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Vijay Iyer: Into The Mainstream

By Published: December 21, 2009
Classical Influences

Bud Powell was influenced by (earlier) classical pianist-composers. Iyer has said that he listens to the sequence of what he calls "French parlor music," beginning with Chopin. Chopin has of course had a major influence on many musicians, from composer Alexander Scriabin to Dave Brubeck. Brubeck has performed live "tributes" to Chopin, and the signature figure of his "Blue Rondo A La Turk" is close to the beginning of Chopin's Etude Opus 25 No 8 in Db major. The Preludes are well-known, but the Etudes may yield far greater depths. Singer Barry Manilow crafted a hit single ("Could It Be Magic?") from a Chopin prelude, leaving the music virtually unchanged. Chopin is also notable for his occasional use of the extreme pitches of the piano.

Jazz artists have listened to classical music from the beginning: stride piano legend Willie "The Lion" Smith played bass lines that resembled Chopin (the Etudes are a source), and Duke Ellington wrote trumpet sections that at times echoed the trumpets in Scriabin's 1907 orchestral work "Poeme d'Extase." And it is sometimes possible to spot in Iyer's work a Scriabin-like passage of playing or, in one case, a sound not dissimilar to later piano works of composer Elliott Carter.

There is also an interesting classical link to the new Iyer album: Julius Hemphill ("Dogon AD") was married to pianist Ursula Oppens, who gave a special Elliott Carter recital in 2008 in New York in the presence of the composer. At an Oppens concert of Hemphill music, a reviewer wrote of one piece: "'Parchment,' played by the pianist Ursula Oppens, with flowing bitonal lines, was straight-up post-Debussy classicism."

Iyer says, "She plays a lot of his (Hemphill's) music. It's like I said earlier. (I'm) trying to deal with the whole history of the piano, what's possible with the piano. You soon find, if you spend a enough time at the piano, that there are actually certain things that work that a lot of composers have found and re-found, re- discovered, so I try to remain aware of that whole history of the piano, especially as a composer writing for the instrument. (I'm) trying to think, 'What have people found that works on the piano? What can get a big sound out of the instrument? Can you arrange things to take full advantage of what it can do?'

"But I am also interested in composers who ... I'd say one of my favorite composers of the 20th century is Ligeti. (There's) a lot of polyphony, a lot of structural rigor and ... the composition becomes the working through of a structural question or structural problem. The piano etudes are a classic example. He was also virtuosic with ensemble writing. The piano concerto is a good example. The amount of different colors and surprising kinds of synchronies and surprising using of timbres that you wouldn't (expect), the way he used the ensemble, I found very inspiring. He's thinking, not just making interesting sounds.

"There's always some kind of conceptual logic that animates it. That's something that really inspires me. It could be a structural idea. And also the string quartets—you see how he orders things. It's actually quite systematic, even though it gives rise to this dazzling variety of sounds. At its heart, when you look at it on the page, it's actually quite methodical how things can build or how density accumulates. It moves step-by-step, and you can really see the steps very clearly if you look at the score. So just that kind of thought process behind the work, that is very clear—there's clarity in it. That, I think, is inspiring.

"I recently also, a couple of years back, saw (mathematician Benoit) Mandelbrot speak. He's a mathematician (who is) associated with fractals. (A fractal is) that kind of daisy-wheel object that you zoom in on, or those sort of paisley shapes that you zoom in on a corner of it (and) you see the same thing all over again—these "M set" images. He made full-color coffee table books 20 years ago with these images in them—he made millions just off those books. He was friends with Ligeti. I saw him speak and he said something about how Ligeti came to learn about fractals. Basically, he saw something about it that resonated with his own music, which was this idea of degrees of order on different timescales in the music—kind of micro-polyphony, as he called it—like a lot of very intricate small scale behavior in the ensemble. But then there would also be larger events that you could hear as events. Then those would accumulate into phrases and sections and the overall shape of a piece.

"And he found that attention to levels of order at all those different timescales would help him as a composer. And, basically, that his best pieces had the right time balance between micro-polyphony (the very small-scale short detail) and middle-range order and large-scale order, so that (there is) a very composerly sensibility about the overall shape of a piece. That is something that really inspires me.

