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Composer Portraits: Vijay Iyer

This season Miller Theatre celebrates the 20th Anniversary of Composer Portraits. Writer Lara Pellegrinelli has been commissioned to create a snapshot of each composer in words through an exploration of their experiences of community, viewed through the prism of new music.

“The first move is a selfish move. Here’s what I want to do: I want to do this, I want to do that, I want to play this now.
It’s a selfish move, you know what I mean? But the consequences of that move, or the effect of that move, we don’t think about.
So we come to these audiences, then we get what the effect was. What did it do? This exchange, you know, what did it do?
What did it do?”  —Muhal Richard Abrams 
“What I find is that I’m listening to the audience. They come to listen to us, but I’m there to listen to them.”  —Vijay Iyer


Vijay Iyer

Photo by Kyle Dorosz

Vijay Iyer is best known as a jazz pianist who performs his own music. Since his 1995 recording debut as a leader Memorophilia (Red Giant), he has released more than twenty albums as a bandleader, many of them featuring his fiery trio with bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Marcus Gilmore. Iyer has won the DownBeat Jazz Critics poll four times, a Doris Duke Performing Artist Award, and the Herb Alpert Award in the Arts. Far From Over (ECM), a recording with his sextet, was included among Rolling Stone’s 50 Best Albums of 2017.

Few jazz musicians still approaching their fifth decade are quite so celebrated, with no signs of critical interest waning. A MacArthur Fellowship and a professorship at Harvard University complete Iyer’s bona fides. But his reach has long extended beyond jazz, what he and many musicians feel is a fraught and potentially limiting category.

Iyer joins a growing subset of composers whose work resists naming and simple codification, challenging false dichotomies between composed and improvised music.

Iyer’s interdisciplinary collaborations with poets, filmmakers, and choreographers are well known, and he has been making forays into notated composition for over a decade; although he is a self-taught pianist, he studied the violin for many years as a child. Numerous ensembles prominent in the new music scene have commissioned him, including the American Composers Orchestra, International Contemporary Ensemble, A Far Cry, Bang on a Can All-Stars, the Silkroad Ensemble, Imani Winds, and Sō Percussion. In 2017, Iyer was an unusual and groundbreaking choice to serve as the music director for the 2017 Ojai Music Festival in Southern California, which has presented adventurous fare for more than 70 years. This year he is the Composer-in-Residence at London’s Wigmore Hall, where he had previously held their jazz residency.

As an improvising musician and an Asian American, Iyer is circumspect about his inclusion among composers. “When someone uses the words ‘classical music,’” he says, “what it seems they’re doing is asserting a continuity with a certain fantasy of Europe. You can always point to exceptions, but I would say that the machinery of classical music is one that supports whiteness as an idea. And so what does it mean for me to be caught up in it?”

In popular and scholarly discourse, classical music is associated with great, universal works of art by European masters and their descendants, nearly all of them white and male. Partisans position the form as the pinnacle of musical sophistication, an ethnocentric viewpoint.

Iyer rightly points out that channels supporting the authorship of new works remain separate based on stylistic affiliation, imposing a kind of de facto segregation. Classical music’s system of patronage is arguably set up to support white male artists who are carrying on a tradition descended from modernism. It depends on grant makers, concert programmers, publishers, and producers—whose choices may hinge on who they feel most comfortable promoting. Academic institutions play a similar role by acting as cultural arbiters through their curriculum and in their hiring of faculty, offering tenured artists a platform for life. Some might point to Iyer’s successes as evidence of increasing equity overall, but those claims are roughly analogous to the use of Barack Obama’s presidency as proof that we live in a colorblind society.
 

Is the idea of genre a useful one, and, if so, how? we must ask ourselves. Or is it first and foremost a fiction wielded to maintain the status quo, to sustain hierarchies that validate some forms at the expense of others, and to keep certain groups of people out of the domains with the greatest prestige and funding?


Iyer performed on Miller Theatre’s Jazz Series three times—in a duo with pianist Craig Taborn, with his trio, and with his sextet. With tonight’s concert, he joins a growing subset of composers on the series whose work resists naming and simple codification, challenging false dichotomies between composed and improvised music.

