1,894

Vijay Iyer: Into The Mainstream

AAJ Staff By

Sign in to view read count
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."



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."

So What Is Jazz Now?

Younger jazz musicians have a broader range of sources of influence than in earlier days. Many perform in collaborations that are beyond "tenor sax and trumpet." Iyer has referred to this phenomenon—he has noted how "most (musicians) on the jazz 'scene' actually inhabit multiple scenes, with varying relationships to what is called 'jazz.'"

Iyer says, "As a jazz musician, you're expected to know certain things and to not know certain things. And so often you'll surprise somebody—this happens to me a lot—somebody will be surprised that I know a Duke Ellington ballet or a Sibelius symphony or something like that. Basically, they will have an idea that you exist in a certain niche and that you don't know anything outside of that niche. They'll be surprised that I know about some cheesy synth pop band, because I'm not supposed to know that because I exist in some sealed-off jazz universe. And that's just nonsense. We're all in the same space and we all have equal access to the entire archive of digital information, so it's not like one person has privilege over another in terms of their information scan. We all have the same data at our fingertips.

"I think it's just this thing that plagues jazz musicians, in particular. You're seen as (these) kind of charmingly naive, myopic people and that's not what we are. We interact with the world to the same degree that anybody else does."

For example, in August Iyer performed at The Stone, in lower Manhattan, with High Priest aka HPrizm, a member of alternative hip-hop group Antipop Consortium. The performance (available on Youtube) almost gives an impression of jazz piano—or piano, period—entering new electronic worlds. But then, attempting to definitively categorize any part of any given music can be irrelevant to the reality.

"it's not that any bit of it is jazz or is not jazz," Iyer points out. "That has no meaning in a situation like that—a distinction of what is or is not, or should or should not be jazz. It just has no relevance to a collaboration like that, because we're both reaching from everything that we know to rise to the challenge of the occasion, to try to interact and make something work, (to) build something together. It's not hip-hop meets jazz or anything like that. It's just two dudes in a room with their arsenals (laughs), (with their) respective arsenals, trying to make something happen. Especially with those guys (like) High Priest, one of the founding members of Antipop Consortium, one of my favorite groups out there, period.

"They're called a hip-hop group, but their stuff is really hard to categorize. It's really advanced and very visceral. The first time I saw them live was at The Knitting Factory about ten years ago, and it was like seeing the Art Ensemble Of Chicago. It had that real organic quality to it and real compositional sensibility that was really like they're building things from scratch right in front of you with this vast and unlikely arsenal of sounds. They were improvising with drum machines and synthesizers and stuff and making music and rhyming. To me, it was as deep as seeing the Art Ensemble. It was as creative, and they were working with the fundamentals of music. So it's not about 'it's jazz or it is not jazz.' It's that these are creative people working with some profound ideas and very strong aesthetics, building something right in front of you.

"So that's the sensibility that was guiding (me) on that Youtube clip. It's the same kind of thing. It so happens that I play piano mainly, and I was also running some of the electronic beats on my computer and Priest was doing some on his and we were interacting and decorating each other's beats. You are just trying to rise to the occasion, bring something to the table and build something—that's all it is."

Iyer discusses the "traditional" elements of music in this kind of performance: "Well, you have to think about what are the real elements of music: melody, rhythm and harmony ... We're talking about instruments that generate melody and rhythm, but I'm talking about three guys with voices, with words as their arsenal and drum machines and analog synthesizers that make noise, filtered noise. So I wouldn't say it was the most melodic thing I've ever seen, but it was very visceral and elemental. It had a lot of clarity. It had a lot of rhythm, that's for sure, and rhythm is the first thing that hits you when you hear music. It had rhythm and it had vocal performance—whatever you want to call it (laughs)—and it had texture and sonic variety and it was alive. It was unfolding in real time in front of us. They were building it right in front of us from scratch."

Then there is the debate on what is "art music," on what isn't, and, no doubt, on whether something ought to be even be in the ball park for discussion. Iyer says, "I would not make a distinction between so-called jazz and 'art music.' I had this debate with this guy (Terry Teachout). He writes for the Wall Street Journal. He was sort of grousing about how he thinks jazz has become too much of an art music. He seemed nostalgic for the days of Louis Armstrong."

"He, I think, just misleadingly or wrong-headedly characterized that as not art music. When I say 'art music,'" he adds, "I'm not saying that to distinguish it from music that people like (laughs). All I mean is that the guiding sensibility behind it is not so much 'Is this going to sell records?' (laughs), but there's a deeper purpose behind it. That's all, that's all it is. For me, the best art doesn't tell me what to feel. Instead, it creates this field of possibilities that I might explore as to how I might respond. It's not going to force a particular emotion on me but (it) will suggest possibilities, so for me it's about something that creates an experience for the listener to discover and explore and find something. That's all.

