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Interviews

Vijay Iyer, Part 1-2

By Published: June 2, 2005
AAJ: And yet, with a different mindset, he could feel like he has the world to prove.

AAJ: Certainly. It's just a testament to his upbringing and his sense of family and self and who he is, basically. It's very rare. So it would be very hard for me to turn him into this quivering cog in my machine, because he's totally his own man.

AAJ: Well, that's too bad. [Laughter] Let's talk about the new CD Reimagining. Your music is always about so much more than its notes. There are ideas behind the tunes: subject matter. Is there an underlying theme behind this album?

VI: It wasn't necessarily created with a theme but it was created in a certain period which was around the recent election—which was again, a very emotionally charged period. And in fact—well, maybe Chicago may be a little different—but in New York after the election, walking around in the street and just feeling the atmosphere of dejection that was everywhere. I'm not the only New Yorker to notice some similarities with September 11th. It really felt like a similar level of emotional desolation for people in New York. Of course, the election was an abstraction: nobody was killed, and the sadness didn't linger in the air for weeks, or radiate outward to the rest of the world like it did in Fall 2001. But where I live, last November 3rd felt like a very sobering morning, when we all saw the need to come to terms with how our lives would change irreversibly in the next few years. And that's something I also remember about New York on September 11. Maybe it's too easy to say that now, almost 4 years removed. But there's no disputing that in New York last November 3rd, the gloomy vibe was so thick you could cut it with a knife.

AAJ: I can only speak for my friends and acquaintances in Chicago, but I think it was a very comparable experience. To this day. I still haven't worked through it, and I still haven't processed it properly and come up with an appropriate adult response to it.

VI: I don't know. The more I think about it the more fearful I am, basically. Because I feel like it's really a different phase for this country than anything I've experienced. Just to turn it back to a course that I would feel more comfortable with could take the rest of my lifetime—if not longer. Especially now that I'm the father of a four-month-old daughter.

AAJ: That adds some gravity to the whole thing.

VI: Yeah, you want to make the world a better place for your children. I don't know; I'm not sure how to process it all. It gets more woolly and enormous everyday. The kind of change that's happening—I can't really get with.

AAJ: Well, as a creative artist, you've made an album that you said to some extent responds to it. You are processing it in a way, and the album feels hopeful. I don't hear despair in it. I hear a sense of working through.

VI: Well, I think that's basically what it is. Like I said, it was all created around that same time: immediately preceding and then immediately after it. So all of that is very much embedded in the process of making this album. I remember we'd have these rehearsals where the rehearsals would just sort of devolve into these gripe sessions [laughing]. Particularly Marcus [Gilmore]—this was his first election that he could participate in. And imagine just not even having faith in the results—or in the process that we all consider as part of being American. It's heavy. Not to overly freight this project with that content; like I said, it's not like this album was made with those themes in mind. I mean, some of the pieces are directly associated with certain events...

AAJ: "The Big Almost.



AAJ: For example. But I think more generally, it's the mood under which it was created. And I agree with you that it is about hope, ultimately.

AAJ: This album has a nice mixture of trio material, lots of quartet stuff and then there's that final solo piano tune [Iyer's cover of John Lennon's "Imagine ]. I particularly love "Inertia, which almost reminds me of Debussy or Satie.

VI: It's somewhere in that realm of kind of—ominous French parlor music [laughing]. That whole tradition from Chopin to Messiaen. And it's through-composed; there's no improvisation in it. It has this unsettled—well, what other word besides "inertia?

AAJ: When I reviewed the CD, I said something about it giving the impression of you seeming to be struggling against great weight.

VI: [Laughing] Well, I was thinking in particular about Chopin because he was basically insane, by all accounts. And there's something almost macabre about it. In fact, that's actually a very placid piece but there are a couple twists to it. One is that there's this bitonality going on and the other is that there's this sustained polyrhythm through the entire thing so that basically the melody is in six and everything else is in seven. This very gentle—rubbing coming out of these different strata.

AAJ: A mild sort of incompatibility.

VI: Yeah, so there's something that doesn't quite fit about this picture here. I guess the way you described it is pretty fitting. If you were to try to put it into a social context, I think it's pretty obvious what I'm thinking, like: how do you create change in a stultifying atmosphere like this one?


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