ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — Vijay Iyer, jazz pianist, composer, and Fairport native,whom the New York Times called “social conscience, multimedia collaborator, system builder rhapsodist, historical thinker, and multicultural gateway,” is coming back to the Rochester area, this time for a lecture.
Iyer is the Eastman School of Music’s 2022 Glenn Watkins Lecture Series guest speaker. There, he will give a talk for the public called “Musicality” in Hatch Hall Thursday, February 10 at 3:3 p.m., and will also do a meet and greet with students and faculty, take a tour, and discuss improvisation.
Eastman School of Music says “The Glenn Watkins Lecture Series was established by the distinguished musicologist and Eastman alumnus Glenn Watkins ’53 to bring exceptional figures in the field of music and related humanistic disciplines to speak at the school.”
Ahead of his talk, Dan Gross got a chance to sit down over Zoom and preview the talk, learn about music, and his Rochester connections.
Thanks so much for taking a few minutes. I appreciate it. Grew up in Fairport, started on the violin, maybe was going to become a physicist, self-taught pianist, now Professor at Harvard, MacArthur Fellow recipient… And likely puts his shoes on one at a time. We’ll get to all that in just a moment. The first thing I wanted to ask in the research that I was able to find, is it true that this is your first “official: visit back to the Rochester area since you came to the Jazz Festival in 2014? I’m sure your parents still around here. But is this the first time you’ve been officially back since then?
I think it’s my first public appearance and several years in Rochester. It’s a very different kind of appearance than what I did last time. But it’s all connected for me. It’s a nice chance to reconnect with the community. It’s been a while.
What about Rochester for you was really formative. You had a chance when you were in Fairport, which are of all our of our public schools have really good arts programs… And being an Eastman, you’ve gone on to do so much, but in what way is coming from Rochester a creative touchstone for you?
I suppose I think about all the experiences I had making music with people. It’s a very musical town, with Eastman, and the RPO, RPYO. And the high school, I went to a great music program, the public high school in Fairport… I had music in my life every day, and it was just normal to be that way. I was in a rock band in high school, I got to be in the jazz ensemble, I was in the orchestra. So I was always among people making music, it was not just a solitary pursuit.
I think that just set me up in a way to think about music a little bit differently, and to just feel it as a natural part of being alive. I was a bit of a late bloomer in terms of choosing a path in music for my life; I didn’t really make that choice until I was 23, well after I had graduated from college and pursued a couple other things first. So in coming back around to that, I felt like I had a good, really strong foundation. I was fortunate in that way.
I do want to get to some of those ideas in just a second. But I want to ask about this, because I feel like it’ll set the tone really well for the rest of the interview. This lecture you’re doing, obviously, the last time you’re here is to perform at the Jazz Festival, I think you had a full band set, and then a solo set at hatch, if I remember correctly, but the title of this lecture is musicality. That’s obviously a very broad concept. And you know, it is a lecture. So in some ways, it’s very pointed in other ways. It’s very broad. Just because I think it’ll set the scene one you kind of give us a sense of what this lecture will be about, what are you going to be trying to convey to the students and the faculty that might be there?
It’s to pose some questions about how we think about, and talk about musical experience. Musicality is one of those sort of slippery words. It’s that sort of thing that anybody, musician or not, has an opinion about what is musical to you, which is not the same as how do you define music. It’s more like what feels like music, what gives you that feeling? And often, in particular, the way musicians talk about it, the way musicians tend to use that word: it’s rare, actually, you know, there’s a lot of music to go around.
But truly musical moments, or musical performances or musical individuals, those are few and far between. So there’s some special quality that we ascribe to those beings, or those experiences that we categorize as musical.
So part of this line of inquiry, or just a set of questions I have is to open that up, to get people to talk about that in more detail. And you might ask, why bother? Part of my agenda here is to answer back to a certain community of scientists who talk about music. There’s a there’s a research field called “music perception/ music cognition.” Cognitive scientists, neuroscientists, psychologists — and also evolutionary biologists sort of importantly — studying this thing that humans do that called music, or “thing that humans like is the way they tend to talk about is like, Why do human beings like music?” As if to forget that it’s also that thing that we do, you know?
