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Interviews

Vijay Iyer: Part 2-2

By Published: June 2, 2005
AAJ: That's an interesting thing you bring up. It's something that I'm trying to find in electronica but not usually finding. When I buy some electronica CD, I'm doing it because I feel, "all right, this music is completely constructed differently so if they wanted to, and if they're smart enough, they could reinvent music. It's not like, "I'm the drummer, so I play the kick here and the snare here. And you do get that newness sometimes, but mostly you don't. Of course, it's easy for me to say as a fan that I want someone to reinvent music, but that's a pretty hard thing to do.

VI: That's a tall order, to be sure. Actually, I find that even when people say that, that's not really what they want. They want something that leads them to think that it's being reinvented, but they don't really want something that fundamentally challenges their own assumptions about music.

AAJ: "I want the illusion of newness.

VI: Yes, exactly. I think in psychology, they call it the peak shift effect. If you imagine that all human activity falls on some kind of bell curve, and say in music what you're used to is somewhere around the peak of the curve, if you do something that's a little bit ahead of the peak, then it seems like you're doing something new. But if you something on the fringe, people can't deal with it at all. So it needs to be enough like what people are used to—while still seeming a little bit new. But that's not the way we're thinking with this project. That's why, in a way, we get mixed reviews with it. Sometimes it's so new to people that it doesn't compute and then they just get mad, or something. Or else they think they have it all figured out, because it reminds them of something else—which really means that they aren't listening closely. But it's okay, because we're about doing what we're doing. It's very satisfying, and it's actually really exciting to do live. People really respond to it in person.

AAJ: "Headlong —from the Simulated Progress CD—has intervals remind me of the Mahavishnu Orchestra. And I know that I'm missing the point, that it comes from a completely different place.

VI: Well, all I can say is I never listened to that stuff in depth. I would like, to at this point, because I think I'm beyond the danger of being influenced by it. But maybe the thing is that we're both influenced by the same things. In a way, it's dealing with a blues form and also with a carnatic rhythm form.

AAJ: Yes, I think John McLaughlin was fusing those back in 1971 or so, very much in a bombastic rock tradition.

VI: Well, ["Headlong ]'s a pretty bombastic piece. I think we use that kind of sound sparingly. We almost make a joke of it by opening [the CD] with it—and then immediately going into something very different. That's just sort of one side of what's possible in this context, I guess. Maybe that's the most like fusion of anything we're doing.

AAJ: Maybe so. That's a very rock thing to start the album with: the crowd-pleaser.

VI: And I was against it myself.

AAJ: You thought it was too obvious?

VI: Yeah. I thought it would be too macho or something like that. Like, "check out what badasses we are! We can play this! And frankly, I can barely play it, and I wrote it. But those guys convinced me to make it first, and actually I'm really happy with the way it falls in the album. And in a way it couldn't have gone anywhere else.

AAJ: Let's talk a little about your previous quartet CD Blood Sutra. I really like that album, and it works beautifully as a CD, but it's an excerpted version of an evening-length suite. Can you tell me about the project and what the full version was like?

VI: I guess the pragmatic answer is that I got a grant from the New York State Council of the Arts to create a suite of music. And we performed all of it; it was like two sets of music. So we performed it, we developed it over a while, and I sort of cherry-picked the ones that seemed to fit on an album. In a way, whenever you're making an album—actually, this is true with almost everything I've done—there's stuff that didn't make it. That's the way it is. You want to make a good album. As much as you want to get everything on there, to me it's really about making sure it works as a whole as well. If you're trying to fit two sets of music onto one CD, or even trying to issue it all at once, it doesn't really work. Then there were just pieces that were written for the occasion, but we progressed through, or kind of grew out of them. I spoke earlier about what that album was about, what historically framed that whole project [September 11th], and maybe certain pieces sort of stuck and others didn't. As the world kept turning, it almost felt like some of it just wasn't worth clinging to. All these kinds of factors come into play when you're putting together a piece of work that's going to go out into the universe beyond your control. You really want to do as much as you can; right before you set it free, you want to have as coherent and complete a statement, and as economical, as you can possibly make. It's possible to say too much and dilute what you're trying to say.


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