"And, of course, when you're dealing with music that's meant for improvisers, a lot of that order is arrived at collectively. So then I'll try to think about, well, 'How can I structure the process in just the right way to achieve that kind of balance for the ensemble?' That's something I think about quite a bit."

Ligeti is not the only modern composer that Iyer listens to: "There are lots of other composers I could rattle off: Messiaen, Magnus Lindberg and some of the spectralists like Tristan Murail, Gerard Grisey, Kaija Saariaho, very recent European 'superstars,' I guess. I'm very fond of Bartok and I learned a lot from Stravinsky and from Schoenberg and that stuff. And I do actually find some things of value in the minimalists, although I'm not so directly influenced by them. I find that I arrived at some similar techniques through my own means."

In some of Iyer's previous work, there may appear, briefly, arpeggios and other figures repeated in a quasi-Philip Glass style. Iyer says, "I don't think it is fair to let Glass own arpeggios! It's, (as) I said earlier, what works at the piano. Well, that's something that works at the piano, because it's rhythm and harmony and melody at the same time. That's what it is. It creates momentum. But it also sets up a sonority.

He explains in more detail: "If you listen to the beginning of the album Re- imagining, it's not just arpeggios. It's about a running counterpoint for the piano, which I found (to be) a different approach to playing chords, especially in a quartet setting. Comping with chords has its own pitfalls and limitations. Instead, creating a counterpoint line that ran through the entire piece—that set up certain kinds of intensity and momentum and (which) also set up the harmonic spaces in a way—was transparent enough that you could hear all the polyphony. The thing about a lot of chords is that they can cloud the sound of the music. They take up a lot of space in the music. This more linear stuff I was doing—these cycling, arpeggiative (figures) and that kind of contrapuntal stuff—I found just made the music more transparent, which helped clarify. So I still use that technique a bit."

Some of Iyer's work, particularly the latest Fieldwork album Door (Pi Recordings, 2008), could be considered avant-garde music, and Iyer occasionally tours as pianist with avant- garde musicians Roscoe Mitchell and Wadada Leo Smith. He doesn't think he himself is particularly avant- garde: "If Monk was avant- garde ... (laughs). I don't know what any of these things mean, because it totally just depends on what you're used to. Certainly, compared to Roscoe Mitchell I'm not avant-garde! I mean, I'm saying this as someone who has worked in his band for years. He has this incredible radically inventive sensibility that pervades everything he does.

"I'm endlessly inspired by him in that way ... because of that. To me, he's one of the deepest ones out there, in terms of just really thinking for himself. I mean, wow, just stunningly so. And because of that, (he's) finding things that nobody would have ever imagined possible with the instrument he plays or with the ensembles he (has). Some of the most incredible music I've ever heard has been just sitting on stage playing with him. I remember one gig in particular. It was in Rome with the quintet, on the first tour I did with him. He queued up the whole ensemble so it just broke down to him playing solo soprano saxophone, and he built something in the course of maybe 12 minutes that I'll never forget. It was one of the most incredible things I've ever seen—the ways he's able to work with the real fundamentals of sound.

"The thing about these guys—I would talk about (trumpeter) Steve Coleman in similar terms (and about) Wadada Leo Smith, who I also work with, in similar terms—these guys are all probably seen as avant-garde in different ways. I'd say that they're just really radically creative. They work with the fundamental building blocks of music and sound. And it's also to assist the momentum of something good and create. They have aesthetics, but they don't have any stylistic assumption about how something should sound. They have more a very other-worldly guiding sensibility about how to put music together.

"So I just learned so much from being around those people, who are just incredible thinkers, and they've achieved so much that I find to be so important for the history of music. If that makes me avant-garde then fine, but I'm more just inspired by them. If people call Ligeti an avant-garde composer, well they're dealing in similar terms but ... there are some people who think that jazz is supposed to be this kind of happy, entertaining, casual, non-serious thing. I guess none of the people I've worked with have thought that way, so I guess I'm just influenced by that whole other side—you know, basically the composerly creative tradition in this music."

Iyer's university studies have been partially in mathematics. Another composer Iyer lists as an influence is Arnold Schnittke, who at times utilized seemingly arbitrary means to underpin his compositions, such as historic numeric representations of the Earth's form.

