the 2012 Downbeat International Critics Poll, Vijay
Iyer was voted Jazz Artist of the year and Accelerando
the top Jazz Album of the year.
2013, Vijay Iyer was invited by the Montreal
International Jazz Festival to perform at the Invitation
Series where he played on three consecutive nights: as a trio,
in duo with pianist Craig Taborn, and solo. I attended the latter
two. The following is a necessary condensation (distillation)
of a wide ranging discussion that took place over the course
of 75 minutes.
the outset, Mr. Iyer, who is soft-spoken, unfailingly polite
and courteous, felt that imbedded in most of my questions were
assumptions (presuppositions) that he could not abide by or
found irrelevant to the experience of making and sharing music
with an audience.
with automobiles whose parts and assemblage are of no interest
to the average driver, audiences are not particularly interested
in how music is made: if it’s composed, partly composed,
conceived in real time, or if it has been played ‘as is’
on the live experience, the listener will decide if he enjoyed
the concert or not, if he wants to hear more of the same, purchase
the album or CD, or further explore the genre. As a performing
musician and composer, Mr. Iyer’s objective is to sensitize
himself to this constantly changing dynamic of making 'live'
music in order to produce as meaningful an experience as possible.
& OPINION: I’d like to explore the differences between
composed and improvised music. Mozart goes to his favourite park
in Vienna, sits on a bench, and 30 minutes later has written a
piano concerto. Is this improvisation or spontaneous composition?
IYER: I’m not sure if this is a distinction that will lead
anywhere. It is true the notes that appear in his mind haven’t
been played before, and he will go home and write them down at
which point it becomes composition, so maybe it’s a bit
of both. There’s also the cadenza, a more formalized space
in the composition – usually near the end -- that allows
for improvisation. During the cadenza section the pianist will
be playing notes he’s never played before; sometimes his
solo is directly related to the structure, sometimes it is not,
especially in modern classical music.
& OPINION: Would you say one difference between improvisation
and spontaneous composition is that the former is always within
the context of a structure while the latter isn’t?
IYER: Again, I’m not sure if your statement-question is
helpful. It seems that you’re setting up a false dichotomy.
I certainly don’t look at my own music through the binary
you’re proposing, and I don’t think the average listener,
who does not have a musical background, makes these distinctions.
There’s always a context, a frame; sometimes a structure
is written in real time. I personally do not like to use the term
‘jazz’ to describe what I do, in part because I do
a lot of things which the general definition doesn’t allow.
I make music, there’s an audience that I’m trying
to reach, and we are at a location trying to relate to each other
in a meaningful way. I would much rather describe my life in those
terms than debate whether something is improvised or composed
or if one method of composition is superior to another or if Mozart
is superior to Duke Ellington.
& OPINION: During the 2013 Montreal Jazz Festival, I attended
your duo concert with Craig Taborn and your solo concert the following
night and definitely preferred the solo, I suppose because I found
it more melodic, less abstract. Your comments.
IYER: Well, based on the audience response I felt that each was
appreciated more or less equally, and I can tell you that in terms
of the nuts and bolts, the music was more or less structurally
the same on both nights. It is true that for the solo concert,
I played quite a few compositions that I had written before and
felt would be interesting to re-examine, and I can see how you
might have found the concert with Craig more dissonant, but I
certainly didn’t feel they were radically dissimilar and
perhaps your personal take was not indicative of the audience
as a whole.
& OPINION: Since what I am really referring to is melody --
I’m always looking for it -- it occurred to me that while
I found certain sequences dissonant, you, the composer and vastly
more familiar with the music than myself, probably regard those
same sequences as melodic, and that if I had done my homework,
or were less categorical as a listener, I, too, would have found
them more melodic.
IYER: I agree that repeated listening will change one’s
perception and perspective of music, and that what constitutes
dissonance varies from person to person and culture to culture.
But in general I don’t think of my music in terms of melody
versus dissonance. Of course I play melody, I love melody, but
that’s not what my music is exclusively about: I’m
also interested in exploring unconventional harmonies, the moods
they evoke, certain rhythms, polyrhythms and their effects --
and not just on me but on the audience. What was constant in the
concert with Craig and my solo were the choices that lay before
me at every moment and the challenge of seizing and evolving the
ideas as they emerged. In the solo, since I had written the music,
my options were perhaps narrower in that I was already familiar
with the structure, but with Craig, for much of the concert, the
structure was created in real time, and the choices were constantly
being shaped by the structure and Craig’s running commentary,
and in turn, these choices were evolving the form of the structure.
If it struck you as more dissonant, it was a natural consequence
of what we both felt was right at the moment – and it certainly
seemed right for the audience.
& OPINION: How much of your set with Craig was planned?
IYER: None of it?