The way that scientists use this term, they’ll talk about the human capacity for music making; they’ll call that capacity “musicality.” And so that means that it’s this species wide quality: musicality is something that human beings have inherently. So that’s strangely at odds with what I just said about what musicians think musicality is. How can it be both ubiquitous and rare? What does that mean? So there’s something about that what that word is doing, that offers us an opportunity to ask some questions.
And the other side of this that’s important for me, is that I’ve been part of a community of musicians who often find themselves on the edge of the category, “what music is,” particularly all these revolutionary, Black experimental musicians of the last century.
I just got off stage this past weekend, I did six concerts with three octogenarians, Reggie Workman, Oliver Lake, and Andrew Cryille. They’re legends of this music. And we were playing at Jazz at Lincoln Center. I found that they could take us to the brink of what we thought music was. This is a sort of experience I have had time and again with musicians of that lineage, especially in that generation, but even young musicians who are pushing the envelope of what we think music should be, or could be, or has been.
When we think about the fact that so much music that we hear now is made with machines, with digital machines, (like) with drum machines, samplers, made in a computer… That was unimaginable 50 years ago, and the fact that has become the sort of undercurrent of our musical lives now, is kind of remarkable.
So this is what I mean by like, the edge of what we think music is. It’s something about how previously an unmusical act, or sound or set of sounds, or object or person becomes musical. So that’s the question I would like to ask. Because I find myself in that space, so much of the time as an artist. How does non-music become musical?
There’s a lot to tackle there. A couple things I pulled from that. You use this phrased that I thought was really interesting, which is, “it is both ubiquitous and rare.” And in listening to you talk about that, I’m hearing some other things about how music is participatory. There may be a very small select of musicians — the rare part who might be able to play at that level — but it’s ubiquitous in the sense that we can all enjoy it, take it in, and be a part of that experience. And I think another thing you mentioned, when you’re talking about when we’re transitioning from live music to creating music off of compute… So much of how we define what is music, or what is musicality is really based on what we ingest what we take in. And 50 years ago, we weren’t taking in anything on a phone, right? I mean, we sent people to the moon with less processing power. That really changes our sense of musicality, and I think it takes into this big part of what we take in. If you look at your discography, which is a bit of a cheat code into looking at what you’re taking in, and then what you’re putting out there… It’s everything. It combines some Southeast Asian music, combines maybe some straight ahead standards with your own take on it, it combines certain compositions, it’s working with hip hop artists… I mean, how do you as someone with all of these different backgrounds, with science, violin, jazz, piano composition, social awareness, how do you kind of how do you think about musicality? How do you try to pose these questions to take all this stuff in, and put something out there that is participatory, and how it touches on a lot of these things that we talked about? It’s one thing to ask your questions, which you do so so eloquently, but how do you go about this in your own process? With those things in mind?
I’m going to answer with a question, not to be elusive, I think it’ll help us get at maybe what matters to me. I often ask my students, what does listening sound like? Which sounds it sounds like it’s one of these “zen koan” type things, where you don’t think there’s an answer. But you also know what not listening sounds like, you can tell when someone’s ignoring you; when you’re talking to them, and they’re not in sync with you, they’re not in tune with you, or if you’re talking to a crowd, and they’re not. Even if they’re not making noise, you can tell that they’re not with you, even just by how they breathe, they’re not in they’re not in it with you.
So what is that? What’s the opposite? What does it sound like, and feel like to listen and be heard? And this is because this is what musicians need to consider when they’re part of an ensemble. And why does that matter? It’s because when we listen, from the outside — I’ve listened to music my whole life. I’ve been to thousands and played thousands of concerts — what matters to me, at least as a listener, is feeling like my presence matters, that I am being addressed somehow, directly. Or that there’s a kind of ethic among the performers, of taking care of each other, and of the music… And by extension of all of us in the audience.
So it’s a question I think about a lot, which is something that that clarinetist and composer Don Byron often posed, which is: “how do you take care of the listener?” As a composer, how do you do that? How do you carry them? Through an experience, or as a music-maker onstage, as a performer, who is trying to deliver something, trying to communicate something and trying to really make it stick, make it matter to somebody? And so that’s the question that pervades all of my work, I would say, as a music maker. Those two questions: Both what’s listening sound like, and then what how do I take care of the listener?
