Arts &
  Arts Culture Analysis  
Vol. 12, No.5, 2013

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Robert J. Lewis
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Tommy Emmanuel
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Florence K
Terez Montcalm
Cyrus Chestnut
Tord Gustavsen
Sarah MK
Julie Lamontagne
Vincent Gagnon
Arioli & Officer
Jean Félix Mailloux
2010 Montreal Guitar Show (Sylvan Luc)
2008 Jazz en Rafale Festival (Montreal) - Mar. 27th - April 5th -- Tél. 514-490-9613 ext-101 (featuring David Binney)
Montreal Jazz Festival 2010







Piano Keyboard


by Robert J. Lewis

Featured artist: VIJAY IYER

© Claudio Casanova

In the 2012 Downbeat International Critics Poll, Vijay Iyer was voted Jazz Artist of the year and Accelerando the top Jazz Album of the year.

In 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.

From 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.

Like 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’ since 1750.

Based 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.

ARTS & 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?

VIJAY 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.

ARTS & 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?

VIJAY 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.

ARTS & 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.

VIJAY 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.

ARTS & 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.

VIJAY 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.

ARTS & OPINION: How much of your set with Craig was planned?

VIJAY IYER: None of it?

ARTS & OPINION: You mean you both sat down at your pianos and winged it?

VIJAY 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.

ARTS & OPINION: While improvising, do you ever get something so right you want to carry it over into the next performance?

VIJAY IYER: Not really.

ARTS & 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?

VIJAY 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 for.

ARTS & 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?

VIJAY 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 music.

ARTS & 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?

VIJAY 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 counter productive.

ARTS & 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?

VIJAY 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.

ARTS & OPINION: I know that you’re very interested in the relationship between the body and music, something we quite naturally take for granted.

VIJAY 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.

ARTS & 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?

VIJAY 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.

ARTS & OPINION: I thank you, Mr. Iyer, for your time and exceptional music.

Photo© Claudio Casanova


John Coltrane
Miles Davis
Thelonius Monk
Charlie Mingus
Oscar Peterson
Charlie Parker
Dizzy Gillespie
Wes Montgomery
Ornette Coleman
Louis Armstrong
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