June 20, 2024

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Vijay Iyer on his new album, his physics training and always feeling like an outsider: Photos, Live full concert video 2022

Vijay Iyer is uneasy. The 50-year-old US pianist, regarded as one of the leading innovators in creative music, chose Uneasy as the title for his latest album, released in 2021 on the hallowed ECM label. A maelstrom of dense harmonies and ambiguous grooves, the record features Iyer’s intensely creative working trio with bassist Lina May Han Oh and drummer Tyshawn Sorey, and was rapturously received on both sides of the Atlantic.

It has an historical urgency and sense of defiance that connects it with the great activist musicians of the civil rights era such as John Coltrane, Nina Simone and Charles Mingus, and the titles of Iyer’s tunes – Children of Flint, Combat Breathing – leave the listener in little doubt that there is a political as well as a musical consciousness at work here. So what exactly is Vijay Iyer uneasy about?

“A lot of things,” he replies with an uneasy laugh. “Just walking around today, I felt very on edge. I mean, I live in New York city. I think the entire 21st century has been characterised by a sense of unease, certainly since September 11th, but even prior to that.” For Iyer, the stolen election of George Bush – “previously the worst president ever” – and the erosion of trust in democracy that followed, was an important moment.

“Bush led us into these disastrous, pointless, genocidal wars against brown-skinned enemies, which then also fostered a bunch of attitudes towards brown-skinned people here, including people like me. What does it mean to call yourself an American when this thing called America is ruining lives, obliterating populations in the Middle East, and then sending our troops to face that and carry that out on our behalf? And then what repercussions did that have on the ground here? What did it mean to be living in NY when that was happening? How were our communities policed and surveilled? How were we treated in transit, and what did we belong to?

‘That piece called Uneasy was written in 2011, because it still felt that way, even during the prosperous Obama years, it still felt like something was broken here’

“That sense of belonging was very tenuous, and so it started then. There were these moments of maybe something was changing, but that undercurrent of unease never left. In fact, that piece called Uneasy was written in 2011, because it still felt that way, even during the prosperous Obama years, it still felt like something was broken here, and that unease was palpable on the street.”

Vijay Iyer says his connection to the piano is “very primal, very physical, very exploratory and open-ended, and it dates back to my earliest memories”.
Vijay Iyer says his connection to the piano is “very primal, very physical, very exploratory and open-ended, and it dates back to my earliest memories”.

A child of Indian immigrants (his father was a pharmaceutical chemist who moved to the US in 1963; his mother followed a year later), Iyer grew up in upstate New York, a precocious, scientifically minded child who, from an early age, was keenly aware of his identity. It is a background that has given him a unique perspective on race in American.

“US immigration law has always been racist, and it still is,” he says, “in the sense that non-white people were carefully curated. They barely had any non-Western immigrants allowed. So we were among the first South Asian-American children. We were in that first generation of children born to immigrants from outside the West, and that meant that our experience was transitional. We were new, we were a new population, we were different, we were strange, we didn’t have a lot of people like us around. So that was what our childhood was like, very improvisatory in a way, finding a way to be where you didn’t really have a lot of clear precedents as this new population, as part of this new community that was barely a community itself.”

One-sixteenth size violin

Music came into his life at the age of three when his parents bought him a one-sixteenth size violin, but it was the old Baldwin spinet piano that his parents bought for his older sister that really captured his imagination.

‘My connection to the piano is very primal, very physical, very exploratory and open-ended, and it dates back to my earliest memories’

“I just started gravitating to her piano because it was more available. You could just put your hands on it and make sound. One of my earliest musical memories is banging on it with her. I was three, and I just remember the feeling of making the instrument vibrate, and also of being in this duet with her. We were both making sounds and making it fill the room with sounds, fill our ears and our bodies with sounds, so it was collaborative, it was vibratory, it was really exciting and exploratory.

“Some part of me is always trying to recover that experience when I play the piano. My connection to it is very primal, very physical, very exploratory and open-ended, and it dates back to my earliest memories.”

Iyer speaks slowly and deliberately, weighing his words carefully, and even relatively straightforward questions are answered with thoughtfulness, precision, and plenty of historical context. Later, when we talk about the legacy of the black radicals of the 1960s who inspired him, such as pioneering free pianist Cecil Taylor and avant-garde collective the Art Ensemble of Chicago, I wonder does he feel the same sense of responsibility to express political ideals.

“I feel a sense of accountability,” he counters, “to the people who nurtured me, who were almost entirely elder African-American visionary artists, many of whom were not credited with intelligence. I feel I am in community with dozens of people like that, dozens of great black artists, who I have apprenticed with, collaborate with, hang out with, travel the world with. So then you feel like you’re in a moment where even they are not safe. I mean, I have times when I did not feel safe, and to know that they feel like that all the time, that that’s their entire life. So that’s where it comes from, it’s personal in that sense. It’s out of love and out of care for the people who have loved and cared for me.”

He bristles when I suggest that maths or physics might directly inform his music. ‘That’s if you don’t listen to my music’

Iyer has a reputation as an intellectual. A Yale physics graduate, he looked set to follow his father into the scientific world when, in 1994, he gave it all up for a life in music. Four years later, he submitted a PhD dissertation to the University of California at Berkeley entitled Microstructures of Feel, Macrostructures of Sound: Embodied Cognition in West African and African-American Musics. The title certainly suggests an analytical mind at work, but he bristles when I suggest that maths or physics might directly inform his music.

“That’s if you don’t listen to my music, that might be your experience, but that’s not what the music feels like to me or to our audiences. That’s just not my experience with music,” he says firmly. “I hear what that is but I have never experienced music that way. Like I said, my earliest memories [of music] were embodied, vibratory experiences, feeling my body shake, feeling the room shake, feeling the instrument shake. And pulse comes from action, from doing things like walking, so when we count, that’s a vestige of something more embodied. That is a mental process that’s only possible because of our embodied experience, so it’s not the other way around, movement comes first. And that’s sort of what my dissertation ended up being about.”

Cautious

As a player and a composer at the cutting edge of creative music, does he have a view on where creative music is headed in the 21st century? His answer is typically cautious, as if he has been misunderstood in the past.

“I think what matters to me is sustainability,” he says, “and certainly the fact that there are thousands of young musicians who want to be a part of it, who are trying to create their own versions of it means that it has a future, there’s no doubt that it has a future. What it is in terms of the hierarchy of culture, I guess I can’t put too much investment in that.

“You know, there was a time when I started to believe that people like me and (fellow US pianists) Craig Taborn and Jason Maron, might be among the last to really have careers in this music. I’m not sure how that’s going to play out, but it’s like the opportunities have become dissipated and scattered. It’s a different game now.”

But if Vijay Iyer is uneasy, he is also optimistic. “Music making gives us a space where we can imagine a better world,” he says. “To plan a tour, to walk out the door and go play a concert for a room full of people is to believe that despite it all, we can do something that matters for each other.”

Vijay Iyer was born in New York, the child of two Indian immigrants.

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