Recently appointed Artistic Director of the Banff Centre’s Jazz Program, Vijay Iyer has been making news in the jazz world since the mid 90s. With an interdisciplinary Ph.D. in the cognitive science of music from the University of California, Berkeley, and an undergraduate degree in mathematics and physics from Yale, Iyer is recognized as one of the most innovative musicians on the international scene.
His intelligence, talent, and ability to communicate — indeed, to commune — through music, were in abundant evidence Friday night at the Gesù during his piano duo concert with Craig Taborn. The concert was entirely improvised, revealing a remarkable level of connection between the two musicians as they led the audience on an extraordinary musical journey. The coordination of tempo, dynamics, feel, rhythm, and texture was almost uncanny; the two pianists alternated between a complementarity and a synchronicity that is difficult to put into words, but wonderful to experience.
I had the great pleasure of speaking with Mr. Iyer later in the evening, as well as attending the “Dialogic” session he did with Professor Norman Cornett on Saturday. Over the course of both discussions several themes emerged that had particular resonance for the musical, as well as the human experience. My encounters with Mr. Iyer this weekend certainly revealed his keen talent and sharp mind, but also his humility — his awareness that the more you learn, the more you realize how little you know – and his generosity, sensitivity and connection to the human condition.
This is a synthesis of Mr. Iyer’s comments during my interview with him and the Dialogic session he did with Professor Cornett.
What is music?
Fundamentally, music is what we as humans can do together with our bodies; synchronized shared experience. The rest is cultural. Music came from the process of shared collective experience. Since the invention of recording technology, music has become more and more a solitary endeavour, but nevertheless it was originally and remains fundamentally a shared activity. The question “what is music” is necessarily an open one — I am constantly pushing myself to the brink of what can be considered music.
What is jazz?
Jazz is a process of creation in the moment. I don’t know what jazz is or if I even like jazz. When someone uses the word I don’t know what they’re talking about — it’s 100 years of music, so what is it? If someone says they do like jazz or they don’t like jazz, what are they talking about? I like specific artists. I don’t think there’s any one thing that could be said about jazz. Most of it I don’t like — there’s a lot of nonsense. There are too many people trying to play it in ways that aren’t connected to the history or soul or identity of it.
Everyone I’ve admired in the history of the music didn’t think what they were doing was jazz and didn’t have any use for the word. They weren’t trying to adhere to a style or a tradition or a format, they were just creating from the standpoint of who they were. In the best cases, or the cases that I find compelling — Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Thelonius Monk, Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Cecil Taylor, Alice Coltrane, McCoy Tyner, Joe Henderson — in all of those cases every sound that you hear is a choice that was made in that moment. Every single sound was a choice. When you listen from that perspective, that understanding, with empathy, you think to yourself: “that person is right here in the moment with me. I know what that’s like.” Because every person knows what that’s like.
It’s not about jazz, it’s about life. So understanding in those terms is basically all that you need. It’s not about what you understand in the music in any other terms. I don’t find it useful as a listener to know that someone’s playing “How High the Moon,” or “Giant Steps,” or is nailing the changes. That’s not useful or helpful knowledge. What is helpful are moments of synchrony, unity, counterpoint, resonance, basic musical stuff that is true for all music.
You don’t have to know anything about jazz to love it. If you have an experience that’s authentic, that’s in the moment, and you feel that you’ve been touched or reached or communicated to, that’s all you need. You have to remember that that’s how this music worked in the first place. When Bird was playing in those basement clubs, and Billie Holiday was singing in New York, those people were creating a music—it’s not like it was a style of music that was heard before, it was an invention. You can’t say that people already knew how to listen to it. What it contained was a communicative power. The reason that jazz had the impact that it had, that it was heard around the world and inspired people who had no contact with the culture that created it, was because it had communicative power.
How do you respond to or incorporate different musical languages?
Craig and I have checked out a lot of music from a lot of different systems and geographic areas and history. Having studied the music of Debussy, Ravel, Bartòk, Webern, Ligeti, Reich, Stockhausen, the spectralists, it’s all familiar to me. The priority isn’t to evoke any of that, but to work with that information if it’s useful or suitable at the moment. I don’t consider what we do to be part of that tradition but it’s also something that’s not alien. That sensibility is part of what we do but also opposed to it. We’re dealing with resonance and counterpoint, so we arrive at similar conclusions.
The 20th century saw a lot of ruptures and collisions and interactions and encounters between disparate musical streams. So you would hear Jelly Roll Morton or Duke Ellington referencing Debussy. You would hear Cecil Taylor referencing Messiaen. We’ve also studied a lot of rhythmic traditions—West and Central Africa, Asia, South-East Asia. We both work a lot with electronic musicians, we’re both composers. Different systems can provide useful tools or vocabulary for what we do.
Discuss your connection to the audience.
I try to find unity with the audience. I learn from listening to the audience. I listen to the audience’s breathing and responding, even if they’re not making any noise. You can tell when it’s not working, when people aren’t connecting. If you sense that, then you try to do something about it. Performance isn’t just a broadcast where you ignore the audience, it’s actually a process of, as Alice Coltrane says, giving abundantly.
I think that people who call themselves jazz musicians today who complain about audiences and who complain about nobody buying the records—they’re not trying hard enough to reach people. If you lose people, it’s your fault. Reaching people means listening to them. I listen a lot to the audience when I perform.
On music and being human
I mainly like to hear music spoken of in human terms [as opposed to technical or analytical terms]. To be a functional part of the musical community is to be yourself and to be true to yourself. It’s about authentically revealing yourself, getting naked, as vulnerable as possible, so people might see a bit of themselves in you. Perfection is not necessary or even desirable: revealing your limitations is part of being human, part of the human story.
Vijay Iyer performed as part of the Montreal International Jazz Festival, and attended a Dialogic session organized by Dr. Norman Cornett in parallel to the festival. You can learn more about these unique sessions here, and for more information on the festival, please visit the website.