When Vijay Iyer took the stage at Crowell Concert Hall on Saturday night, he joked that it was no coincidence he was playing on Columbus Day weekend.
“I’ve never been here before, but it’s a beautiful venue,” he told the almost sold-out audience. “I think I’ll just rename it after myself.”
He was kidding, of course, but these are the sorts of themes he’s thinking about, maybe not in the heat of playing, but certainly in his research and creative process: the merging of musical worlds and the correcting of certain biases and inaccurate narratives. The son of Indian immigrants, Iyer created his own Ph.D. program in the cognitive science of music at the University of California, Berkley. In 2013 he won a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship, and last January took the position of Franklin D. and Florence Rosenblatt Professor of the Arts at Harvard University. That’s all in addition to recording dozens of albums—solo, with the Vijay Iyer Trio he brought to Wesleyan, and with any number of collaborators, jazz or otherwise.
Iyer’s compositions may fall under the broad umbrella of “jazz,” but their boundaries are more porous: elements of minimalism and other avant-garde and classical styles can be heard throughout. Rhythms, for one, are paramount. On Saturday night, he played a terse repeated pattern on the bass notes with his left hand while waiting to strike with his right, emphasizing the important beats in coordination with the drummer, Tyshawn Sorey MA ’11, who studied in the graduate composition program under both Anthony Braxton and Alvin Lucier and who displayed not only remarkable rhythmic control but also a deftness for creating experimental textures. Iyer also used dynamics both in coordination with and opposition to the bass, played by longtime collaborator Stephan Crump, and drums, where a sudden strike would ring out surprisingly.
At times, Crump, Sorey, and Iyer would appear as if they were off in their own worlds, playing melodic and rhythmic patterns that seemed to have nothing to do with each other until they slowly merged into a cohesive whole. Sorey would, for a moment, lead with an outspoken funk groove before the emphasis shifted to Crump, soloing while Sorey and Iyer dropped out except for the occasional roll to keep the tempo and chord changes.
“It seems like you’re in a different universe every night,” Iyer told Sorey in an intimate pre-performance workshop. “I am, too.”
Between the workshop and a quick interview, The Argus had the chance to talk with Iyer about his music, life so far in the academic world, embodied cognition, and the importance of listening.
The Argus: What have you been teaching over at Harvard?
Vijay Iyer: I started there in January in the music department, and there’s no performance program. There are a lot of people who come to Harvard who are really good musicians but they don’t necessarily come there to study music. There’s a joint program with Harvard and the New England Conservatory, and the best musicians, are in that program, and they do all their music at NEC, and they do something practical at Harvard like econ or pre-med. What I did last term was “Creative Music Critical Practice Studio.” I wanted to see who would show up, see what we could do together, and see what were the needs of the people in that community because I was new there, and there’s no one on faculty who does what I do. It’s a pretty standard music program: scholars of music, ethnomusicologists, some composition faculty there coming out of a postwar European modernism palette, so their points of reference are different.
I had this critical mass of pretty exceptional players, but there were also people who were good in high school who make do with the activities on campus like being in the jazz ensemble. What I found with these students is most of them don’t know the history of the music, don’t know their place in it, and haven’t listened to much besides Miles and Coltrane. I’ve given a lot of stuff to listen to from the last 100 years, and then they played, and we did some critiques in class. Their final project was to collaborate. This to me was what I felt was necessary for that particular gang. And it seems to have stuck, because what I’m doing this term is a graduate seminar, which is now notorious; you may have heard about it. That’s called “Theorizing Improvisation,” and that’s for music scholars, so I have Ph.D. students in ethnomusicology and music theory and historical musicology, and a couple of people from outside the department. A lot of the alums from last semester wanted to continue, pick up where they left off, so I piled them into a seminar called “Creative Music Seminar.” They’re all undergrads, because there aren’t any grad students at Harvard who are ready to deal seriously with music, with creative music, with improvising, who self-identify with that jazz background.
A: There was a recent controversy on social media involving a course syllabus you wrote. Can you explain what happened there?
VI: It’s not even really a controversy; it’s just a lot of online sniping. “Theorizing Improvisation” is a huge reading list, way too much reading, but also on the syllabus I wrote a sort of mini-essay introducing the course, because there hasn’t been anything like it in the department, so I felt like I needed to not exactly sell it but explain it. I thought it was reasonably clear. I had enough visitors to the class who kept asking me to post the syllabus, so I posted it on Facebook as a note. I said, “Here it is,” and linked to it on Twitter. A lot of people were like, “Wow, this is great,” or, “I’m gonna research the sources you’re citing!” But several people sort of had this, “Well this is what happens when jazz goes to the academy! So much talk and so little substance.” I answered back to some of these snarkers; there was this inaccurate portrayal of me as not worthy of being in the field, basically that I’m not authentic. Somebody said, “Well, actually, this is racism, and you should push back.”
