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Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Vijay Iyer—Transformer

Vijay Iyer is a prominent jazz pianist and bandleader who also composes classical music. He majored in mathematics and physics in undergrad and graduate schools. Iyer, a MacArthur fellow, brings his genre-spanning music to the BAM Harvey Theater in VIJAY IYER: Music of Transformation (Dec 18—20). We spoke to him about his creative world.

Radhe Radhe. Craig Marsden/Prashant Bhargava
David Hsieh: At BAM, we’ll hear many sides of your music talent: from solo jazz piano to classical composition (Mutations) to movie soundtracks (Radhe Radhe: Rites of Holi, a film by Prashant Bhargava). Do you see no difference in genres or are you intentionally breaking/fusing them?

Vijay Iyer: Actually, the way you describe these three works is not how I think of them. I start with basic questions: What does this situation call for? Who is involved, and what can we all do together? Can we find some common ground on which to build something substantial? Once that is established, we just start building. Solo works are a conundrum in that sense, but ultimately they are also collaborative—they are in dialogue with history, with the performer’s body, and with everyone in the room. What you call genres, I see as communities or networks: aggregates of music makers and listeners coalescing around a shared history or a common social location. But New York City is like the inside of a star; it’s a place where those things are continually made and unmade, where communities constantly collide, interact, and re-form.

DH: How much improvisation is there in Mutations? When you play with a classical ensemble, like ICE, do you allow them the same latitude of freedom as your jazz ensemble?

VI: Mutations I-X was created for the situation of me interacting with a contemporary string quartet—an ensemble that is excellent at interpreting written music, but not particularly geared toward generating musical material. That being the case, I wanted to see if I could invite the players into more of a process mentality, where they are called on to make individual and collective choices that help determine the flow of things. It’s in 10 short movements, and each one has a different degree of this sort of “real-time” element; some are through-composed, some are just a few written instructions, and others are in between.

The word “freedom” is a little confusing. The goal is to empower people to use the skills they have. As a composer I strive to do that as much as possible—to get players fully involved in and committed to the experience.

Radhe Radhe. Photo: Veijay Prashant
DH: Radhe Radhe harks back to your Indian heritage. The film is also commissioned to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. What’s the musical connection between the two?

VI: There’s no musical connection. The motivating link is that both explore springtime rituals of a particular region—in his case, a kind of mythic ancient Russia, and in our case, contemporary Uttar Pradesh, in north India (which is close to my heritage, but not quite identical; my parents are ethnically south Indian). Because Radhe Radhe was conceived as a film with a live score, it works like a ballet, because of its rhythms and the palpable presence of the ensemble. The only other connection with Stravinsky is that we adopted his structure; both works have 12 episodes grouped into two main parts. And, there’s a bassoon!

DH: The rite of holi is such a vibrant festival and the film is an explosion of colors, which should look spectacular on our 35-by-19 foot Steinberg Screen. But there’s a spiritual aspect of it. Do you feel your music needs to complement the film or counterbalance it?

VI: Holi is a devotional holiday and it’s also hugely cathartic. It’s a transformative moment when earthly and divine intersect. The film has chaotic and meditative moments: celebrations and rituals, also very intimate human portraits. We tried to capture these bodily, emotional, and spiritual details musically, but also, because it’s live, I wanted the music to spill outside the frame. As a performer, I’m always mindful of the fact that when we play music, we are among people. When you watch images on a screen, you can forget where you are. So in the music I put out occasional reminders that we’re still on earth, and that we’re all in this together.

DH: Your path is somewhat unconventional. You picked up jazz piano while studying classical violin, and took composition classes but entered Yale to study math and physics. You now play jazz piano but also compose for classical musicians. What prompts you to continuously cross boundaries?

VI: Most people have eclectic musical interests. The artists who inspire me—John Coltrane, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Nina Simone, Charles Mingus, Steve Coleman, Henry Threadgill, Wadada Leo Smith, Herbie Hancock, and others—have sought to transform themselves through creative inquiry and through an aesthetic of conjuncture: interacting with different communities, different aesthetics and traditions, different systems of knowledge. Polymorphic is one word for it, but I think a better word is metamorphic.

DH: Is your approach to music-making influenced by your scientific (right) side of brain?

VI: The right side of the brain has been associated with visual and auditory perception, and with so-called artistic ability. But in reality we all use our entire brains most of the time; there is definitely no “scientific side.” With recent advances in brain science, the brain is on everyone’s mind, so to speak. And when talking about it, we tend to objectify the brain as if separate from human action—merely, as you say, influencing it. But our brains are directly involved in every single thing we ever do. It doesn’t make sense to think of our brains separately from actions. The research I did was in the science of music: what music is, how it works, how we listen—basic questions that every musicmaker considers. That side of my life (like both sides of my brain) is intimately connected to what I do as an artist.

VIJAY IYER: Music of Transformation plays BAM Harvey Dec 18—20.

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