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Vijay Iyer: Into The Mainstream

By Published: December 21, 2009
Indian Classical Music

Through his career, Iyer has also been absorbing Indian classical music and its forms. His early (childhood) years in Rochester, New York exposed him to Indian music at community functions, but it was in the Oakland/San Francisco Bay area, when he was pursuing university studies, that he was able to participate in a greater amount of organized Indian community musical events. He says of Indian music and its ideas, "It is a very important component for me in how this music is put together. But it won't tell you the whole story. I also often get asked what about my music is Indian, (but I) find that usually people who ask that question are usually people who don't know very much about Indian music."

Iyer explains how rhythm is played in South Indian music (his parents are from southern India, which has a different kind of music from the north, the home of sitars and Ravi Shankar). In all Indian music, the "tala" is the rhythmic pattern, and the "raga" is the melodic pattern. To Western ears, Indian ragas tend to appear long. Iyer says, "They are not always very long—it's as much a matter of tempo as anything else. Tala fulfills the role that meter does in Western music. It's just the cyclical backbone of the music. I don't want to say there's nothing mysterious about it because music basically is mysterious, but there's nothing in the tala tradition that is unknowable or immeasurable. There are time cycles and then there are ways of building rhythmic forms across these time cycles. There's a kind of culminatorial logic to creating rhythms. There's sort of a rhythmic solfege that's used. So there is a sort of mathematical logic behind it, in the sense of combining durations of time in an additive way.

"The rhythms are in and across the cycles and over multiple cycles. So there can be very long serial rhythms that resolve over many cycles. (This is) the percussion tradition within Carnatic music (Carnatic music is the classical music of South India, as contrasted with Hindustani music in the North). When they get to take over—in every concert they have a moment to themselves—the whole percussion section gets to do their thing, and it often will take a good 30 or 40 minutes to work out. So there is that kind of thing that happens, but that's like the nuts and bolts of the rhythmic science of that music pushed as far as that can go, which is very far. If you use those commentorial ideas, you can build these very elaborate structures.

"But it generally lives over some basic cyclic tala, meaning some meter that is a group of beats of some fixed duration that keeps coming back around, just like we're used to 4/4 in the West. They're used to that in Indian music too, and they're also used to different kinds of sevens and different kinds of fives and so on. And then there (are) also longer versions of it that are sort of half time."

Iyer points out that Western musicians have developed in a world where melody and harmony have been given precedence over rhythm: "The thing is, it's been a tradition (Indian music) that has paid due attention to rhythm. I guess what I would say is that Western classical music has somehow made that secondary or almost tertiary in importance. Perhaps why it seems so alien to a Westerner is because it's so worked out. I'd say the same thing could be said about a lot of African music, African drumming—West African and Central African ensemble music. It has that same level of deep rhythmic sophistication that Westerners just aren't used to hearing (laughs). Westerners have twelve tone(s) and stuff like that, which most other people in the world aren't used to hearing."

Among other projects, Iyer works with an Indian group called Tirtha, a trio of Iyer, guitarist Prasanna and percussionist Nitin Mitta. One of the tracks on Tirtha's Myspace page is named "Tribal Wisdom." The track begins with, to a Westerner, an unusual, complex counting-in: "That's an example of what I was talking about," says Iyer. "That's a composition by the guitarist Prasanna. He's a very accomplished Carnatic guitarist and also a composer in the Western sense. He writes stuff for jazz ensemble and classical groups and so on. The way it begins is with a korvai, which is the rhythmic cadential formula—like I said, it's ... intricate additive rhythms that stretch across multiple cycles of more basic meter.

"The Carnatic tradition is a song tradition, a repertoire of songs by established composers. They call (them) the 'trinity' of great composers, from the 18th Century. These different songs are set to different talas and different ragas and so forth, and they have devotional lyrics that are quite specific Indian songs in Tamil and Telegu, which are the South Indian languages. Everything is built around the songs. There is the whole raga tradition—each raga has its own melodic character to it: not just the notes themselves but how one moves between the notes. What Carnatic music has in common with Hindustani, or North Indian, music is (that) the structures of ragas and talas are similar. There's quite a lot of overlap in that, but the repertoire and the way it's performed is (region)-specific. This set of repertoire, this devotional music, (is) performed in a certain way (with) particular nuances of how one moves through the ragas. It's very systematic, it's very formally rigorous, I would say. It's very ornate, it's also very melodic, but it's all created to perform these songs which are devotional songs and to reveal the structure of the ragas and of the talas and so forth."

But this contrasts with Hindustani music: "I think a lot of Hindustani music will often start from empty space. It's more open, in that sense. It's not structured around a pre-existing composition, or if it is, it's often around a folk melody or something that's not quite as elaborate. It's often like you're basically revealing the beauty of the raga itself over a long period of time. So the raga isn't so much in service of the song—it's more that the piece is the raga and how you work with the raga.

"So I think it's just a different order of priorities, but both of them have this sense of revealing the beauty of the structure of the ragas. People often ask, 'What does Indian music have in common with jazz?' Of course, they're both improvising traditions, but I think in Indian music you're not improvising for yourself. It's not about telling your own story, it's about revealing this divine order that exists in music, that music contains. And that becomes a metaphor for the divine order in the universe, so it's about connecting. It's spiritual music, in that sense."

Improvisation becomes structure. "Yes," says Iyer, "you're working with form, you're revealing form, you're showing the beauty of form. And that process is a devotional act. It's a form of prayer, basically. People who give their lives to Carnatic music, they're almost like monks and nuns. (Avasarala) Kanyakumari is a good example. She's a violinist. You may know her from her work with Kadri Golpanath. They worked together on Rudresh's album Kinsmen (Pi recordings, 2007). But she is also one of the best teachers of Carnatic music and she, in fact, was Prasanna's teacher. When you interact with her, you see it's devotional for her. The first four hours of every day are given to rituals. And the way of life that she practices is a profoundly spiritual one. That's what (the music) is for, and you get this sense from some of the Hindustani musicians as well. It's a spiritual science—I think that's a good way to encapsulate it. It's very disciplined and rigorous and something larger than yourself."

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