It reminded me, a year ago when I got the MacArthur, there was something similar going on online. What I found about all of these people was they hadn’t listened to my music, none of them, not any of it. They were actually speaking about me without listening, and that to me is why it is racism, because you can’t form assumptions about people without finding out some facts, but these folks weren’t interested in the facts.
A: In terms of your research, you have a Ph.D. in music cognition.
VI: Subject-wise, yes. [The program is] an interdisciplinary program at UC Berkeley, where there’s an option that’s rarely used to create your own interdisciplinary doctorate, so that’s what I did. It was named “Technology and the Arts,” and the focus was cognitive science and music.
A: Can you tell me what that is and what your interests there are? As a jazz musician you’ve talked about a more distributive model of thinking about collaboration.
VI: Music perception and cognition is an existing research field. I was stepping into something that was already in motion. I felt that it needed to be supplemented by some other perspectives on music, on what music is. What I found was happening was that scientists were trying to extrapolate from attributes of Western (and in specific 19th century tonal music of Western Europe) and kind of make these rather extravagant claims about the cognitive universals of music. Like, “This is how the brain works,” or, “This is what the musical mind perceives; [it] favors this and not that.” It seems to me they couldn’t disambiguate culture from what they were examining. But they weren’t aware that was the case.
Coming from—I don’t know where I come from, I come from a lot of places—my own aesthetic and artistic priorities are connected to African American music, that whole history, which is quite vast and stands in great distinction to European classical music in a lot of ways. One of the ways is the role of rhythm and also the role of improvisation. Meanwhile I learned about this new perspective on cognition called “embodied cognition,” which was an understanding that the mind is in the body, which seems kind of obvious, but the history of Western thought is influenced by people like Descartes. It’s called “dualism,” this idea of the mind sort of being on some abstract realm that isn’t the body. And this kind of thinking influences views on cognition and views on music and treats, for example, music as an abstraction, as just the abstract play of forms in this intangible space that is not this earthly plane. And I don’t want to rule that out, that is true, but it’s also the case that music is something we do, and something that we do together. It’s found in every human culture on earth, along with dance; that tells you something about its foundational role in human life and particularly its role in what we can call “culture” in the way that humans interact.
This perspective on embodied cognition was coming into being in the late ’80s/early ’90s, and I started thinking along these lines in the mid-’90s, rethinking cognition as something that is contextualized by the body and its environment, so that actually what we call “thought” it some sort of mediating process between sensory input and what you call “motor output,” or the actions of the body. That grounds it. It’s this activity that we do that is full of sensation; it’s very much alive; [it] stimulates our sensory organs. It also involves some coordination of activity, literally bringing the body in sync with others. Thinking of music in those very basic terms, as the sound of human bodies in action, and then understanding how we perceive the sound of bodies, there is a way of prioritizing sounds of bodies when we are listening. We can hear each other in even the midst of a noisy place; we decode it instantly, like, “Oh, that’s a person.” That’s something we’ve evolved to do because it’s useful for us to be able to hear each other, even to hear without seeing. That, to me, makes more sense for a foundation for music perception. You could then call it a kind of empathy; it’s the sense of hearing another person and being able to identify that person as a fellow person, a fellow human being.
That process is still mediated by culture. In particular, we’re able to render ourselves deaf to each other, and that’s a way of kind of revoking personhood or denying personhood. We see it in the literature of the slave era, when whites in or traveling in the South would observe slave music, but they wouldn’t call it music; they’d call it noise. It’s bound up with the idea that they weren’t seen as fellow human beings, and we still see this today in the way people talk about hip-hop for example as not music…. Even the history of jazz has this rejection in the academy until pretty recently.
A: The subaltern can’t play music.
VI: Yes, exactly. [Laughs] I guess I’m interested in that process and how this becomes an overlapping area between science and the humanities because we’re talking about, on the one hand, what seems like a direct and transparent process of perceiving another body through senses, but then we also see how that process is subject to all these cultural forces. That’s basically what the research topic was.
A: When you perform with your trio, in a collaboration with Indian musicians, or even with poets, how does this idea of embodied cognition come into play, in practice?
VI: What I hope is apparent in the music is a process of listening to each other in a way that the listener who is not onstage can then empathize with that process to the point of even imagining themselves to be a part of it. That’s what it boils down to.
It was funny; yesterday I worked with a string quartet that I’ve been collaborating with. They’re sort of classical music stalwarts; they’re the best in the world at what they do. I’ve heard [Franz Schubert’s string quartet] “Death and the Maiden” many times, but I feel like I heard it from scratch yesterday; they really brought it to life. We were warming up at some point, and the second violinist and I just started playing together; she doesn’t think of herself as an improviser or anything like that, and she was just warming up, but I heard her taking her time in a way that was in relation to things I was doing, and it came to a close, and I said, “That was music.” And she said, “Yeah. I felt it, too. So why do you think that is?” I said, “I don’t know, but I think it was because we were listening to each other. As simple as that.”