Vijay Iyer

May 15, 2014

1asmallerVijay Iyer is always expanding his horizons. Sometimes he does this with conscious intent and at other times it comes through the natural instinct to stretch himself in different directions. His latest work is a testament to that evolutionary approach. The Grammy-nominated, highly acclaimed jazz composer and performer just released Mutations (ECM), the official recording of a 10-part suite for string quartet that he debuted in 2005, along with three new piano pieces. Those who appreciate the abstract beauty of György Ligeti will certainly enjoy the album’s sonic tapestries, which span a wide range of sonic textures and emotions. Overall, it is a bold new  musical adventure for his fans to embark upon with him.

Now Iyer is taking his progressive thinking and collective experience and applying them to a new professorship at Harvard University. He commutes there every week from N.Y.C. for two to three days, and through his classes he wants to help his students not only find their voices but also delve deeper into the extensive history of jazz. Iyer admits that the commute is tough. “I think the hardest part is staying balanced as a family man and being present for my daughter,” he says.

Teaching is not new to Iyer. He has taught at Manhattan School of Music, New York University, and the New School. Further, he is the director of The Banff Centre’s International Workshop in Jazz and Creative Music, and he recently ended a multi-year residency with San Francisco Performances, where he performed for and worked with various schools and community organizations.

JAZZed spoke to Iyer during a break in his hectic schedule to discuss his approach to teaching, his musical philosophy, and the lesser-known history of jazz.

JAZZed: You’ve worked within many different styles of music – hip-hop, electronic, Indian, classical. You really are a crossover artist. How common is that in the modern jazz world? Classical certainly has its set of purists. Do you see  jazz  the same way?

Vijay Iyer: It’s a little hard to compare the jazz and classical communities because I think artists self-identify in different ways in those two communities. Particularly in the classical community, there’s this division of labor between composers and performers, so the performers don’t necessarily see themselves as creative makers of things. I think [for] people who are connected to the heritage and history of jazz, we tend to see ourselves as creators as much as players. Basically, we’re all composer/performers, and the work we do is always very collaborative in nature. It’s not like there’s one creator.

The creative process is distributed among many different participants, so I think because of that openness in format and flexibility and willingness to work with the input of others and to build things together – the essential collaborative nature – maybe people from our community end up going across a lot of other communities too. I think it’s actually pretty common and always has been, especially because this is music that was born in American cities. And American cities are places of intersection and places where we meet people who are not like ourselves. This music has basically been documenting that very natural process.

You studied mathematics and physics throughout much of your college years. You were using numbers in a different way. How did that education play into your music, and how are you going to apply that to your teaching?

Music has been a part of my life since I was three years old. I’ve studied music my whole life – working on it, creating it, collaborating with people as long as I can remember. I started playing violin when I was three, and I started playing piano not long after that. I was in orchestras and chamber ensembles, and then in high school I was in the jazz ensemble, in two orchestras, playing solo repertoire on violin, in a jazz combo, and in a rock band. That was all before college, so it’s always been a huge part of my life.

I went into the sciences initially because I thought that was all that was available to me. It took me a while to realize that I could be an artist in America, and that really came about when I was 23. I started to see doors opening for me, where I saw that I might be able to make music the center of my life and not just something I did on the side or in my free time. When that change came about, I felt like I had a lot of catching up to do, but thankfully I was able to do that in the context of collaborating and apprenticing with elder musicians and experimenting with people, basically in the context of making music. I learned on the job, you could say, over the last 20-something years.

vj1How much of your education was formal teaching when you were younger, and how much did you learn on your own?

I had 15 years of violin lessons, and I had no piano lessons, so basically both at the same time. The piano happened – I don’t want to say it was “by accident” exactly, but it was not in any kind of guided or structured way. It happened incrementally in a way that was very organic.

You had structure and discipline, but also the ability to explore on your own. How will you apply that to teaching your students at Harvard?

