Vijay Iyer: Key Changes
Among the most highly regarded jazz pianists of his time, Vijay Iyer has made his instrument of choice an instrument of discovery.
Vijay Iyer is a highly regarded jazz pianist and composer. His accolades include a MacArthur “Genius Grant” and a Grammy nomination.
Raised in upstate New York, Iyer is the son of Indian Tamil immigrants. He was trained in violin and piano from an early age, but initially pursued a career in science. He completed a BA in mathematics and physics at Yale University and was halfway through a PhD in physics at the University of California, Berkeley, when he changed his focus to the cognitive science of music, earning a PhD in that field in 1998.
Iyer has recorded over twenty critically acclaimed albums. Historicity (2009) received a Grammy nomination for Best Jazz Album. In What Language? (2003) began a trio of albums with poet Mike Ladd exploring the war on terror, culminating in Holding It Down (2013), which featured several military veterans. Far From Over with the Vijay Iyer Sextet was named the best jazz album of 2017 by numerous publications. Iyer has also composed music for orchestra and ballet. He is a professor of music at Harvard University.
Vijay Iyer is one of the most prolific, most celebrated jazz pianists of his generation. The 48-year-old MacArthur genius and Harvard professor has released more than twenty well-received albums. A virtuoso player to be sure, but Iyer is far more interested in the impact of music than its technicalities.
Vijay Iyer: What’s this music feel like, what does it sound like? What does it need to do? How can I shade it as a player, how can I affect the entire musical effect with one note.
If Iyer hadn’t found music irresistible he’d have been a scientist like his sister and his father, who came to the US from India in the 1960s to study pharmacology. Today Iyer believes that music and science are both distinct unique forms of creative problem-solving. But discovering this took time, he was partway through a PhD in physics at UC Berkeley before realizing that his true calling was music.
Iyer: It’s more like the sizes were a detour. For me, that sort of took me down a certain path of inquiry and seeking of certain kinds of knowledge, but in the meantime, I mean music was in my life since I was three years old, and I’m still that kid. You know like most of who I am as an artist is that—It is the child who was exploring and experimenting and banging on the piano and feeling it vibrate.
Growing up in Rochester, New York, Iyer didn’t hear jazz at home. But in his high school library record collection, he discovered Thelonious Monk and other jazz greats. Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, Sun Ra, all of whose music rose above the prejudices of their time.
Iyer: What was it that people in that predicament, what black people in the face of oppression and segregation and dispossession sought to do. To share and celebrate and make something beautiful. One up each other and just kind of create something for the future.
Brave yet vulnerable, these musicians were, in Iyer’s view, not just entertainers, but community organizers. Shortly before 9/11, Iyer and Mike Ladd, a poet and hip-hop artist, organized their own creative community, for what would become a trilogy of works responding to the war on terror.
Iyer: So then that project became, speaking of vulnerability, I mean it was really like this emotionally raw meditation on what it is to be American and proud. And not even American, basically to be brown in this phase of American and global history.
“In What Language” finds fear in surveillance in an international airport. “Still Life With Commentator” dives into the swirl of wartime media. “Holding it Down” explores the aftermath of war through the dreams of veterans.
Iyer: We felt like we had to not just make something about the war but make something with veterans. In particularly veterans of color, cause those were the stories that interested us and those that particularly fraught presence in the military, in the context of racialized wars. What’s it mean to find yourself relating more to the enemy than to your superiors.
On his latest record, The Transitory Poems, with fellow pianist Craig Taborn, Iyer pays tribute to some of his more recent influences, including the late pianists and poets Cecil Taylor. Vijay Iyer is constantly stretching, forever pushing himself beyond his limits. But lately, he’s been striving for balance between work and life at home in Harlem with his wife and daughter.
Iyer: There’s always someone who is like, doing more than you. And then you start thinking like, well I should do more you know? And then it’s sorta like almost a virus, like a sort of affliction or something that I’m not doing enough, and that starts to, that’s unhealthy after a while. If it’s just this kind of like fixation on doing more than being you know? So I guess I am just trying to take care of the…
AJC: And was that difficult to contentiously and deliberately say “I am now being me, a person traveling through this life,” versus “me, a person who makes art?”
Iyer: I guess I’d just start asking myself more human questions like what do I want and what do I need? And what is, what is, what are the next like ten years gonna look like for me. Let alone thirty or forty you know? That’s also.. I get to work with people who are thirty years older than me. And that’s humbling and also inspiring and…
AJC: A great example for how it might be to be that age.
Iyer: Yes, so being able to take the long view on things, and to aspire to be as alive, as active, as engaged, as inspired in thirty years, as I was thirty years ago you know? Like that is the real question, and so in order to do that to carry myself there as a being, I have to take care of the being you know?
AJC: Well, we’ll hope we’ll be back here in thirty years talking about just how well you did though. Thank you so much.
Iyer: See you then.
AJC: My pleasure.
Iyer: Thank you.