In conversation with vijay iyer
By Tom Greenland
Pianist and composer Vijay Iyer is anything but predictable. Innovative and provocative, his music draws on an eclectic range of influences, including hiphop, West African drumming, South Indian classical music and, of course, jazz, assimilating and crafting these sounds into an indefinable yet readily identifiable style. In a coffee shop near his Manhattan apartment, Iyer recently spoke about cultures and concepts in dialogue with each other. In juxtaposing jazz and Indian classical music, self and other, local and global, symmetry and asymmetry, purity and hybridity, and the known and the mysterious, Iyer’s observations seem to suggest that clashes and/or collaborations between these supposed “opposites” may lead to new imaginings and discoveries.
What’s on your mind?
What’s on my mind? [laughs] Um, well, the Democratic race is on everybody’s mind, you know? And that’s been, like, this absurd psychodrama that’s been thrust in our face for months and months. So that’s on my mind. And the catastrophe in Myanmar [Tropical Cyclone Nargis struck one week before this interview] has been on my mind as well.
Well, let’s see: what else? This Miles from India project . . . just came out. I wasn’t on the album but I got asked to play on these concerts. So I had my first experience playing with Ron Carter yesterday, and I had this strange experience of teaching him how to play “So What” in 9/4! [laughs] It was so bizarre! I was, like, “You’ve been playing this song for fifty years or something like that—forty-six years,” and here I am. I wasn’t even on the record. That’s the track where they did this kind of transformed version of “So What” with Chick Corea playing on it, and even he apparently thought it was a crazy idea too. So anyway, it was kind of funny that here were these Miles alumni. Ron Carter’s been in my ears since I was fourteen years old or something like that. He’s one of the authors of the modern bass. I was pretty amazed just hanging out with him and playing music with him.
And last night’s concert was quite an event: Indian musicians interfacing with this Miles Davis repertoire, and these alumni who played in various incarnations of Miles’ ensembles; Lenny White was playing, Adam Holzman was playing, and these Indian musicians were playing. And it came off pretty well; it was wild. Wallace Roney played the role of “Mr. Prince of Darkness”; and yeah, it was interesting. What else? What’s on your mind? [laughs]
How was it “Indian”? In what sense? Did Miles really use Indian ideas?
No, he didn’t; he didn’t at all, really. Badal Roy [tabla] was on the concert, and was on one or two of Miles’ records. He was on On the Corner and a few others, maybe a couple of other cuts from that era, and that sort of helped bring Badal Roy into this whole world of improv music and creative music. But he’s also, of course, worked with Ornette [Coleman], Dave Liebman—a lot of different musicians over the decades. So he was sort of the lynchpin of it all. It’s not really that Miles dealt with Indian music. I mean, I’d say that if anybody did at that level it was [John] Coltrane, but that was in a different direction from what Miles was doing.
But you know there’d be moments where you could imagine it, like if it was “In a Silent Way,” which is oriented around this kind of drone. We did a version of that yesterday and that actually worked really well, you know, with this Hindustani melodist, Kala Ramnath, who was playing violin and singing also. There was a couple of other [Indian] artists—one other vocalist and a sitar player. It was kind of an experiment and it was sort of like [producer] Bob Belden’s concept, or conceit, you could even say. And it might seem at the outset like a stretch, but it was just more a process of bringing these traditions and these concepts of improvisation together that sort of became its own story.
I don’t think Miles would really even have fit into this whole idea. “Why don’t you all do your own thing instead of playing my music?” I’m sure that’s what he would have thought. But I think it was more like, well, there are multiple ways to view or interact with these traditions and history, and here’s one possible way. That’s the reading of it that makes sense to me, because when I heard about the record, I was, like, What? That seems like that’s sort of like a crazy idea. And what’s funny is that a lot of the people who were on the gig weren’t on the record, including myself. Also some of these Indian musicians got pulled in at the last second to replace the original members—“original” meaning the people who were on the recording session last year—because some of them were unable to get work visas . . . . The thing is that there’s been a whole history of people from this area of music—jazz and creative music—interfacing with or interacting with aspects of Indian music.
Don’t you have some Indian heritage? Aren’t your parents South Indian?
Yeah, well they’re ethnically South Indian. My mother grew up in Bombay—Mumbai it’s called now—and she was an urbanite; that’s like growing up in New York City.
Did they play Carnatic [South Indian classical music] or any kind of music like that around the house? Do you consider that part of your musical culture?
Well, it’s part of my heritage. I mean, there was music around. It wasn’t thrust at me, really, and I wasn’t trained in it either, but it’s part of who I am. It’s part of the culture that I’ve had to come to terms with, being a hybrid American. It’s part of my history. So I wanted engage with it at that level: “What’s my relationship to this music?”
Rudresh [Mahanthappa] spoke about this. He grew up in Boulder and told me he used to listen to Grover Washington, Jr. and things like that, but that his parents had records and so he was exposed it a little bit.
