Artist Blog

An Interview with Vijay Iyer

Curator’s note:

I got the chance to sit down with master pianist/composer/collaborator Vijay Iyer via Zoom after I caught him as a guest of the music department at Carleton College, where, in addition to performing, he discussed how aspects of his music overlapped with his interest and study of cognitive science. I wanted to focus our discussion on his thoughts on being a composer through the lens of his new trio release Compassion. My planned steering efforts were unnecessary, given how his playing is so deeply intertwined with, and often even secondary to,  his compositional voice. (This transcription is edited for brevity and clarity.)

JC: So you know, I kind of planned to have this interview focus mostly on a compositional angle, because this is a composers and arrangers organization, and those are the kind of readers that are going to be tuned into this. But you know, after listening to some of your previous interviews when you’ve talked about your compositions, I find it interesting that, well, it’s almost like a lot of people write music, especially people that are really thought of as “players,” write music to feature their playing skills. You know, like, I’m gonna write music that I’m gonna sound good on as an improviser. And I feel like it’s almost like the opposite for you. . .


Vijay Iyer: (chuckles)


JC: . . . like you’re almost beholden to the music itself, that you compose. Almost like you’re a victim to whatever is gonna happen. I’m sure that’s not true for every single thing you’ve ever written. But I wonder what you think about that concept of being a composer/player?


VI: I think that, what you’re describing, was basically creating challenges for myself as a player and for my colleagues. Meaning things that we couldn’t yet play, that maybe we didn’t yet sound good on, you know, that we had to rise to. That was an early directive for me, I think. I don’t know where I got it from, but I felt like it was partly because I felt that as a player I had so much remedial work to do as a self-taught pianist, or whatever it is, “untrained,” or you know, I didn’t have any kind of like consistent instruction and technique or what to do with your hands at the instrument. And so, I always felt like everyone else was playing circles around me. And I still feel that way.

But what I wanted to do instead was, as a composer, set some challenges for myself, almost like etudes. And I think probably the quintessential example we all know of this kind of thing is “Giant Steps.” I mean, everybody knows that when Coltrane first wrote it, he couldn’t play it. And there’s a million outtakes of him trying to play it, and even talking about how hard it is to play it. And then obviously, he delivered, after quite a lot of effort. And then not only that, but then everything he played after that was touched by it. Like you could hear elements of it in A Love Supreme and in Interstellar Space. You know, it’s like it’s in everything from then on. You can hear those details in how he plays and what he plays.

So that was kind of what I was interested in. Can you create these etudes for yourself that will then become an embodied part of your language, you know, once you work through them? It didn’t have to be about harmony. It could be about rhythm. It could be about just more ensemble kind of stuff, you know, sometimes not even about soloing. And I think also, as a rhythm section player, as a pianist, you’re basically playing almost all the time anyway, whether you’re soloing or not. You have to function in the same way the drummer and a bassist do. You have to support and reinforce and stabilize and basically serve the rhythm, to serve the groove. And so all of that gave me more to work with that wasn’t necessarily soloistic, you know, that I could sort of devise these ensemble etude things like that. So I guess, especially early on, I was always trying to do what was impossible to me, and then find a way to do it. And it was usually not impossible for someone like Tyshawn [Sorey]. (chuckles)


JC: Right. Of course.


VI: The first album he’s on with me was from 2002, you know, and he was just 21 or something at the time, and I was 30 and everything that was hard for me was like a piece of cake for him, but we still together figured out a lot of things. And then working with Marcus [Gilmore] from when he was 16, a lot of things that we sort of worked out that we figured out that we could do together. Sometimes it would come from a dance rhythm I heard somewhere, or from listening to, like, the Meters, or something, or some Detroit Techno, or this Afghan folk rhythm, you know, a lot of different things, and say like, “Hey, why don’t we try that?” I’d put something together that maybe had a written drum part that would become the sort of backbone of something for the rhythm section to attempt.

