Note on Vijay Iyer

January 28, 2016
January 28, 2016 John Drabinski

Note on Vijay Iyer

Here are the comments I made introducing Vijay Iyer at the 28 January 2016 Hutchins Center colloquium at Harvard, with links to text and examples.

Introducing Vijay Iyer

It is an immense pleasure and honor to introduce Vijay Iyer today, Franklin D. and Florence Rosenblatt Professor of the Arts in the Department of Music. I know Vijay a bit, and I’ll talk about that in a moment, but before meeting him in person, I was like everyone floored by his music. It is vibrant, challenging, multi-sensory, intellectual, and just flat out beautiful. His honors and recognitions are well-known: Grammy nominee in 2011, Doris Duke Performing Artist in 2012, a 2013 MacArthur Fellow, and named by DownBeat magazine as pianist of the year in 2014, then artist of the year in 2015. Vijay’s albums have won similar honors, most recently the run that Break Stuff has had in being included on “best album” lists in Time, The New York Times, on NPR – to name only three such lists. For me, as arresting and impressive as any of these honors is Vijay’s incredible list of collaborations, ranging from musical legends Wadada Leo Smith and Roscoe Mitchell, contemporary innovators like Paul D. Miller, Dead Prez, and Talvin Singh to writers and poets like Amiri Baraka, Robert Pinsky, and Teju Cole to filmmakers Haile Gerima, Prashant Bhargava, and Bill Morrison to a variety of choreographers and commissioned performances. His music, his resources, his ideas. They all get around. A lot.


How do you introduce somebody like this? When Krishna contacted me about doing this introduction, I was enthusiastic and happy to accept. Then came the task of finding words for someone who has done so much, all of it exceptional. Vijay is a writer and a musician. I read, but mostly I listened. That was a true gift, to sit and listen to this work for hours, taking note, at every turn, of the incredible variety of expression, pace, and mood.

So, as I listened to these albums, often slotted in the cracks of my day, I began to hear the practice of how Vijay characterizes in his writing the relationship between music and consciousness, as well as the unstructuring structure of improvisation. And I thought of how he worked in physics and mathematics as an undergraduate at Yale, leading me to speculate a lot about how all of that might have to do with music, consciousness, and improvisational expression, which, in the end, brought me back to listening. There is so much to listen to and to read, creative output that includes twenty albums, of course, but also serious interviews, scholarly articles, and a dissertation. We have to include these things as creative output because they are all the expression of a multi-faceted thinker who thinks in music, who feels in writing and speech, and so someone who compels us to think and feel and theorize in all of those same ways. I love that about your work, Vijay, how you compel us to think as we listen, to feel as we listen, to break those distinctions, to think and reflect and feel in the breaks.

With twenty albums out, it’s much too much to catalogue all of my impressions and thoughts or those of critics. The listening was everything, though, and I thank you for those hours and hours of pleasure. Two pieces. First, “Fleurette Africaine,” from the absolutely gorgeous 2010 album Solo is complex and at times almost uncomfortably intimate, moving from lush, playful emotions to the austerity of reflection and abstract thinking, combining, in that way, the complicated expressions of love.

The second is from the more recent Break Stuff, an album that is, in the words of the accompanying digital booklet, about all the resonances of break: breakdowns, break beats, break dancing, music made in the between space of breaks, that place Ellison described, in reference to Satch Armstrong’s trumpet, as “the swift and imperceptible flowing of time…those points where time stands still or from which it leaps ahead. And you slip into the breaks and look around.” (Invisible Man, 8) “Hood,” my favorite track, is that frantic yet controlled, ecstatic yet guarded, absolutely embodied shake of being in those between spaces.

Vijay Iyer Trio – Hood from LadyInSatan on Vimeo.

Danceable, yes, but also a pause to think. Intimate in those embodied relations between the musicians and our own bodies as listeners, but also playful and public and outside the self. (The drummer absolutely kills it in this song, by the way.)

These two songs, for me, are two sides of the pleasure of chaos, of unmappable movement, of singularity, of undecidability and indeterminacy and the opening of systems in Vijay’s music. Pleasure erupts in each moment, in different parts of the song, sound, and our own ears as listeners. The structure of this eruption, this pleasure, and all the thinking that accompanies it is so very complicated, full of chance connection and unexpected expression. At the center is improvisation, which Vijay describes as something that

should actually be regarded as identical with what we call experience…[I]mprovisation is central to consciousness and to everything that we know…It is something that structures who we are and how we move about in the world.