I think that is a good transition into something else I wanted to touch on. It wrapped up a handful of years ago now, but you had a little trilogy of recordings with Mike Ladd, a hip hop artist, and, you know, producer and in that you were taught you discussed a lot of social issues. I think the last one of those came out in 2013… Obviously, the world is quite different than what it was in, you know, 2013. And as someone who is looking to take care of the listener, and to be informed, those touched on contemporary themes, and I think what are contemporary themes are a little bit different than they were. I think BreK Through kind of touched upon this. And even just looking at the title alone of Uneasy, your 2021 release, it seems like you’re going more towards in that direction. And so when you’re trying to take in not just musical information, but societal information, what are you feeling? How do you apply that to the music? And then how are you trying to communicate that to the listener, because we do see this trajectory and some of the stuff that you’re doing, and you’re trying to communicate these themes to a listener? How do you do that in an age where it’s sometimes it’s harder for people to communicate their sort of a higher baseline level of anxiousness?
I wouldn’t say that I’m more political now than I was 20 years ago. I think it’s the same amount. I use the number “20” for a reason, and that’s because I’ve lived in New York City since 1988, so I was there on September 11. I was there, living through the aftermath of that; not just the aftermath of the attacks, but the general response, and particularly what that did to communities of color. The surveillance, the anxiety, the hate crimes, the immigration roundups, and then living under a racialized, “war on terror,” a war on a feeling that seems to implicate all brown people.
As someone who was born and raised in the US, what did that then mean, for me, as an American, to live under that every day? When I look back at the last 20 years of what I’ve done — I’ve been making albums since 1995 — but literally, everything I’ve done since that moment, was touched by it, you know, is affected by it, is about it somehow. And again, not just the attacks, but what did the state to in response, and what did the people around us who we thought were our fellow citizens do to us? Or how do they treat us?
And I remember my dear friend, the late great, Greg Tate — just passed away last month — I remember he said to me at that moment, he’s African American critic, and musician, he said to me in that moment, “welcome to racial profiling.” So it was, it was a reality that I hadn’t really known.
Growing up, even in Fairport: I mean, I was one of the few brown kids in Fairport High School. I didn’t really know what that meant. In the lighter context, I didn’t know why I was one of the only ones at the time. I didn’t have a historical framework to understand… It was only later that I understood that there had been a change in immigration law in the 1960s, that led to a lot of non-Western immigrants coming over, like my parents, who then had kids like us. We were curated into existence by the US government.
And then what did that do? How did the general population respond to us?What did it mean for us to be American too? How do we figure out how to be American? Was that the right goal for us?
So for me, as an artist, that was what I’ve always been addressing, and working through for myself, and among and with others who want to ask those questions with me. That’s been true since the very beginning, since 1995, but then it became much more intense 20 years ago.
That set of questions as animated, everything I’ve done, and it’s been the reason I’ve made music with the people. I’ve made music with. People of all stripes, of course. But that’s been a motivating force, trying to make sense of my place in the world, and trying to find people who will join me in that quest, and then finding audiences for whom that resonates.
It’s a beautiful thing. That’s actually one of the things I wanted to ask about. Some of your frequent collaborators include Stephan Crump, Tyshawn Sorey, some of these cats who are really known for this kind of thinking. I wanted to pivot; we mentioned off the top here, you started learning violin when you were very young. And then the sight of your sister’s piano inspired you to start tickling the ivory just a little bit and experiment… So some part of what you do is self taught. And as someone who has done a lot of self-teaching over the years trying to learn new skills, I’m always curious, and it’s always interesting to me to see how some of the processes I have, might be different from some things that others have, and in that way it gives me different strengths, different weaknesses, or a different way of looking at things. So this entire interview has been pretty introspective, but this one I’m really asking about your process… Being more of a self taught musician and someone who’s a piano player, and taking all this in… What do you think being self taught has influenced or made a mark on how you are as a piano player?