“When I hear names like Anthony Braxton, George Lewis, and Tyshawn Sorey,” Iyer says, reflecting on composers whose portraits have preceded his, “they have something in common, in that their music exceeds all frames and asserts a kind of authoritative mobility. They come voraciously from outside of any category where one would get to have the title of artist or composer. Braxton has been excluded [from the concert world] and it isn’t because he hasn’t had anything to do with classical music: he wrote his first piece for four orchestras 40 years ago.”

Iyer has noticed patterns in the kinds of classical compositions he is asked to create. Many of them respond to existing works in the repertoire: “I’ll be asked, ‘Can you write a piece to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring?’” he says, referencing Radhe Rade: Rites of Holi, his soundtrack for the experimental documentary by Prashant Bhargava. “‘Can you respond to an unfinished fragment by Mozart?’ which I did for the Brentano Quartet. ‘Can you write a companion piece to Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata?’ which I did for Jennifer Koh. ‘Can you write an overture to the Bach C Major Cello Suite?’ which I did for Matt Haimovitz. On and on. That’s the trope.”

It’s a strategy that justifies new works being placed side-by-side on a program with the treasures of a golden past. (In live performance, they may even be sequenced preceding old chestnuts, to prevent audiences from walking out the door early—what I think of as new music’s walking ovation.) Requests like these have also allowed Iyer to stake out a position vis-à-vis the tradition, drawing his relationship to history. But he suspects that he is also invited into these settings as someone who checks the boxes of racial and stylistic diversity, or as “the jazz novelty on the roster. Not always, but often. I am not someone who hates classical music — I grew up playing it — but I don’t feel that I need to validate that tradition constantly either. There’s plenty of that, so I find ways to work around it, or under it.”

Working around it might look like Iyer’s scheduled events at Wigmore Hall this season. He will be performing in duo settings with two of his frequent collaborators: Craig Taborn on one evening, and hip hop/spoken word artist Mike Ladd on another. “Playing spontaneous music challenges the category of composer,” says Iyer, “because the music doesn’t continue to exist anywhere. There’s nowhere to point, which is fundamental to the western economy of how music works.”

Working under it could take the form of the companion piece to Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata that Iyer wrote for violinist Jennifer Koh. Titled the Bridgetower Fantasy, it excavates a forgotten past. “He brought in this amazing perspective from a voice that has gone unheard, George Bridgetower,” says Koh. “He was someone who had been completely written out of history.”Bridgetower was a famous nineteenth-century concert violinist—and a person of mixed race. He and Beethoven performed the now-famous “Kreutzer” Sonata together, Bridgewater spontaneously contributing some improvements with the composer’s approval. The original inscription for the work was to Bridgetower, but after a disagreement, Beethoven revoked the original dedication and replaced it with one to violinist Rodolphe Kreutzer, who disliked the piece and never played it. Iyer’s composition is a “collection of imaginings about George Bridgetower,” a liminal figure who won acclaim, only to fall from grace.

Iyer explains that he makes music with and among others, for others, that he feels a responsibility to use his position as an artist for the betterment of society.

Where Iyer’s subversion of expectations meets its audience is one way in which his work intersects with ideas of community. In composer’s notes, he has written himself for works on tonight’s concert, Iyer explains that he makes music with and among others, for others, that he feels a responsibility to use his position as an artist for the betterment of society. His work in jazz – “the music of a people whose humanity was revoked” – has directed his thinking about what music can do for both performers and gatherings of people.

“When we look at the history of music that goes under the name ‘jazz,’” he explains, “we’re looking at a history of African Americans addressing the world, and particularly addressing the West, in a context where they’re treated as exemplars of difference to be put on display. That’s the governing logic of the whole system.

“How, then, did people choose to face it as artists? How did Duke Ellington face it? How did Miles? How did Coltrane? How does Wadada [Leo] Smith face it today? Even though love radiates from the musicians, the metaphor that I hear time and again from the elders is that it’s like ‘going into combat.’ That’s because you’re not seen as a human being; you’re stepping out on stage as yourself, and have to start from scratch to prove your humanity. I have studied what it means to be defiantly present in spaces like that, because it is part and parcel of this music.