Iyer comments: "A lot of composers resort to non-musical methods to generate material, and I don't think that there's anything out of the ordinary about that. It's actually so common that it's ... we shouldn't make too much of it when we hear those kinds of things. I think from the outside, we tend to have this anxiety about art and science—some unholy alliance between art and science. I just think that the basic work of putting things together, whether it's architecture or music or carpentry or whatever, you need to measure things (laughs). You know, you need to come up with things that fit and they need to have duration and they need to have quantitative value. When you cook, you use measuring spoons and measuring cups. You could say you're doing math: you're adding and subtracting and multiplying, whatever, but ... I think too much can be made of that. We tend to act as if it's so alien to artistic experience, but it's actually just the nuts and bolts of the process, and that's true in so many disciplines.

"I mean, poets write in meter. When poets write in meter, there's a mathematical logic to that. Or if you go back to the sonata form, it's about dealing with formal constraints and using that to inspire you in a way that you might not ordinarily (be inspired). Have you ever sat down and tried to write a sonnet or a quatrain [a stanza of poetry consisting of just four lines] or even a haiku? Just because of the constraints of the situation, you're forced to invent something that works (laughs). It just forces you to make a choice that you might not have ever otherwise made, and that puts you on the path to discovery. That's all that's about.

"So the use of mathematics to create music is not a big deal. There are twelve tones. We have eighth notes and quarter notes and half notes and dotted half notes and so on. You know there is number in music and it's just not a big deal (laughs), because basically it's so omnipresent in music that ... it's dangerous to exaggerate its newness or something like that. Something's there that everybody does. I think it gets linked to me a lot because I have a background in math and science. And it doesn't get linked to Coltrane very much, but Coltrane probably worked as hard as I do or harder than I do at quantitative things, with intervals and with working through the logic of "Giant Steps," for example. He studied and worked and dealt with the craft of the music, as everybody knows, all day long (laughs). It's the basic way that we create."

Iyer also describes how orders of Fibonacci numbers, the symmetries of numbers that are so often reflected in nature, are behind the (harmonic) rhythm of some of the pieces on Historicity. "There's something about the way that those numbers (55 and 34) work that creates a certain asymmetry, but you can also divide them into smaller Fibonacci components, so that can create these different kinds of symmetries ... but it's always an odd symmetry. That's the point.

"For example, the number 8 would always resolve into 3, 2 and 3 and that's the symmetric division of 8, but it's not duple. So, in a 3,2 3 number relationship there is still a balance, as 3 is on either side of the 2 in the center." As with Indian tala, much of Iyer's music is structured using these numeric relationships. He continues, "There's a lot of that, particularly in the rhythmic domain. In fact, (with the track) 'Historicity,' the harmonic rhythm follows that logic. 'Trident' has that order in it. Or our version of 'Mystic Brew' has that order in it as well, so it's sort of everywhere (laughs)."

Recent musicians have focused more and more on rhythm. Another example is M-Base, an approach of improvising music associated with one of Iyer's Bay Area influences, (Steve) Coleman, among others. M Base is described by Coleman himself as an approach to "spiritual, rhythmic and melodic development." Coleman also says that it is a concept that "arises from Africa and the African diaspora." But a particular aspect of M-Base is rhythm: Wikipedia says, "One of (M-Base's) most noticeable musical traits is the innovative use of overlapping rhythmic cycles of various lengths inside of which the participants improvise, giving the music an unpredictable form." Thus we see an increasing use of "new" sources of ideas for creating music, which are really just an example of, as Iyer would say, "paying due attention to rhythm."

At the top of Iyer's Myspace page, there is just one word to describe his Myspace status: the word "yes." This was the same word that John Lennon saw on a piece of paper after climbing a ladder—as he told the story—when he visited an exhibition by Yoko Ono in 1966 (the day they met). Iyer says, "I think at some time I needed to change my status, so I changed it to something that seemed inviting and affirming, just something that would hit you in such a simple way that you wouldn't really have to question it. Maybe I saw (the Lennon story) depicted in some docu-drama about John Lennon and Yoko Ono. I remember seeing that piece somewhere, maybe it was on TV—the "yes piece" (laughs)—(in the final scene) we see a card that says 'yes.'

"But there is that deceptive simplicity in Yoko's art that I really like. On the surface, it can come off as idealistic (in) this hippy dippy kind of way, but actually ... it's conceptually very pure and clean, the way she puts these works together. I kind of like it."

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