I think at this point, when I do write for a group of that kind, I’m not trying to prove as much. I think I felt like I had to prove a bunch of things, or had to kind of establish a bunch of things for myself early on that I don’t necessarily feel any more. So now I am not afraid to just resort to intuition about things. I think what I learned early on also was that if I, like, put my hands on the piano and try to write something based on whatever I find, that I would keep finding the same things. So, I had to reach outside of the habitual, somehow, and that took slightly artificial means. And you know again, like looking at “Giant Steps” as an example which is like, you kind of have to stretch to even imagine that, you know? If your whole world is tonal, functional harmony and song form like American songs and blues, and then these tonalities that are so far apart that they don’t seem to flow into each other. But then to really create something that you can use to transcend material. That was kind of the inspiration.


JC: Yeah, so you’ve done all kinds of different things. I mean you’ve just done so many things, and so many different collaborations. And I imagine, as a composer, you go into those different kinds of projects with a different kind of mindset, a different kind of agenda and with this new trio project that’s the second record you made in kind of quick succession with Linda May Han Oh and Tyshawn Sorey. And so, I’m wondering how your thought process went into this project that’s different from the previous record. I know, you have a couple of these borrowed things from other projects you’ve done on this record. Like, you have the 2 “triptychs”: the Tempest and Ghosts Everywhere I Go, for example, that were already composed, so you put them into this different situation.


VI: Yeah, I think I can say that every trio album I’ve made – and this is now 5, the fifth, like, straight up piano trio record – has involved some kind of process of adaptation or arrangement, let’s call it. You know, people don’t often think of playing music in a trio as arranging, but it is. It’s usually through some kind of process of reduction or some kind of transformation to that format. I’m only saying that because the word arranging is in the title of this organization . . . (chuckles)


JC: We’ll take it!


VI: Yeah, yeah. Well, it was always funny to me, ’cause you know, I’d make these albums that had a lot of covers on them. Like, the first 2 trio albums in particular that I made with Marcus and Stephan [Crump], Historicity and Accelerando, those were like 70% covers or something, and no one ever thought of me as an arranger, you know? But that’s really exactly what I was doing.


JC: Of course.


VI: And I have to say that one of the reasons I did so many covers on those first 2 albums is because that label that I was on at the time, ACT, wanted my publishing, and I don’t want to give up too much of my music. Well, with ECM, it was different, because then it was back to sort of doing whatever I wanted. So from Break Stuff, and then Uneasy, and the new one Compassion, they were all with mostly original music, like 80% or something, maybe more. And still, though, the trio format, I find, is hard to write for. It’s partly that I don’t like to feature myself as a player. So, I don’t want it to be like, “Check this out!” you know? I don’t really like to do that. I will do these etudes for trio. Like, I’d say that if you go back to Historicity, that piece called “Helix” is an etude, and even the title piece “Historicity,” that’s an etude. “Accelerando” in the sense that it’s like, can we pull this thing off? That sounds impossible, like, can we do a constant accelerando, or a constant decelerando? Or can we do this piece that’s entirely about pulse? Not about soloing exactly, more about the textual improvisation using rhythm. Things like that that I could kind of implement.

But for the most part, what I was doing with these trio recordings was reducing large group compositions. So, most of the material on Break Stuff is from a 20 piece group, a bunch of repertoire that I premiered in 2013, and then we recorded that trio album in 2014, like 6 months later. So it’s really like a kind of reduction, or I’ve described it as a “dub” version of some of that material. Because it’s like, what happens if you take away the horn lines? Then what’s left is just this kind of weird backbone, you know? So, I like that. I like what that did, that it kinda laid everything bare in a way, and I could just hint at that material that I knew, that we all knew, but that wasn’t apparent to the listener on first listen. That there was this whole other back story, or this whole other point of origin for it all. But it felt similar to, like, covering “Human Nature” or something like that. They’re actually not that different in the sense that there’s this huge canvas that you’re trying to capture different elements of in the trio texture. So, it ends up being this kind of noir version of a color film or something like that.

So I like that feeling of stripping things down to the piano trio format and that kind of distills something that I love about trio music in general, like when you’d hear Ahmad Jamal with his trio playing some show tune like “But Not For Me” or “Poinciana” or any of those classic recordings of his where there’s a song that he’s pointing to, but most of what’s happening is not about that song. That song becomes his vehicle to do something really that’s more about what the trio can do together. So, I like that dynamic where there’s a kind of reference point, but it then enables the trio to kind of drive around in its own way. So that’s what I ended up doing, and a lot of the music on Uneasy and on Compassion came from other formats or from other contexts. And then I just sort of reduced it, which meant subtracting elements and also reorchestrating things in a way that was a stretch. You know, I had to kind of literally stretch my hands to cover certain things, and it makes you approach orchestration in a trio context a little differently.


