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Interviews

Vijay Iyer, Part 1-2

By Published: June 2, 2005
AAJ: The cards seem stacked.

VI: But that song comes on the heels of a piece called "Revolutions, which is very much about the possibility of change.

AAJ: "Cardio on this album feels like the cousin to "Stigmatism on Blood Sutra, although "Stigmatism is more Bud Powell-y, maybe, and "Cardio has more of an electronica feel, with that kind of complex, skittering rhythm. They both have rapid, dancing piano.

VI: That's funny because that piece dates back to the same time. I actually had written it for Blood Sutra and in fact, we tried to record it. But I wasn't able to achieve it that day. It was hard! I think we saved it until last on that session and my fingers were like a pulp at the end of it. I couldn't even play the main figure. But yeah, in terms of that connection with electronica, it's definitely there. There's almost an iciness and a broken quality to it. It feels like this weird, whirring contraption that has these different cogs in it that are spinning at these different rates, or something like that. I'm interested in how you can use acoustic instruments to evoke this very machine-like, almost inhuman image—and yet to kind of undermine that as well.

AAJ: I'm fascinated with the way you accompany Rudresh when he's soloing. Traditionally in jazz you'd call it "comping, but what you do sometimes is almost polyphonic in its musical substance. Like a simultaneous parallel solo. There's some of that on "Infogee's Cakewalk, and "Questions of Agency on Blood Sutra has it too. Is this something you try to do?

VI: Yeah. Some of it came from my work with Roscoe [Mitchell]. I really learned this different sense of what it means to accompany. It's funny, but what people want out of an interactive context—somehow they want people to perform interactivity: prove to each other that they're listening by imitating each other. Roscoe would call it "following, like people just following each other around on stage. Suggesting they can't think for themselves, essentially. He'd always say, "don't follow me! Goddamn! It's going to bog me down; you don't know what I'm trying to play over here! [Laughing] And so he was very interested in people generating their own independent streams of information. Then the listener discerns an emergent counterpoint. That's not to say you're not listening to each other; in fact you have to listen more deeply. It's almost more like you're trying to avoid each other, and you get tuned in to the overall dynamic. So I try to draw a lot from that whole mentality, too, because comping in the traditional way: in a way it's so overdetermined. I mean, it's been done to such a degree. How am I going to top McCoy [Tyner] playing with 'Trane? I'm not. So I'm trying to come up with some other strategies. So we do that on purpose; that's the short answer.

AAJ: I think my favorite song on the new CD at the moment is "Experience. It's got an eternal, mandala-like quality. It's really just modulating ostinati, and I like how the recording ends on a fade—as if it goes on forever, in either direction.

VI: It's something that's been recurring in my work. Maybe it's an obsession and maybe [laughing] it's a rut, but I'm interested in these kinds of cycles within cycles. Dealing with arpeggiated material that varies, or that progresses through some other material. So I've been doing that a lot; you'll hear it in the opening segments of In What Language?. It's really crystallizing ideas through different sources like, certainly dealing with African rhythms and carnatic ideas about rhythm. But also Cecil [Taylor]. When you listen to him playing in ensembles, he's always playing. And it's not really soloing. When other people are soloing, for example, he's still playing as hard as he ever does. It's like this continual motion, or momentum, that he's generating. I think it keeps the music aloft. Somehow time and physical activity become one, because as soon as you stop playing it all dissipates instantly. I'm interested in how there's this intimate connection between the physical and the temporal through that kind of activity, and how it creates this other way of experiencing time. So maybe that's why it's called "Experience. That's one aspect of it. Like you said, it just sort of gently modulates. There's something about it that's somewhat attenuated until the very end, when it starts to expand, and it sort of expands into infinity, because it just fades away. It's just a certain interpretation of what it means to experience: what the experience of experience is.

AAJ: The album closes with your solo piano version of John Lennon's song "Imagine. You alter it, though. It has a different kind of emotional quality. It doesn't provide the release that the original chorus does. It's like you never reach that part of the chorus.

VI: No, it's in there. Well, it's varied a little more, and at the end I kind of cycle it. Maybe what you're saying is that it doesn't resolve in a major way. It sort of hints at it, but in technical terms it doesn't resolve major, it resolves to an inverted minor chord. So it sounds almost major, but not quite. And you know, maybe there's something programmatic about that choice. I turned it into this song of yearning—maybe it's already this song of yearning, but I'm focusing on that strand within it. The original has this deceptive, childlike innocence about it. I guess I was interested in complicating that while still maintaining that thread of yearning that runs through it.


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