Vijay Iyer: An American Treasure

Vijay_wlfi_r2Accelerando, the latest album by the Vijay Iyer Trio, has gotten such rave reviews that it hardly bears writing a new one, so I’ll simply point the way for you. Whether you read about music in DownBeat, or The New York Times, or Pop Matters, or the BBC, you won’t be disappointed—because each of their critics loved it. Iyer is riding high as well, winning an unprecedented five awards last summer in the 60th Annual DownBeat International Critics Poll, including jazz artist of the year, top jazz album, top pianist, top jazz group for the trio, and recognition as a rising star composer. More recently, he won four awards in the 2012 JazzTimes Expanded Critics Poll. Stephan Crump plays bass in the trio when he’s not busy with his own, the all-string Rosetta Trio, and Marcus Gilmore is on drums—where he’s been since 2003, when he joined the trio at age 16. Gilmore, too, is a 2012 DownBeat rising star, on drums.

I love Accelerando too, for the driving rhythms of Iyer’s compositions, which never lose you, but also for the trio’s delicate treatment of Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature” and a fun reimagining of “Mmmhmm” by Flying Lotus.

Part of what makes Vijay Iyer’s work so interesting is the way he thinks about music. His undergraduate degree was in math and physics, but Iyer says that the physical side of music, which he explored in an interdisciplinary PhD program in technology and the arts, has been more important to him.

“The research I did for my dissertation work in the 1990s, and the stuff I’ve been continuing to think about ever since,”  he explains, “is about the role of the human body in music perception and music cognition—in the doing of music and in the way we hear and understand it. Before it became something we stockpile by the terabyte, it used to be something we did with our bodies—with our hands and our feet and our voices and our lungs and so on.”

Ultimately, says Iyer, “When you say that music is made of our actions, then you realize that it has to be the way it is. It has to have the kinds of tempos that we’re used to hearing, it has to have the specific kinds of rhythmic detail and activity that it has, because it’s what we can do with our bodies, and it’s what we can do together with our bodies.”

And if music is all about action, Iyer writes in the liner notes of Accelerando, then today’s tempo seems to be speeding up, rising with the economic crisis and global unrest all around us. Though he didn’t set out to make an album with a theme, it emerged when the recording was finished. It’s only one possible meaning of the album, he says, but it feels right to him.

“At the moment we were putting it together, there was a certain feeling in the air. It felt like there was some kind of transition point, or we were on the verge of something, in terms of political turmoil and global climate turmoil, and these kinds of transformational moments like the Arab Spring. It felt like there was kind of this swirling sensation that you got from being in the world at the time. But of course as you zoom out from it, you see it moving on a more defined arc.”
But even when you’re able to take a step back, says Iyer, you’re still experiencing things in the same way as before. That’s what’s basically happening in the title track, he says: “they’re like nested or cyclical accelerandos.”

Iyer’s interest in so many types of music and art forms lends itself to wide-ranging collaborations, and several of the projects he’s working on now have direct or indirect associations with this year’s Convocations season.

When the Brentano String Quartet arrives just six days after Iyer’s trio, they’ll be featuring one of his compositions in their program of new works that respond to unfinished pieces by classical masters.

Iyer’s piece responds to a Mozart fragment. “It’s true that anytime I told anyone I was finishing an unfinished Mozart piece, they’d laugh at me,” says Iyer. “It’s a fool’s errand. Not that the music is not serious, but I found it funny in a way to be cornered like that. As an artist, it’s actually productive to have this career-threatening moment. You have to rise to it, or maybe you fail, but at least you become something in that moment. So for me it was a useful challenge.”

He had a range of fragments to choose from, but especially liked a short one. “It’s less than two minutes long, and it’s very empty. It has these sections where only one instrument is playing. He was going to fill in the rest and didn’t get around to it,” says Iyer. “And it ends on an unresolved cadence. So it really sounds unfinished, like it was cut off right in the middle of the last word of one sentence in the middle of a paragraph.”

This interruption became gave him an opening, he explains. “I actually cycle the point of interruption a few times, and then that starts to stretch and transform, and something else is born out of it.” After 15 years of violin lessons, and playing a lot of Mozart in orchestras and string quartets, he’s no stranger to Mozart’s work or composing for strings.  “I feel a strong connection to that sound and the possibilities of those instruments.”

Iyer also wrote the score for a project at Carolina Performing Arts celebrating the Rite of Spring at 100. (Many Convocations fans saw the Joffrey Ballet’s recent performance of Stravinsky’s classic ballet at Purdue.) While Iyer knows the story behind the piece very well, he’s a little skeptical about the riot. “It seems like an exaggeration – it seems like they were being heckled,” he says with a laugh. “A bunch of French people heckling is not exactly a riot.”

But when the invitation came to create something for this year-long celebration, either related to the original piece or to the idea behind it, he was more interested in the idea, asking himself, “What does springtime mean in India?” He collaborated with filmmaker Prashant Bhargava, who recorded the Hindu spring ritual of Holi in Uttar Pradesh, India, in the mythic birthplace of Hindu god and goddess Krishna and Radha. Bhargava edited the piece based on the episodic nature of Stravinksky’s work, then Iyer used the 12 episodes of the original as an outline for the structure of his score.

I couldn’t resist asking Iyer about one last collaboration of  a sort; his last four album covers feature images from the artworks of Anish Kapoor—the creator of Chicago’s beloved “Cloud Gate,” better known as “The Bean.”

“His pieces are so incredibly crafted that they seem other worldly,” says Iyer. “The Bean is a good example, because it’s such an impossible vast object that it seems like no one made it. It just kind of exists. And especially because it’s a mirror, it becomes more about you.”

Says Iyer, “I think what’s nice about his work is that it’s very open as an experience. It doesn’t force an interpretation; it doesn’t force any kind of specific reference or language. It’s really more about the simplicity of sensation. It accesses this part of your mind that’s pre-logical or pre-thought. It creates this interesting setting for you to experience yourself again, and that to me is a nice counterpoint to these albums. The albums themselves have a lot of cultural and historical references, but it’s nice to have something else there at the same time that’s really just about sensation.”

Stacey Mickelbart, guest contributor