JC:  So, can you talk about, maybe the emotional motivation of this record? You kind of focus on this in your liner notes with these 2 words ending in ion: compassion, which is the title of the record, and inspiration, based on a quote by Wadada [Leo Smith]. So, like how that helped inspire you, how you constructed this, just as an engineer, if nothing else, you know, but definitely as a composer.


VI: You know, part of what we all went through – shall I say the last 4 years? – is that we became a little more aware of our own and others’ mortality. If we weren’t touched by loss, then we know someone who was. Including, of course, we’ve lost so many great musicians to the pandemic. You know, McCoy Tyner, Milford Graves, Chick Corea, Wallace Roney . . .


JC: Lee Konitz . . .


VI: Yeah, the list is staggering, and terrifying, when you look at it and realize what a generational shift that was, you know? But then also personal loss that probably many of us would be touched by, too. My father passed away in ‘21, not pandemic related, but certainly framed by that. And you know, I remember being in the hospital at the time with him, and it was around that time that things were starting to reopen. And that was when I was asked to create this project for “Celebrate Brooklyn” in Prospect Park that was supposedly to memorialize those lost in the pandemic. I’m like, well yeah, that’s a little hard. It’s a lot to take on, but it’s also sort of where we were all at, and certainly where I was at. I mean, I was by my father’s side on his deathbed, and we went and did that gig, and then I went back, and he passed away that week. So, the feeling of loss was very strong. But then the other thing was that I learned in that process that, you know, when you’re grieving, you start to hear from people who are also grieving. And then you realize that that’s actually everybody, sort of without fail. That eventually everybody will be grieving. And so just part of our condition as living beings, that’s what happens to us. That anyone that we’re connected to or descended from or attached to will also leave. And that was an obvious thing, but to kind of live through it gave me a different sense of everything. It was kind of like unlocking a new level of living that I hadn’t known about. Not quite to that extent. And so that just sort of put everything in a different perspective for me. I just found that everything I did was then kind of touched by it.

I wasn’t trying to make this heavy hearted record, or something, because then the other side of it was in fall of ‘21 was when we finally got to play together. Starting in August of that year, in fact, which was when that piece premiered. So that was the kind of these conjoined experiences of loss and of reconnection that I could never really ever again separate for myself, you know? Like, that’s just what it is to live is to endure that kind of loss, but also to hold each other through it, and then to lift each other up through it, and then carry on, and create again and live again and face it again. So, that was basically that year, I think, that all of this came together from summer of ‘21 until May of ’22 when we recorded this. I was making a lot of music that was somehow connected to that, you know, not even on purpose. It’s just what happened by being an artist in the world. That’s just what happened.

So, you know, between these 2 commission projects I had, this one for “Celebrate Brooklyn,” and the other one, it premiered at University of Chicago It was meant to be about Chicago and about celebrating Chicago history, and of course, so many musicians who have mattered to me are from Chicago. Whether it’s Andrew Hill, whom I just paid tribute to at Harlem Stage. Or all the AACM members, Von Freeman, Steve Coleman, you know, so many people who really shaped me as an artist have some connection to Chicago. And then many of my current collaborators and friends, Matana Roberts, the filmmaker, Prashant Bhargava, who passed away in 2015 who was like a brother to me, and we collaborated on many things. Probably the largest thing we did was Radhe Radhe: Rights of Holi, which is this project that premiered in 2013/2014.

So, I just had this connection with the city that was pretty formative and pretty deep. And then working with the works of this poet, Eve L. Ewing, who is a brilliant scholar and artist – someone who thinks about the past, thinks about the present, and thinks about the future, and it finds its voice in her scholarship and in her creative work, and having a kind of historical, institutional critique, but then also having the capacity to dream something else into being and dream about a future. And so it was through her work that there is this consideration of the past, and there’s like a deep strain of mourning, as in all of her work. But there’s also this kind of joy of creation and joy of living that then enables her to dream anew, you know? So it was that dynamic that I found really poignant and powerful. And so she has this poem in which she imagines that Emmett Till is still alive, and that she runs into him at the grocery store, and just confers on him a life he should have had.