& OPINION: You mean you both sat down at your pianos and winged
IYER: That’s an over simplification. In fact it doesn’t
work like that at all. First of all, we are both fluent in the
language of music; meaning we know the grammar of music and therefore
we can communicate fluently, like you and I are speaking English
now. So there’s that, which is very important. On top of
which I know Craig well, we’ve been playing together for
years, and we’ve developed a rapport and certain familiarity
with each other’s ideas, choices, how we develop ideas and
bring them to completion. So it’s not like we’re unprepared.
It’s because we know each other and are comfortable with
each other that allows us to create on the moment only partially
disclosed structures which we can explore and develop and interest
an audience in.
& OPINION: While improvising, do you ever get something so
right you want to carry it over into the next performance?
IYER: Not really.
& OPINION: Is that because as a jazz musician you’re
trying to stay away from something that repeats, that might turn
into composition, that you don’t like playing it safe?
IYER: The way I play doesn’t correspond to the terms of
reference you’ve just outlined. I don’t think of composition
and improvisation in opposition to each other. In especially jazz,
the former makes place for the latter so each has its place. There
are no two concert nights that are identical: in fact they are
all very different – even those held in the same venue.
What is right one night may not work or be right the next night.
I’m always very aware of the musicians with whom I’m
playing, their personalities, their moods, as well as the mood
of the audience, so it’s highly unlikely that something
from one concert will carry over to the other. In fact it wouldn’t
really occur to me to even attempt to remember something for that
purpose. I’m always trying to play what the moment calls
& OPINION: Would you agree that by virtue of recording, something
that is improvised invariably comes to be regarded as composition,
since the notes are the same every time we listen to it?
IYER: Jazz in particular has been misrepresented consequent to
the era of recorded music, which is only a century or so old.
Prior to that, music was performed and heard in real time with
real human bodies. So when we listen to a recording of an improvised
solo again and again, it’s almost a blasphemy because it’s
been lifted from its natural context and then evaluated according
to criteria that are unrelated to the origins and spirit of the
& OPINION: Is it fair to suggest that those solos we can listen
to again and again are superior because they have withstood the
test of time?
IYER: I don’t feel comfortable with the term superior. It’s
a loaded term with all sorts of cultural and civilizational implications,
which is why people from one particular culture think of Mozart
in a certain way and Louis Armstrong in another way. There’s
music that survives that has very little to do with its content
just as there is music that has disappeared despite its content.
I’m not comfortable with making general statements about
music which is alive and therefore constantly changing according
to the environment in which it is created. Rap music -- and I
have played and recorded it -- is of our times and not of Mozart’s
time which is why making broad statements about music might be
& OPINION: Two years ago at the Montreal Jazz Festival, Cyrus
Chestnut made a statement before he began to play. He asked the
audience what is jazz? And answered: “playing music without
a chance to edit.” Do you think that he was suggesting that
composed music is superior to improvised music?
IYER: No I don’t. First of all I can’t speak for Cyrus,
but I think what he might have meant is that when playing music
that allows for improvisation, either within a structure that
is unfolding spontaneously or in a set piece such as a standard,
there are always choices for which you cannot be 100% prepared
because the music isn’t composed, and if you don’t
play well at all or on a particular night you can’t go back
in time and correct or edit it – and that is the challenge
of playing jazz. Improvising is a much more precarious undertaking
than playing sheet music and is what distinguishes the jazz musician.
And by the very fact that Cyrus continues to play jazz suggests
to me that he does not consider improvised, unedited music inferior.
& OPINION: I know that you’re very interested in the
relationship between the body and music, something we quite naturally
take for granted.
IYER: For most of its history, music was made by living bodies
inhabiting acoustic space. It’s only during the past 100
years that music has become disembodied, taken out of the body,
out of acoustic space, and stamped on vinyl or converted into
computer bytes -- a development which unfortunately allows the
listener to fantasize or romanticize or racialize the music as
well as his relationships with musicians since the music has been
removed from its historical and sociological contexts.
& OPINION: When I think of the relationship between the body
and music, the ground breaking and perhaps unsurpassed fusion
of John McLaughlin and Shakti comes to mind, where the music is
not the cause but result of well intentioned people making the
physical effort to explore each others’ habitat, foods,
customs and ethos. Is that also what you also mean by the body?
IYER: First of all, I love the music of Shakti and have listened
to it over and over again, but it is naïve of the listener
to overlook the historical context which brought about that fusion.
The British colonized India, and there remains guilt about that,
and it’s very easy to idealize the Shakti experience and
turn it into a rewriting of history to appease the guilty conscience.
This is something I’ve discussed at length with Zakir Hussain,
one of the original members of Shakti. My interest in the body
is simply an attempt to ground music that thanks to technology
is mostly received in a disembodied format which can result in
a disconnect that betrays the spirit of the music.
& OPINION: I thank you, Mr. Iyer, for your time and exceptional