“I find myself inspired to face it in a different way. The question is not just what is going to be in this piece, but what is going to happen in this space? I sculpt the music the way I sculpt a set—to do something to everybody in the room, which is more than trying to prove that I can wield the techniques of orchestration, or that I belong in some pantheon of composers. What I want to do while I have that gathering is shake the air in a way that will hit somebody, so that they’ll have to carry that feeling out into the world.”


The Law of Returns

Iyer joins a growing subset of composers whose work resists naming and simple codification, challenging false dichotomies between composed and improvised music. 

“There seems to be a consistent law that pervades human activity...It can be characterized in many ways, but I’ll just say it’s the law of returns...You breathe out and you breathe in—in fact, breathing is a very great example of that law. Inhale and exhale? Well, that’s the whole thing: it’s pulsating. Push the wind that way and then it comes back this way. That law is consistent throughout all humanity...”  —Muhal Richard Abrams (1930-2017) 

Although there is good reason to be wary of seeing musical compositions in biographical terms, Iyer wrote The Law of Returns after the deaths of pianist/composers Muhal Richard Abrams and Geri Allen, events that he says left their imprint on the energy of his creative endeavors. For Iyer, Abrams, a founder of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, was a mentor, and Allen a formative influence, who later became a generous friend and collaborator.

In particular, Iyer found himself revisiting a conversation he had with Abrams in a 2012 interview—one that is difficult to reproduce in the condensed format of print, for Abrams’s simple words harbor multivalent meanings. (You will be able to read this interview for yourself, when it appears in the volume Discordant Presences: Reinventing U.S. Music Studies, forthcoming in 2020.)

The law of returns of which Abrams speaks begins with the quotation above. In human terms, it concerns the quality of exchange, which exceeds the frame of music and engages with individuality. What did it do? Abrams questions Iyer. It is possible, Abrams says, for harnessed sound to have mutual resonance in musicians and listeners who are otherwise strangers. And, yet: “If five people walk up here,” Abrams points out, “they all say different things about what they heard you do.” It is the purpose of music, he concludes, “to excite multiple perspectives.”

Iyer describes his composition The Law of Returns, in which he plays with a string trio, as “not quite a finished monument to Mr. Abrams, but rather a raw, personal response to his departure, a strongly felt remembrance, and an animated meditation on his influence as an artist and teacher.” The structure is not ordained from the top down, but rather emerges from the juxtaposition of various modules, which flow into one another without pause, and reveal more and more interrelationships as they unfold. The use of emergent form, of structural connections patiently allowed to reveal themselves, bears a family resemblance to the spontaneous yet methodical piano creations found in Abrams’s solo albums: Young at Heart, Wise in Time (Delmark, 1969), Afrisong (India Navigation, 1975), Spiral: Live at Montreux (Novus, 1978), and The Visibility of Thought (Chesky, 2000).


Crisis Modes

Written for percussion plus strings, Crisis Modes was premiered earlier this year by the Los Angeles Philharmonic New Music Group through the orchestra’s Green Umbrella program curated by Herbie Hancock. The process of composing the work began with a piano improvisation that is now orchestrated, and occupies the second of three movements, titled “Denial.” An underlying dance pulse provides the common ground on which Iyer reconciles properties of Indian music, specifically its linear melodies and additive rhythms, with the cyclic and polyphonic tendencies of musics descended from Africa.

As Iyer writes in his composer’s note:

“When we improvise, music happens in the present; it is how we commune with the forces around us, human and otherwise. By contrast, when we compose (which the great Wayne Shorter succinctly defined as ‘slowed-down improvisation’), we are sending a piece of music downstream, to be heard in the future. I find myself doing a lot of both: digging into the ‘now,’ with and among others, and plotting events for the ‘then,’ for others. These are some ways that we make music for today and for tomorrow.

“I chose to approach this piece of music-for-tomorrow like a time capsule. There’s no denying it: we live in a time of struggle, with humanitarian and environmental crises gripping us every day. So what might I try to tell future audiences, besides S.O.S.? I want to communicate to them, and to you, what it is possible for us to imagine from this scarred planet at the dawn of 2019. Speculative fiction author N. K. Jemisin recently said in an interview, ‘My job is to help the world… That is what an artist’s job is—to the degree that we can… It is an artist’s job to speak truth to power.’ Crisis Modes offers a version of the present in which we call each other to action, push through a haze of denial, and organize ourselves as a coherent, constructive oppositional force. I don’t exactly know what that sounds like, but I can at least imagine how it feels, so this piece is my attempt to trace that affective landscape.”