"And I think that there's music that's calculated to just have a high impact and (a) superficial impact, like junk food—that's not really meant to be lived with (laughs). I think an example would be what is called 'muzak,' the easy listening music that's meant as background. Another example would be generic club music that is (just sort of) meant as environmental, that is not meant to be listened to directly.

"I think art music is something that is a form of address to the listener. It's music that is discursive in that sense, (music) that's meant to (say), 'I'm trying to tell you something' (laughs). So it means it needs to be listened to and respected on those terms.

"The thing is, we can get into these debates about what is and is not art; (it's) ... kind of in the ear of the beholder—that's sort of an endless question. I don't want to dwell too much on the distinction. I think that it's partially how you listen and how you experience music. Because there are plenty of people who will talk over my music (laughs). Some of my music isn't discursive in the sense of having a beginning middle and end that ... it's not like it's delivering some sermon or something like that. It's often more experiential in the sense that you interact with it as a listener. So I don't really have any grand theories about what is art music and what isn't. I think it emerges in context. It's an experience."

For example, in a video of Iyer and Mahanthappa playing a duet concert (as their duo Raw Materials), they could be (visually) a violinist and pianist at Carnegie Hall as much as they could be two "traditional" jazz musicians on a concert stage.

Saxophonist Mahanthappa has a multicolored approach to the alto sax, and unlike Iyer, displays on his own albums overtly Indian sounds. The album Kinsman (Pi Recordings, 2008) is a rich example, and is made with Carnatic and Carnatic-trained musicians. The album features Kadri Golpanath, the Indian "Emperor of the saxophone." With (Steve) Lehman—Iyer's collaborator in the trio group Fieldwork—Mahanthappa has at times a less usual, clearer or more classical sax sound that is often encountered in jazz recordings, though Iyer explains that the real point is the range of playing, or sounds, that both strive for.

He says, "I think that both of them are very creative with timbre, with the sound itself as well as with the improvising language in terms of notes. They're both very inventive with timbre on the instrument. Maybe because they focus on the range of possibility with timbre, you might hear some of these connections. I don't think I've ever heard Rudresh's alto sound described as pure. ... I feel like these guys put a lot of character into the sound. I think what it is, is that there's more of a vocal quality you'll often hear. When I've heard classical saxophone quartets, you'll get a lot of surprising sounds out of those combinations of saxophones because timbre is one of the expressive parameters—sometimes you feel like you hear something very vocal—it sounds almost brass like—and at other times you hear what sounds like a double reed instrument. There's a whole timbral range the saxophone has. It's a pretty peculiar instrument, really (laughs). Because both of them (Mahanthappa and Lehman) really manipulate timbre very expressively, I think you hear all those possibilities.

"I think of some of the duo stuff that Rudresh and I have done together, if you've heard the album Raw Materials, some of the opening sounds—at the beginning of the album—don't sound like a saxophone. It sounds more like a shehnai; it sounds very vocal—you hear the performance of the tone being manipulated in a way that's very expressive. It sounds like a wail or a cry."

Through Iyer's more recent trio/quartet albums, it is possible to see a semi-rock thread. For example, on his album Blood Sutra (Artist House, 2003), there is a track entitled "Because of Guns (Hey Joe)" which is essentially a reworking of Hendrix's version of "Hey Joe." The track includes a piano walking bass, addressing the distinctive guitar riff figure of Hendrix's. Then, on his next trio album Reimagining, there is the stunning re-creation of John Lennon's "Imagine," cast this time in a minor key context.

Iyer says: "I grew up as a child of the '70s and '80s. And I heard lots of rock and pop and soul, and very early hip-hop and stuff like that. I was really into (Led) Zeppelin and I listened to The Police and Prince—basically people who could play their instruments and who could command a stadium full of people! I loved just the raw simple power of some of that and the way the experience stays with you."

He explains the essential similarity or overlap between genres of music: "Well, none of these things are as far apart as one may think. The music market leads us to believe that these genres or areas of music have nothing to do with one another. But who are the musicians who play with (current popular artists)? For example, the drummer for the Mars Volta, a big prog rock band—this is a good example—he is a gospel and jazz drummer. There's all this Youtube footage of him before he joined the band winning things like 'drumming chops' contests. He came from the Black Church in the Bay Area. So he has these deep roots in gospel and soul music and he's brought this to prog rock. Another example is the people who back up Beyonce. She has this all-female band that she tours with and most of those people are jazz musicians. (Or) Earth, Wind & Fire, some of those guys were in the ACM! It goes on and on ... all this constant dialogue between these different areas of music."