If improvisation is part of who and what we are, how we move and think and build a life, then the performer and listener are closer than we might have anticipated. In the essay entitled “On Improvisation, Temporality, and Embodied Experience,” Vijay makes this clear. He writes:

I saw that music need not be understood simply as the execution of pre-ordained gesture, and that it can be viewed as a process of inquiry, a path of action, a deliberate sonorous exploration – construction of the world.

[M]usic can be viewed as a consequence of active listening; it is, at some level, through informed listening that music is constructed. Placing the skillful listener in such an active role explodes the category of experiences that we call listening to music, because it allows the listener the improvisatory freedom to frame any moment or any experience as a musical one. The improviser is always listening; the listener is always improvising. (“On Improvisation,” 275)

Embodied cognition – the theme of Vijay’s excellent dissertation – folds these sensual layers of experience, mixing knowing, being, feeling, and thinking expression, but only, and this is his challenge to us as listeners, if we understand expression as itself the folded improvisational movements of the one who expresses and the one to whom that is expressed. And even that dualism must be refolded, for every listener is a creator, every creator a listener. This is just fascinating and complicated territory and I’ll say this much: after reading Vijay, I hear his music differently, but I also read Vijay differently because I had listened to his music.

All this thinking and folding and feeling – it is really just so much about pleasure, and I want to wrap-up on that note. The question of pleasure, improvisation, and structure takes me to a particular moment in time, one that mixes the personal, the multidisciplinary, death, life, love, and ecstasy. I saved it for the end because it is hard to put into words, except with a brief story about feeling and thinking.

You and I, Vijay, share a dear friend who passed away. My friend, a deep family friend, almost a brother. Your deep family friend, surely a brother, your profound collaborator. A pause: rest in peace, Prashant Bhargava. You were brilliant, a great friend who was more family than familiar, and you are missed. You and I, Vijay, we met at Prashant’s parents’ home after he passed away. We sat with extended family and friends in that home, at once mourning dear Prashant and trying to find ways to speak to this sadness. I’ve thought so much about those two days since. One thing that always comes to mind is my first encounter with your collaboration in the film Radhe Radhe: Rites of Holi.

RADHE RADHE: RITES OF HOLI from Khushi Films on Vimeo.

As we sat mourning, someone put the film on the large television at the Bhargava’s house, but it took awhile to get the sound working properly. I watched the visuals for the first time without sound. It was incredible, all of it so lush and bright and full of life. The colors are just amazing, seeming to come from another world. So too the shots, which varied from the reverential to the sensual to mischievous children on the roof to the whirling chaos and pleasure of the festival. As I watched without sound, I had this thought: poor Vijay Iyer, having to compose and perform sound to match this image! It seemed like an impossible ask of anyone. Who could be up to it?

It takes a particular genius with a particular sensitivity to make ecstatic sound adequate to Prashant’s images. Vijay is that genius in Radhe Radhe. The sound came on, finally, and I sat utterly transfixed for the next hour, watching and listening, feeling close to the deceased friend, now feeling close to a person, Vijay, I’d only seen from across the room hugging Prashant’s parents and sister and cousins. The sound and image in Radhe Radhe are just that intimate, introducing us to the festival, to the figure of Radhe, to sensuality as religious practice, to color and skin and sex and vocals and piano and everything mixed as an embodied experience. As cognition. As knowing and being in feeling. It wasn’t just the heightened emotions of a room full of mourning. It was the living practice of what Vijay’s writing wants from music: improvisation in sound and image, collapsing the boundaries of nation – from India to all of us on the South Side of Chicago – and the boundaries of everyone involved.

I’d say that about all of Vijay’s albums I’ve been blessed to hear. They are reminders that the introversion of creative expression is not so introverted after all when put in sound. That sound brings everyone into a shared sonic space, prepared to listen, yes, but also prepared to improvise. Thank you for that. It is a conceptual lesson. It is also sonic pleasure. With Prashant, sound and image doing all that and more. You collaboration taught me something deep about your theme for today’s talk: empathy. I watched and listened, and I heard your love for Prashant and his love for you, as well as, perhaps more, your shared love of the festival, of color, of Stravinsky and Nijinsky, of “Rite of Spring,” of Rites of Holi. I heard and felt that love from the inside. It was not mine. It was yours and Prashant’s, but isn’t that the whole point here? Across difference, the feeling from inside another: empathy.

I’ll stop here, I’ve gone on much too long. Thank you in advance for this talk, Vijay.

The title today is “I Feel You: Music, Empathy, and Difference.” Let’s hear your words.

Folks gathered here, Vijay Iyer.


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