Yeah, the same is true of me—not about Grover—but my parents had recordings like that and also we had a pretty strong Indian community in Rochester, New York while I was growing up. It was burgeoning in the seventies and eighties; it was growing. Now it’s really substantial and they’ve built infrastructure and institutions, so now there are two Hindu temples in Rochester and there are multiple Indian grocery stores and movie theaters where you can see Indian movies. In the seventies, when I was a little kid, that was not the case. But still, there were enough families around that we’d all gather on weekends and sing devotional songs. Someone would be playing harmonium and someone else would be playing tabla or something. It was antiphonal music where one lead singer sings a verse and the congregation—or whatever you want to call it: the group of people in the basement of someone’s house [laughs]—would echo the music, a communal experience with that kind of music. And every now and then Indian musicians would come through town performing and they’d play a concert. I remember a couple of those very distinctly from when I was seven or so.
In terms of really wanting to come to some kind of grips with all of that, with that whole history or that whole side of myself, I’d say that finally, when I was about twenty or so, I decided to be proactive about it and say, “Well, what is this music that’s somehow a part of me and somehow not?” It was really just about cultivating a relationship with it rather than being passive about it. I didn’t formally study anything but I started going to a lot of concerts. I was living in California by that time, in the Bay Area, and there are a lot of South Asians in Silicon Valley, as you can imagine. So they had enough of a scene happening that they would actually host concerts quite a lot—so touring artists from India would come. There were a number of organizations in northern California that presented Indian music, so I started getting to see the stuff a lot more and just be immersed in the culture.
I’d go to these concerts in Palo Alto; they’d be in some community college auditorium or something, but it’d be five hundred South Indians and everybody knows all the songs, you know? These would be Carnatic concerts, which are classical concerts of devotional music, and everybody knew all the music. Everyone knew all the talas [rhythmic cycles] and all those ragas [melodic modes] and all the lyrics. Everyone around me was completely at home in this music, so I learned a lot just being in that environment, especially because everyone there could’ve been my uncle or my cousin, or something like that. So it was kind of like a reconstruction for me of a situation that might have been mine. And I learned a lot over those years, throughout the nineties, ’92 to ’98, when I was in California. I had a lot of experiences like that, in addition to all of the other experiences I had playing jazz and studying West African drumming and jamming with Steve Coleman and all this other stuff that happened to me while I was in California. That whole experience was just getting a healthy dose of Indian music. That really helped bring it home for me.
Did you ever do any formal studies with a guru?
No, I didn’t do that.
I guess the piano’s not usually…?
Not usually, no. There’re one or two guys out there who are. Actually, I just met this guy on Facebook—that doesn’t mean I’ve really met him [laughs]—and he actually does Hindustani classical recitals on piano, so I need to find out more about what he’s doing, because all the melisma and all the nuances, melodically, it’s really hard to pull off on a keyboard or a discrete instrument. Although there is the equivalent: in Carnatic music there’s one tradition—it’s called jalatarangam, which is basically a bunch of tuned bowls of water, ceramic bowls; you strike them with a mallet or a stick or something. So people play Carnatic music on that. It’s basically a keyboard instrument; it’s tuned to be a discrete melodic instrument.
What if you’ve got a pitch bender or something like that?
Well, I guess the water sort of sloshes around [laughs].
I meant, for example, gamaka [Carnatic “shaking” ornaments]? Nyeeeah! [imitates sound]
You could probably do something with that.
Maybe. Well, that’s been done too, on the synthesizer; there are people out there doing that. Yeah, there’s a whole scene of people doing that stuff. But the thing about it is, for me, my mission is not to play Indian music. It’s not what I need out of music. Because, to me, Indian music is something you study for many decades and it takes a lifetime to master, like any form of music. You don’t just dabble at these things. You have to work and dedicate your life to it, or else you’re just not taking it seriously. And so I don’t want to pretend that I’m a master of this music that would take a lifetime to master. It’s more that I want to engage with it in various ways. For me, it’s been about interacting with Indian musicians and putting myself in dialogue with these traditions and these ideas and this music. That’s more my approach.
Do you use any of those elements in your compositions or in your arrangements?
Yeah, quite a bit.
Can you give an example of that?
Well, there are a lot of rhythmic ideas. I mean, just about any composition of mine, if you look at anything I’ve written in the last ten or twelve years, has some rhythmic ideas that are drawn from the, like, “rhythm science” of Carnatic music, from my understanding of it and my studies of it. I’m really interested in, especially as a composer: what are the sources of formal properties that are at play and what are the parameters of expression on the rhythmic side of Indian music that I could learn from?
When I was a child seeing some of these concerts, I remember being so dazzled by what the percussionists were doing rhythmically, and how there were these flurries of activity that would seem so ordered and yet so kind of mysterious. That’s partly who I am: I tend to gravitate towards those kinds of experiences that have a certain kind of mystery in them. It’s like an encounter with this mysterious order or something like this, with layers of structure and history and dialogue that you only see the surface of—that you’re only beginning to glimpse. That, to me, is such a key part to experience: the encounter with the unknown and putting yourself in dialogue with something that is partly you and partly not you. So I guess—not to get too symbolic about it or anything—that experience, to me particularly, about what rhythm does, how rhythm can really—well, the thing is, when you hear music, the rhythm is the underpinning of the way you experience it. In a way, the melody and harmony are secondary to that because rhythm guides you through the experience of time, and that’s such a fundamental quality of human experience. In terms of techniques for manipulating rhythm, to me, it seems like such a fundamental quality that I really wanted to get at, I really wanted to examine and study and get close to. It’s this elusive thing, really, because the more you learn about it the less you know [laughs]. It’s a universal mystery.
