to the point where now you can just sort of put improvisers in an MRI and see what's happening when they play piano. It was maybe a little more theoretical. So I focused on the science of music, and that was coming from my own experience, and also from scientific literature, looking at experimental results, about connection between rhythm and the body, for example.
So all this stuff that I worked on in my doctoral research was intimately connected to my life as an artist, and as a music maker. It was about how music works, and what it is for us, as humans. And that has to do as much with biology as it does with culture. I tried to look at all these things, and that has informed my work profoundly ever since then. The two things evolved together as I was working through it, and my dissertation… was about rhythm, improvisation, and embodiment---the notion of the relationship of what we call the mind to the body itself. And that's something that has influenced me as a performer, as a composer, and in the way I observe how music works.
Everything I just said in the previous question, about that primal sense of connection that music offers, that is related to research I did…. The theoretical foundation helped me understand what I was observing in the course of performance. So yes, there's a profound connection between what little scientific understanding I have of how music works, and the kinds of choices I make as an artist. What I've found is that there a lot of projects by artists about science, but there aren't a lot of projects by scientists about art. I would like to see more of the latter, science in service of art, not art that glorifies science, and I say that as someone who has spent a lot of time in the sciences and has the utmost respect for it. But I guess that I feel that art that glorifies science is participating in hierarchies of knowledge that aren't so interesting to me.
NEA: If it was science that was looking into art what would the kind of inquiries be, that they would be making?
IYER: Well, it's not a new idea. It's a field that has existed for a long time… under different names, like for example, the scientific study of music used to be called “psychoacoustics,” a very 1950s kind of term. There's a journal called Journal of Consciousness Studies that had a whole series on art and the brain, and I got to contribute an article to it. I saw people studying the way that we perceive, and the way vision works, and how painters, for example, make use of how vision works, and how artists are on the frontiers of human perception…. I think of Richard Serra’s work, or Cezanne's work, stuff that helps bring you into a new way of seeing. And music can do that, too. I think of a lot of musicians that inspire me, someone like Cecil Taylor or Thelonious Monk or Anthony Braxton… [John] Coltrane, I see them as discovering new ways of hearing, redefining what it is to listen. And that's something that we can all learn.
NEA: We've been talking about your influences, and obviously there are artists that you've been influenced by, but I'm also curious if there are any songs that you are influenced by.
IYER: JimI Hendrix’s "Machine Gun" is a song I really like. It takes me on a journey. To call it a song is almost like calling Hamlet a book. That's what it is, but in a way it's like a universe. It's from the album Band of Gypsies, which is a live performance, one of his most famous from late in his life. It's a political song, so there's all this searing intensity and brutality, but also beauty and grace. There's so much storytelling in it…. [I]t just has this arch to it that is so majestic and overwhelming. And it ends in this kind of grotesque pile-up of sound. In a way it's the only way it could end---it's a song about war. That stays with me. I mean, I'm a big fan of Hendrix, but I think that song is the one for me.
NEA: My last question is what does the phrase “Art Works” mean to you?
IYER: I would say that art does the work that nothing else can do. If anything else could do it, we wouldn't need art, we wouldn't have art. A sculptor, I can't remember who, said that if we understood each other we wouldn't need art. I thought that was such a plain-spoken encapsulation of something so profound and obvious---so obvious that we don't see it sometimes. People always talk about understanding art, "Oh I didn't understand that music," but it's not about understanding, it's about what happens instead of understanding…. It's how we harmonize with each other. It's what we're able to participate in collectively that isn't about understanding; it's about something else. It's about sensation, it's about feeling, it's about expression, it's about community. It's the conversation we can have without actually having a conversation. For me, that's what art, which is a loaded term, has to do. It has to do those things that nothing else can do. It has to take us to places where nothing else can take us. It has to connect us in ways that nothing else can.
Want to learn more about Carolina Performing Arts' Rite of Spring project? Check out our interview with Executive Director Emil Kang!
It'll probably be another 20 or 30 years before we find out if Vijay Iyer becomes an NEA Jazz Master---but visit our News Room if you want to find out who was named as a 2013 NEA Jazz Master earlier today!