A further issue in music is "bootlegging" by the audience. In the liner notes to Historicity, Iyer includes in his "Special thanks" list "all the people ... (who) bootlegged us." He says, "The point is, I whatever I think of it, it's not going to stop. A lot of them collect these things because they can and because they get a sort of frisson of doing something illegal or something that they're not supposed to do that makes it just a little bit more inviting to them because (of) just the sheer defiance aspect. I guess I have mixed feelings about it. I'm glad the people are hearing us play, because really the fact of the matter is, it's really hard to play in front of people because there aren't many opportunities to do it, especially in the U.S. (There are) really so few places to play, I mean it's alarming, compared to what you have in Europe for example. The opportunities to perform are pretty few and far between.

"I put a lot of time into making the albums sound good. I obviously have no control over what bootlegs sound like. Usually they sound so terrible that I don't feel they are competing with the albums! The albums have that extra quality factor going on—basically it doesn't make your ears bleed when you listen to them! (laughs). But then, on the other hand, people like to hear what happens in the live context, and that often can be pretty different. Making a studio album is one thing, but playing it in a context where everyone is somehow in on the process of discovery and invention—that often creates these special moments that

Collaborations With Mike Ladd

Iyer has gained considerable attention for two collaborations with poet and hip- hop/spoken voice performer Mike Ladd. The first was the album In What Language (Pi Recordings, 2004). The record was a song cycle discussing the effects of globalization. The second was Still Life With Commentator (Savoy Jazz, 2007), described as an "oratorio" about the media coverage of current world events, in particular the Iraq war.

Iyer says of Still Life With Commentator, "One of the threads in that project was the idea of the news media being this new opiate—really something that lulls you to this narcotic haze where you accept these realities that we shouldn't be accepting. But there's also the manic side to it which somehow ends up being a consequence of this 24-hour news situation, because they have to keep generating excitement and interest in things that aren't actually happening.

"The Still Life With Commentator idea is that we've all seen this happen where you have some dire event that's happened or is just about to happen. (There's) a reporter on the scene in front of the camera with a microphone and the backdrop is some extremely neutral-looking locale where supposedly something has happened or something is just about to happen. Usually it's just a door or a farm or an intersection or something—just a place that has no obvious value and they're trying to infuse it with value by just generating chatter—by just filling up the space with noise. So it becomes this anxious hysteria: to try to keep people watching because it's a business, of course. But also it becomes addictive. You feel like you have to watch because things are happening. And we become participants in it too. Since we made that project—it's two years ago (now)—it seems like it's even gotten worse (laughs). It's just reached a whole new level of hysteria.

"That was the hardest thing about that project ... because you can't satirize (this), because they will time and again outdo any exaggerated (satire) (laughs). They sort of self-satirize, because they keep pushing the envelope in terms of what seems permissible, or what seems even acceptable."

Several Fox News programs are described, but CNN and MSNBC are included. A line from Ladd effectively sums up the basic point: "the distance of atrocity, as far away as stars" (from the track "Holocaust Blog").

Most of the music is electronically created. One track, entitled "Blog Mom," features, at one point, a midrange electronic sound that could convey the impression of busy printing presses firing off newspapers (depending on the ear of the beholder). Iyer: "The way that this music was made ... it's computer music. A lot of it is done with ... this whole digital arsenal that seems to augment the ensemble of instruments and voices. It's funny when we perform it live, because it's really hard to know who's doing what a lot of the time because everyone has a computer diddling with something, and it's making something happen but you can't really tell who's doing what.

"In a way, the craft of the piece takes advantage of our symbiosis with digital technology in the same way that the content of the piece does. It's about our relationship with technology. With electronic music, you have this vast palette of possibilities but you have to a bring a composerly sensibility to it or else you can just drown in possibility (laughs). You have to have a sense about how to make things sound the way you want them to sound. You have to have aesthetic, you have to have something in mind so that the electronics don't become the point of the music—they just become a means. There were electronic instruments and computers being performed alongside the more traditional instruments, the piano, the cello and guitar and voice. So all that was part of the ensemble. There's no live drummer on that project. It's all digital (laughs)—beats that we created and manipulated."

Post a comment

Watch

Tags

Shop Amazon

More

All About Jazz needs your support

Donate
All About Jazz & Jazz Near You were built to promote jazz music: both recorded and live events. We rely primarily on venues, festivals and musicians to promote their events through our platform. With club closures, shelter in place and an uncertain future, we've pivoted our platform to collect, promote and broadcast livestream concerts to support our jazz musician friends. This is a significant but neccesary effort that will help musicians now, and in the future. You can help offset the cost of this essential undertaking by making a donation today. In return, we'll deliver an ad-free experience (which includes hiding the bottom right video ad). Thank you.

Get more of a good thing

Our weekly newsletter highlights our top stories and includes your local jazz events calendar.