Well, as a pianist, it’s made everything feel like catchup: “oh, gosh, I sure don’t know how to do that,” to hear somebody play something, and be like “how in the world is that even humanly possible?” It’s been humbling most of all, to be around truly virtuosic, the greatest pianist in the world. (I’ve) got to know Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Craig Taborn, and Conrad Tao… There’s like a lot of folks out there who are just on the cutting edge of what’s possible on that instrument; Cory Smythe is another one… And then I’ve found myself making music with some of those people, like in two piano settings or something.
And understanding that, well, I have something else to offer… It just is what it is, I certainly am always trying to be better, and having contact with good pianos has made a huge difference to me. I now have a really excellent piano in the house, it’s a kind of a blessing that just sort of fell into my life recently.
I remember my earliest memories on the piano are on my sister’s Baldwin spinet that was like it was just a beat-up, modest instrument. There’s only so far you could push it. There’s only so much nuance you could milk out of it… Not that I was all about nuance at age three, or anything, but when you get access to an instrument that has all these other dimensions of subtlety…
I’ll never forget, I was doing a solo piano tour, and I think it was 2010. That was when I released my first solo piano album, which I felt very self conscious about, and then I was doing this tour in Europe, and I played at Beethoven House in Bonn, Germany, which is like where his archives are housed. It’s kind of a legendary place. I still remember that piano, it’s one of the best pianos I’ve ever played. And when I say best, it takes you somewhere you didn’t know it was possible.
They recorded that concert for the radio, and so I can hear myself in those moments finding out what a piano has to offer, it kind of almost stopped me in my tracks. I was like, “Oh, I see.” And so communing with that, and then the other thing is that that happened in the context of performance. So then I still have the responsibility of communicating, channeling, making it matter, not just to myself, but to everyone in the room, and taking care of the listening. So it’s often in the context of performance that you have these breakthroughs.
And the last thing I’ll say about it is that (I’m) not purely self taught; it’s that I had many, many opportunities to apprentice with elder musicians in the context of performance. It was really on the bandstand that I did the most learning, and still do to this day. Like I was just saying earlier about what happened this past weekend with those legends of music, with those octogenarian visionaries. That was a huge learning experience for me. And I’ve played with them for years, that was not my first time, I’ve played with them since 2013. So they still brought me to a new place.
That’s where a lot of that discovery and breakthrough and growth happens, in the context of performance, which means in the context of others, both making music with people, and making it for people.
That brings is beautifully full circle with the idea of musicality. So we put a nice little bow on that. And there are a couple more things that I want to talk about since I do want to be respectful of your time, so onto your new projects. I got that little tip from from your team who passed that on what you’re working on right now. I know nothing about it. So feel free to discuss if you’re working on something new if you want to pitch it.
You know, I’m always working on a lot of things. I’m back at my office at Harvard, although I don’t live here; I’ve actually been on leave this year on sabbatical. So I’ve been in New York in the last two years since the pandemic started… But I’m here to record something with a string quartet, the great Parker Quartet who are in residence here at Harvard. So they’re my colleagues here. I just wrote a piece for them. It’s called “Room for Ghosts.”
And the other thing is that the trio that recorded Uneasy, we’ve been developing a lot since then — we’ve had dozens of performances and many more to come — so we’re slated to record in a few months. Not sure when that will be out.
I am active as a composer, I work a lot with classical musicians now. And so I’m writing a cello concerto that will premiere in October in London. I have this recording in the works with the great vocalist Arooj Aftab — you may recognize her name because she’s nominated for a Grammy for Best New Artist — she’s pretty phenomenal. I’ve been working with her for some years, and she had a real breakthrough last year with her own project. So we have a recording in the works that might be out this fall, if all goes well.
Watch Iyer answer Dan’s “Big Three” questions here:
Alright Vijay, we are at this time where I call them the “Big Three,” they’re, big picture questions that are kind of general. Given your time constraint, you can be as liberal with your time or as constricted with your time as you’d like, it doesn’t matter to me, I appreciate what you have to say. We lead our interview off with talking about how Rochester was foundational. Obviously, you’re were little bit younger then, now that you’re older, you’ve had a chance to be more worldly, work with all these musicians live in different places… Looking back on it, and at the times you’ve been able to visit professionally, or even visiting your folks as I’m sure you do from time to time, we talked about that it was a chance for musicians to play together, and it was foundational for you. But why do you think that might be? What do you think about it is about Rochester, that makes it really work for that kind of collaborative musical spirits?