Song for Flint

Miller Theatre commissioned Iyer in honor of Columbia University’s Year of Water, an interdisciplinary investigation of this precious resource in all of its social, political, cultural, economic, and environmental complexities. “When they told me it was the Year of Water,” Iyer says, “I thought, Wouldn’t it be nice if everyone had access to something like that? When we talk about the environment, we need to talk about environmental racism.”

The result references the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. Iyer has composed the piece for solo viola and, in particular, Kyle Armbrust, with whom he has a longstanding musical relationship; Armbrust toured with Radhe Radhe, and was a member of the ensemble for Iyer’s Mutations (ECM, 2014), for piano, electronics, and string quartet.
 


Iyer grew up playing violin, and yet he had never touched a viola until he rented one earlier this year. “When I took it home, I couldn’t put it down,” he says. “It coupled with the body in a different way than the violin. It reminded me of the first time I played piano, literally the first time when I was three: I felt the piano vibrating and a sympathetic resonance with it. I’m writing Song for Flint from a place of sensation, exploring what the viola can do.”

In working on the composition, Iyer returned to the violin and cello music of Bach. “I’m inspired by the dance character of the pieces, the prayerful qualities, the illusory and real polyphonies, the sense of motion, and the resonance,” he says. “Of course, violists are known to play the Cello Suites—most recently Kim Kashkashian, whose recording I listened to many times this year.”


Trouble

“I got in trouble. It was good trouble. It was necessary trouble.” —Congressman John Lewis, (speaking on the Montgomery Bus Boycott)

Co-commissioned by the Ojai Music Festival, Cal Performances in Berkeley, and the Boston Symphony Orchestra as part of violinist Jennifer Koh’s New American Concerto project, Trouble explores the immigrant experience and issues of discrimination. The third of its six movements — what Koh refers to as the “heartbeat of the piece” — is dedicated to Vincent Chin, a Chinese American man, who was beaten to death by unemployed autoworkers in Detroit in 1982 because they mistakenly thought he was Japanese. At the time, United States car manufacturers were facing stiff competition from Japan. The event, largely forgotten today, galvanized the Asian American community to fight back against racial injustice.

“It was incomprehensible to my parents,” explains Koh, who grew up in a farm town outside of Chicago, the daughter of a North Korean refugee. “They hadn’t yet realized that people only saw us by the color of our skin. I was five, but I remember how scary it was, because of the kind of hatred it represented.”

Trouble defiantly contests that sense of precarity, channeling both the past and our present political moment. As a musical form, the concerto is defined by instrumentation that features a soloist with orchestra, but “I didn’t want to rehash the typical narrative positioning of a heroic individual over or against a multitude,” writes Iyer. “Ms. Koh told me that the soloist could instead be viewed as someone willing to be vulnerable, to publicly venture where most people won’t, to accept a role that no one else will accept, to bear the unbearable. In other words, the soloist can embody the relationship of an artist to her community: not so much a leader or hero, but something more like a shaman, a conduit for the forces in
motion around us.”

The violin emerges slowly over multiple movements as a lonely, elegiac voice. Yet it will lead the call for a multitude to assemble, solo in an impassioned cadenza, and ultimately become part of the collective.
 

 

If Iyer feels a moral imperative to create a more inclusive classical music, past, present, and future – and, to do so vocally – the works on this program certainly forward that goal. He envisions a borderless musical world, because there are no boundaries in his circles of collaborators, or in what he believes he can create. Like his concerto soloist, he is a shaman, a conduit for the forces in motion around him. What did the music do? we might ask him.

“Perhaps that is where this notion of community comes in, that music can inaugurate a sense of community, forging it for everyone in the room at that moment,” he says. “What you can do in that space with those people is activate something that matters; you can bring them to brink of a certain reality, and leave it with them to contend with. The power I have is the power to guide people in that room during that time. That’s all I have. It’s up to you to do something with it.”


Lara Pellegrinelli is a scholar and a journalist, who contributes to NPR and The New York Times. She teaches at The New School and Bard’s Microcollege at Brooklyn Public Library.

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