And yeah, so that same strain that was there from that summer by my dad’s side just continued into all this other work. And then again, meanwhile we were touring a lot as a trio through that whole year. And so then I was like, “Well, hey, you guys wanna try this kind of skeletal version of this other piece we just did?” And so then it just kind of took on a life of its own in the context of playing live. It became not just this piece that had these layers of significance, but then also something we could just do and bring it to life in a new way, kind of like resurrected, and turn it into a new incarnation. So that was the dynamic once again, this dynamic between loss and recovery.


JC: OK, I could talk to you all day about all kinds of things, but I want to thank you for joining us, and taking the time. I’m sure people are really going to enjoy reading this. So thanks again to Vijay Iyer for joining us, and see you all soon.


VI: Thank you, JC


The new recording Compassion on ECM can be found HERE.


(“Compassion” video)


[For any anyone interested in checking out some of the other topics we covered, here’s a video of Vijay talking about left hand piano playing in a trio, stretching an 11th, and undertone playing.]


About the Artist:

Described by The New York Times as a “social conscience, multimedia collaborator, system builder, rhapsodist, historical thinker and multicultural gateway,” Vijay Iyer has carved out a unique path as an influential, prolific, shape-shifting presence in twenty-first-century music. A composer and pianist active and revered across multiple musical communities, Iyer has created a consistently innovative, emotionally resonant body of work over the last twenty-five years, earning him a place as one of the leading music-makers of his generation.

He received a MacArthur Fellowship, a Doris Duke Performing Artist Award, a United States Artist Fellowship, three Grammy nominations, the Alpert Award in the Arts, the Greenfield Prize, and two German “Echo” awards, and was voted DownBeat Magazine’s Jazz Artist of the Year four times in the last decade. He has been praised by Pitchfork as “one of the best in the world at what he does,” by the Los Angeles Weekly as “a boundless and deeply important young star,” and by Minnesota Public Radio as “an American treasure.”

Iyer’s musical language is indebted to the great composer-pianists from Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk to Alice Coltrane and Geri Allen, the rhythmic traditions of South Asia and West Africa, and the African American creative music movement of the 60s and 70s. February 2024 brings the release of Compassion (ECM Records), the second recording by Iyer’s much-admired trio with drummer Tyshawn Sorey and bassist Linda May Han Oh. The New York Times writes, “It’s as if this band wants to both seduce you and discomfit you, stripping you of everything but the ability to think and see for yourself.” Other recent releases include Love In Exile (Verve, 2023), a Grammy-nominated collaboration with vocalist Arooj Aftab and bassist Shahzad Ismaily; Uneasy (ECM Records, 2021), the acclaimed first trio session with Sorey and Oh; Far From Over (ECM, 2017) with the award-winning Vijay Iyer Sextet; and A Cosmic Rhythm with Each Stroke (ECM, 2016) a suite of duets with visionary composer-trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith.

Iyer is an active composer for classical ensembles and soloists, with works premiered by Brentano Quartet, Imani Winds, Parker Quartet, Bang on a Can All-Stars, The Silk Road Ensemble, Sō Percussion, International Contemporary Ensemble, Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, East Coast Chamber Orchestra, LA Philharmonic, London Philharmonic, Oregon Symphony, American Composers Orchestra, and virtuosi Matt Haimowitz, Mishka Rushdie Momen, Claire Chase, Inbal Segev, Sarah Rothenberg, Shai Wosner, and Jennifer Koh. He recently served as composer-in-residence at London’s Wigmore Hall, music director of the Ojai Music Festival, and artist-in-residence at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

A tireless collaborator, he has written big-band music for Arturo O’Farrill and Darcy James Argue, remixed classic recordings of Talvin Singh and Meredith Monk, joined forces with legendary musicians Henry Threadgill, Reggie Workman, Zakir Hussain, and L. Subramanian, and developed interdisciplinary work with Teju Cole, Carrie Mae Weems, Mike Ladd, Julie Mehretu, and Prashant Bhargava. Iyer is a tenured professor at Harvard University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Music and the Department of African and African American Studies. He lives in New York City. He is a Steinway artist.

Featured + Artist Photo Credit: Ebru Yildiz