You know, there’s something about people who come from the smaller cities. I think you’d call it a sort of “regional mentality,” and I see myself as such a person. I’m not from New York City. I’ve lived there for nearly half my life. But I am a small town guy, you know. And what that means is that you feel grounded, you feel like part of a community that’s larger than yourself, and you also don’t have any illusions about being God’s gift to anything. You’re like: “well, this isn’t bad for Fairport High School.” Like it’s that kind of thing. “This is pretty good for Rochester. Yeah, go team!”
It’s actually very… Teaching at Harvard is kind of the opposite. I have to say, in a way that I find toxic, that I have to always sort of break down for people, for students and colleagues, just because everyone says you’re the best is something that doesn’t make it true… And you have to kind of just take this toxic “bestness” off the table, because where do you go from there? As an artist, I’m about growth and about transformation, about learning… You can’t treat this place like this as like this terminus, where like, “Okay, you made it, you’re done!”
Your life is long, and you want to keep evolving. I think maybe just being in such a normal place, and then living with that reality, of “we’re just normal folks, who get to do cool things, and try to do better every day.” I hope that doesn’t sound like a diss, because it’s not, it’s almost the world is.
That’s a wonderful answer. Next thing I have for you, we went down an incredible list of projects you’re working on, you’re always working on something new, you’re often working on multiple new things all at once. We talked about some of your big picture goals as an artist some things you want to accomplish, sort of emotionally and philosophically.. But you can answer this one of two ways: What would you want your next feather in your cap to be? Or if you had to pick one thing to say I want to accomplish this before I hang it up, retire, go on to the next plane of existence, whatever it would be, this would be it. So either next feather to capper final big accomplishment? Either one you want to comment on, go ahead.
This funny thing is that, because I came into life in the arts kind of late and never treated it like “okay, I’m going to show them, I’m going to conquer the world.” It was never that, it was always like: “Wow, I get to do this? They’re going to let me do this? People are gonna buy tickets to this? They want to buy this album, they want to write about it?” That kind of stuff. It all just feels like a blessing to me.
I can’t remember who said it — may be Duke Ellington — someone asked him, “What’s your favorite? What’s your favorite, since what you’ve written so much music? What’s your favorite one?” He said: “the next one.”
So it’s kind of the care that you put into whatever you are trying to be present for, or whoever you’re trying to be present for. How you show up to whatever you’re working on, and making that matter. That’s a very different mentality than, “I can’t wait to have my premiere at the Metropolitan Opera, I’m gonna make that happen.”
You know, there are such people who think that way… Bruce Lee, who wrote down his goals: “Going to become an internationally known kung fu star.” He said that he wrote that down, that happened! Or like Octavia Butler, the author, she did something like that, too. You can see her very early in her life, she sort of set down their goals, and then she lived down.
So there is that, but in a way I’m already living them. I feel like I’m blessed and fortunate to be where I am. And just want it to continue as long as I’m able.
And our last one, we’ve touched upon a lot of these themes already. Early on, we asked you about what the lecture is. Which in short, I suppose a lecture can be construed as advice for artists, but again, I always end with this one. Do you have any advice for aspiring artists?
Well, the main thing is tell the truth. That’s what an artist does. Be completely honest with yourself, and do the work; then also keep studying. What I tell young piano players, for example, who are trying to write their own music, is if you just are rummaging around on the piano in the same way that you always have… You’re not going to find anything that you haven’t already found, you’ll just find variations on what you already know. So how do you reach into the unknown? That’s the question. What are the questions that you want to ask yourself that will help you do that? And how you cultivate those kinds of guiding questions will sustain you for your whole lifetime. So that’s the real challenge. Unless we learn about the world, understand where you are in it, and think about what you might have to contribute to the planet and to its people.