I’m applying it pretty directly. The course I’m teaching this term is basically a workshop environment for people who are players and are composers connected to jazz. It’s mostly undergrads, and what I find is that a lot of people who are that age, even when they’re exceptional musicians, haven’t really thought about or come to any awareness about the larger cultural forces or raison d’être for this music in the first place. Basically you come out as a player from some scholastic opportunity – like your high school jazz ensemble or maybe some teacher who shows you some tricks or formulas; maybe if you’re lucky you listen to a few canonical recordings – but you don’t really ever get a sense of where this came from and why and what it is today and where it might go. Or that you might be a part of answering that question of where it might go. So this is meant to help build a bridge between that sort of youthful player mentality and more thinking as an artist in the world.

There are some people who believe you should go to school for your art, and then there are others with a more cautious view who think teachers are going to impose their ideas on students about what works and what doesn’t in art. What is your philosophy there?

The main thing that I keep stressing to students is to consider the listener, which is really about communication rather than just playing. It’s one thing to be able to show off how great you are or your athletic skills on the instrument, but it’s another thing to actually reach somebody. Some people are reached just by the witnessing of virtuosity, but I think most people are a little bit put off by that, actually. So what are other means of connection with the listener? I ask students to stop thinking like a player and try thinking more like a listener, which is kind of what a composer needs to do. When we’re in the moment as it provides us, we might be engrossed in the nuts and bolts of what we’re doing but not realize that we’re repeating ourselves or maybe not adding to the situation. What I tell people is that whenever you’re playing, there has to be some part of you that’s not playing, that’s above it all and just observing it. Not even trying to make anything happen, but just observing it so that it could be input for the choices you make.

As an artist, one develops a personal language. There are certain sounds and ideas that reemerge in one’s work. Sometimes those things can be good, and sometimes they can be bad habits being repeated. Do you identify those things in your own work? Do you teach people to identify those aspects in their own work?

It’s always important to get people to be honest with themselves about what they’re doing, what they’re not doing, what they’re avoiding, what their limitations are, to see if they can push on the limits of what they think they can do. For me, the name of the game is not just being yourself. I’ve never found that you get your own sound by trying to get your own sound. I think you get your own sound by asking your own questions and then trying to seek answers to your own questions. That is more about transformation or becoming something rather than being something. It’s learning about what’s beyond you, coming up to the limit of what you think you are, and then trying to reach past that so that you grow. I being dedicated to that process is how you really get your own sound.

vj2This makes me think of about the auteur thinking of filmmaking. Certain directors have themes that they repeatedly explore throughout their careers. When I was studying film, I was too young to recognize any of that in my work and probably did not have the life experience that I would need to develop any such things. Do you think that’s just not something you can teach?

Oh, I don’t know about that really. It depends what you mean by teaching. I just saw Herbie Hancock speak at Harvard – he’s been giving a series of lectures this winter – and the first talk he gave was entitled, “The Wisdom of Miles Davis.” It was actually more about himself than it was about Miles Davis. There were moments where he might quote one sentence that Miles said once, but it was more about how that elicited a transformation in him. It was about the way that Miles Davis would set up these opportunities for his band members to figure something out, discover something, become something, and transform themselves. In the notion of teaching for artists, what that really is about is helping people become themselves more fully and helping people transform themselves and grow. So a so-called teacher has to get out of the way to let that happen.

Isn’t it amazing how something that somebody does or says once can have this big impact on you, and they might completely forget it?

That was what Herbie Hancock’s point was – the wisdom of Miles Davis was actually about being that kind of person or that kind of force or that kind of a conduit to help others discover and transform. When you think about it, all these people who played with Miles Davis are basically the definitive artists in the history of jazz – Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Dave Holland, Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea, John Scofield, Kenny Garrett. It’s shocking. That’s not just lucky. He obviously knew some things about how to inspire people.

What do you remember from the lessons you took growing up?

It was all formative. I had an excellent violin teacher when I was in high school who was a real artist. He was someone who thought beyond the scope of the technical aspects of violin playing. He was very poetic. He talked very metaphorically a lot of the time. I remember he had a big houseplant in his studio, and he said you have to be like the plant. He brushed the branch of the plant so that it would bob. It was a tall philodendron or something like that, and he would just give it a nudge and watch it respond organically, kind of waving back and forth. He did it in such a relaxed way that it wasn’t forcing anything, it was just responding, so he would use that as a point of reference. If we can see ourselves in these terms – it wasn’t so much about just playing the right notes in the right place. It was pretty high-level conceptual stuff about how to understand what we’re doing, how it’s expressive and how it communicates, so that was pretty important for me. I learned a lot apprenticing with Steve Coleman, Roscoe Mitchell, and Wadada Leo Smith. I learned tons and tons from them. It’s pretty hard to narrow down.