So that becomes the primary way that I compose: thinking about these different ways of combining and layering rhythms. And some of that knowledge comes from my dealings with Indian music and some of that knowledge comes from my dealings with African music, West African drumming and stuff like that. And then from the whole African American tradition, like James Brown and Max Roach and Elvin Jones, and all that stuff.
Can you give some examples? Like on your new album Tragicomic, are there any tunes that use additive rhythms?
Oh yeah, yeah. Well, probably the most extreme example is the song “Machine Days.” That song’s been on my MySpace page for a few months and people keep sending me requests for the chart of that particular piece. Well, it’s dealing with these rhythmic cadences, but it’s not the typical thing you hear, like a korvai, or a mora, or a tihai in Hindustani music, these kinds of rhythmic progressions that resolve on the downbeat.
Like sam? [In Hindustani music, the beginning of a melodic cycle]
Yeah, exactly. Actually, this number 144 recurs throughout the whole album. It’s really interesting. It has all these interesting mathematical properties, let’s say, that make it kind of mysterious, because it has all this symmetry in it and then it’s also a Fibonacci number, which means it has this fundamental asymmetric quality in it too. So that’s 89 + 55; 89 and 55 are Fibonacci numbers. 89 is 55 + 34; both of those are Fibinacci numbers. 55 is 34 + 21; both of those are Fibinacci numbers. So you see you have these nested layers with Fibinaci numbers inside. So not only is 144 12x12, it’s also 9x16, which is the product of two other perfect squares [2x2 and 3x3], and then it’s also a Fibonacci number which has this fundamental asymmetric balancing.
I wanted to deal with this interaction between symmetry and asymmetry. But that is just the beginning of it. So that’s what a lot of these cadential forms do, the tihais and stuff like that, where you have this underlying meter which suggests a certain kind of symmetric order or regularity, and then you divide it in these asymmetric ways that have their own order, with their own kind of gravity.
Orders within orders?
Yeah, and also contrasting kinds of order that end up being in dialogue with each other. So that’s what’s going on in that piece, where you have 144, but that’s divided…uh…let me see, I have to think about it [laughs]. Yeah, so that’s: 34 + 21 + 34 + 21 + 34, is 144. So, in other words, that’s 89 + 55. So it has this ABABA kind of form too: 34-21-34-21-34. And that lies across sixteen bars of 9! So you see you have these additive and multiplicative orders that lie in contrast with one another, which is a good long-form cross rhythm over this groove. And that becomes the form of the piece. But then you hear it and it just sounds like a bebop tune with hits, or something like that [laughs]—not exactly, because the groove is a little bit irregular.
Do you think listeners can intuitively hear that ordering?
Well, to me it has this formal order that has a purity to it. It also has this cultural grounding and these kinds of rhythmic ideas from India. The specific groove that’s in there is something I heard by Les Têtes Brûlées, which is a band from Cameroon, a seminal Afro-beat kind of group over the last twenty years. It’s like 9/8 or 9/16, kind of like 3x3, but it’s divided in a way that feels like an asymmetric grouping. So I’m just looking at all these different ways of articulating time that come from these different parts of the world, and how they interact. And, you know, sometimes they interact uneasily [laughs].
I’m interested in those kinds of rubs too, that sort of friction that happens when you put them in dialogue with each other too. That’s more about where we are right now: it’s like all this information is just running together into this one gigantic stream, and it’s not always a clear stream. Sometimes it’s almost like these ideas are colliding. So that’s where we sit: we sit at the crossroads of all these different streams and we just need to make sense of it. So that, to me, is what pieces like that are trying to do. Again, I’m not trying to be overly symbolic or anything; to me it’s just the truth of the matter; it’s just the truth of life today on this planet. If you live in a city, if you have an urban existence, then you are constantly interacting with different perspectives that come from all over the world. And that’s been essential for me—even before I came to New York City—that hybrid perspective of being of this place and yet tied to somewhere very far away at the same time. That’s been the essential fact of my identity since I was born, you know? So that transnational perspective just frames the way I see everything. It informs the form and the content, I think.
I think a lot of people in New York feel that way: that they’re in this place but they’re not of it.
And I think jazz has been—is—informed by a lot of these…
Of course. Well, everything is. But yeah, jazz has been this essentially hybrid form since the beginning, and we always have to remind ourselves of that. In a way it was funny—these experiments, putting jazz next to Indian music. It sort of presumes that both forms were pure to begin with, and really they’ve always been very open forms. They’re music of cities. If you look to ancient Indian music, it was music that was of the courts These were sort of cosmopolitan centers; maybe they were embedded in the strict system of privilege, but they also were able to absorb influences from other parts of the world.