Indian Americans are scaling new heights in the performing arts; participating and interpreting mainstream music in distinctive ways. Vijay Iyer is one such artist—an acclaimed jazz pianist, composer, producer, and writer.
Jazz combines the best of African, South Asian, and native African-American music strains, creating a kind of “jazz unconscious,” a scrapbook of interludes that make up a composite symphonic melody. This hybrid version of improvisational music has become very much a part of American music. In my opinion, jazz is the most authentic American music there is. Drawing upon this rich heritage, Iyer has won accolades as a world class jazz musician who is making history in changing “the scope, ambition and language of jazz piano forever” (Jazzwise). Iyer is an outstanding example of the Indian-American contribution to this vibrant tradition.
Vijay Iyer is one of those musicians who defies stereotyping. In one of his program notes, written in January 2005, he sums up what his music is about: “With Mutations, and with all of my music, I am interested in probing this loose constellation of concepts: change, stasis, repetition, attraction, repulsion, composition, improvisation, noise, technology, race, ethnicity, hybridity.” Like all artists, Iyer proves that only in art can one reconcile opposites and contradictions.
An Improvised Heritage
Iyer was born in Albany, New York, in 1971 and grew up in Rochester, New York. His parents were immigrants from Tamil Nadu, India, both with advanced degrees in Pharmaceuticals and Business Administration. They did not try to “shelter” their children, a daughter and son, from the non-Indian culture. Vijay received some formal training in Western classical music in the violin from a very young age but it was the piano that attracted him and he was largely self-taught. He auditioned for the Rochester Philharmonic Youth Orchestra and played classical violin for fifteen years. In the meantime, he was also attracted to the improvisational aspect of jazz which gave him freedom to experiment. An exposure to classical Karnatik music and religious music was inevitable, growing up in a South Indian family. This mix of early influences provided him with both rigor and flexibility in his music composition.
Iyer pursued mathematics and physics during his undergraduate studies at Yale. He entered graduate school “with the intent of becoming a physicist, but music finally won.” It was during his Ph.D. program at the University of California, Berkeley, that he decided to further his academic interests in music with an interdisciplinary program in Technology and the Arts. “I left physics in 1994, and then found a way to study the science of music instead, ” explained Iyer.
He served as the house pianist at the Bird Kage, a famous club in North Oakland, where he encountered some of the best minds in jazz music like Ed Kelly and Smiley Winters. Later, Iyer moved to New York where he now lives with his wife Christina Leslie, a math Ph.D., and his seven-year-old daughter Jayanti, who already wields the bow like a pro.
Iyer is currently a faculty member at the Manhattan School of Music. He recently accepted the position of director of the Banff International Workshop in Jazz and Creative Music in Alberta, Canada for 2013.
Iyer performs all over the U.S. and the world. His albums include duo, trio, quartet, and quintet collaborations. “I have a new large-scale project with poet Mike Ladd, called “Holding it Down” and it’s about the dreams of young American veterans of color from the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It will premiere in September at Harlem Stage in New York City,” Iyer responded when asked about his current projects. “I’m also working on a project called “Radhe Radhe” with filmmaker Prashant Bhargava (best known for his recent film Patang).” Iyer was asked to create music to honor the 100th anniversary of Igor Stravinsky’s famous work “Rite of Spring.” Iyer themed his composition on the spring festival Holi and the collaborative project is due to premiere on Holi in 2013, at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.
A Recognized Talent
Iyer has been the recipient of many awards in recognition of his talent. Most recently he was named Pianist of the Year by the Jazz Journalists Association and received the Doris Duke Artists Award. GQ India named him one of the “fifty most influential global Indians” in 2010.
From coast to coast, Iyer has been widely acclaimed as an outstanding figure in jazz music. In 2010, his trio album Historicity was voted the Jazz Album of the Year, and it won a Grammy nomination for 2011. His album Solo contains original compositions as well as classic tunes by Duke Ellington and Michael Jackson, with Iyer’s signature interpretation of these classics. The Boston Globe called this album Iyer’s “grand statement,” and declared that with it Iyer “has fulfilled his promise.” “I’m always trying to further refine and develop my piano playing,” Iyer explained self-deprecatingly about his achievements.
A Body-Based View of Music
What is so special about Iyer’s jazz style? It goes back to his “body-based view of music,” the central thesis he advances in his Ph.D. dissertation, entitled “Microstructures of Feel, Macrostructures of Sound: Embodied Cognition in West African, and African-American Musics” (1998). He applies his exploration of “embodied cognition” to his musical composition. The mind is not an abstract construct but is physical, grounded in bodily processes which are rhythmic. Thus, “breathing is connected to musical phrase; the heartbeat and walking are connected to pulse; speech is connected to ornament and melodic detail.” He wrote in an essay in The Guardian in 2009, “the rhythms of music are not so different from the inherent time-scales of human bodies.” When he heard Thelonious Monk, Iyer found validation for his “body-based view” of music.
It is this view of music that is pervasive in his latest album Accelerando (2012). Nate Chinen, in his review of Accelerando writes that this album is about “human movement, especially dance: a more graspable premise, and one that finds endless traction in the music” (NY Times, March 14, 2012). Chinen calls this album an example of Iyer’s “escalating insurgency.”
I listened to this album to experience it for myself. It is indeed revolutionary. It uses rhythm in ways that reminds me of some of the Indian percussion instruments like the tabla and the mridangam. This album is yet another example of Iyer’s bold experimentation with rhythm and melody. The number “Lude” is a playful intersection of rhythm and melody. Sometimes it sounds like water cascading in a display of sound in its manifold variations. “The Village of the Virgins” is pure rhythm, ably illustrated by Michael Gilmore on the drum. “Accelerando,” the number that provides the title of the album, is a riot of rhythmic sounds. Iyer’s compositional imagination seems to have no bounds. As Chinen puts it, it is “an album driven by the visceral, universal, intoxicating experience of rhythm.” Chinen thinks that Iyer’s Accelerando is “an early front-runner” for jazz album of the year.
Iyer acknowledges the Indian influence as pervading his work. With his penchant for math, it is small wonder that Iyer should be attracted to the Karnatik music system, especially the rhythmic aspects. When I asked him whether the Kathapayadi Samkhya System, a mathematical system on which the 72 Karnatik Music Melakarta Raga scheme is structured, had influenced him, he confirmed it. Both math and jazz, and everything in between, seem to have been in Iyer’s DNA, and factored into the making of his music. Nate Chinen points out in Jazz Times that Iyer “technically remains an Indian-American musician with experimental tastes, academic credentials and a finger on the pulse of post-modern culture. In the end, he is probably best understood as an animation of his own principle: a human body taking action.” This musical phenomenon has much more in store for us.
Lakshmi Mani writes on American and Indian-American Arts, and is a National Endowment for the Humanities fellow.