In which directions do you try to push your students’ research when you have the chance?

There’s always more work to do, even when people think they know the music. A lot of the young people in my class are students that are in a joint program between Harvard and the New England Conservatory. They might be in the jazz studies program over there and doing a non-music academic major at Harvard. So, as players, they haven’t necessarily read or written or thought about the history of music, but they also haven’t listened a lot to stuff that happened that wasn’t Miles Davis or Miles Davis’ former sidemen. Like I said, that becomes a defining voice in the history of the music, but then there’s a whole lot of other stuff that happened that people don’t check out, particularly what I would identify as the creative music movement from 1960 to 1990 or so. Things like the AACM and Black Artists’ Group and things that were happening that weren’t necessarily in that direct lineage but were still very much a part of the community. The thing is that listeners and critics know about it, but players don’t tend to talk about or address that whole other legacy, probably because it’s hard to teach and talk about. It’s not codified in the way that Bill Evans’ voicings are codified. How do you talk about Henry Threadgill in that way? Or even about Coltrane after 1965? Or Ornette Coleman or Miles Davis after 1969?

vj3Are there any artists that you think are underrated that up-and-coming jazz players and students should listen to?

Oh, yeah. Andrew Hill. Steve Coleman. Those two were really influential for me personally and artistically. Andrew is no longer with us. He was an innovator all the way through in a way that sometimes sidestepped the machinations of the music industry. There was a heyday he had on Blue Note in the ‘60s, and he had some more elusive years in the intervening decades. Then he had a Renaissance in the last decade of his life. He was very mysterious and uncompromising, and he was also someone who thought about community and thought about his role as a teacher, mentor, and activist. He taught in prisons and did stuff that was very much under the radar. It wasn’t about career, it was about compassion. He set a really important example, and a lot of it went undocumented in that sense.

In the case of Steve Coleman, he is someone who has been extremely influential over the last quarter-century or more. He has impacted generations of musicians and is a profound and innovative thinker. He’s extremely original, very detailed and rigorous, virtuosic, has really high, exacting standards, works really hard, and has innovated with the language of this music several times over. I was fortunate to be in his ensembles for several years in the mid-to-late ‘90s. I learned a tremendous amount from him and he helped make me what I am as an artist. He helped invite me to be an artist. Like I said, I didn’t really know that that was available to me as an option. When I was 23, that opened up, and he was a part of that.

He took you under his wing.

Yeah, he invited me to go on tour. That was pretty major. Nobody knew me from Adam.

You have a bunch of different gigs coming up this spring including guesting with the Brentano String Quartet, playing with the Vijay Iyer Trio, and performing Mutations live. How do you remember the music within all these different types of projects?

I’ve learned as a composer to go easy on myself, so I don’t make myself play a bunch of really hard [stuff]. That’s not true actually. (laughs) I make myself play a lot of things that are kind of impossible and are literally a stretch, like reaching an eleventh on the piano, but I guess the language of my music is very connected to the language of my playing. I think about [Thelonious] Monk in this way, and that’s how I figured some things out – by constantly checking him out in great detail over the last 25 years, thinking about that unity in his language as a player and as a maker of music. It all comes from the same sensibility and the same impulse.

Do you ever take advantage of opportunities to jam with random musicians and pull away from all the different projects that you are working on? 

Well, that happens during the course of what I do. Sometimes on the road we’ll find ourselves in a jam session. It happens all the time. In New York, I have to pick and choose how to spend my time, but I play with a lot of different people. I had this duo encounter with Robert Glasper last spring. I find myself being invited to play with people at The Stone or in different open contexts.

Do you enjoy the balance of performing, recording, and teaching? 

Like I said, it’s not just teaching in the sense of transmitting information. What I’m trying to do is help players become artists. You could call it teaching, but it’s a bigger question really.

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