Interview | Vijay Iyer

On Saturday, March 12, for the second night of Ars Nova Workshop’s Composer Portrait: Fieldwork, pianist Vijay Iyer, drummer Tyshawn Sorey, and saxophonist Steve Lehman will play in trio. The following night, pieces composed by Iyer and Lehman will be performed with the JACK Quartet. As Pitchfork wrote in a review of Iyer’s 2010 release, Solo, “Vijay Iyer is, simply put, one of the most interesting and vital young pianists in jazz today.” Consistently earning positions on critical year-end lists (New York Times, The Wire, Village Voice) for his work as a group leader, Iyer has also worked with Roscoe Mitchell, Amiri Baraka, Wadada Leo Smith, John Zorn, and George Lewis. For this interview, conducted last week via email while Iyer was in Europe, ANW asked him about Fieldwork’s creative risk-taking, hexis and autoscopy, and the piece he’ll be performing on Sunday with JACK Quartet.

In an article called “Uncertainty Principles,” you put out the following call to fellow musicians: “Let us all vow to put ourselves at maximum creative risk whenever possible.” Can you talk about how Fieldwork situates itself in risk?

The group overall has a composerly orientation, which means we focus on formal elements, orchestration, and ensemble dynamics rather than just foregrounding ourselves as "players" and "soloists." And yet the concept of improvisation, in the sense of making choices in real time, lies behind every sound the group makes. It's fair to say that aesthetically we all challenge ourselves, pushing our own limits of what we think music can be. Just conducting ourselves in that way - moving away from a closed or finished sensibility with the composed repertoire, and towards an open, always-developing conception - means that at some fundamental level we don't know what's going to happen in a given performance. But this is also what it means to be improvisers: to develop, refine, and execute techniques for navigating through possibilities; in other words, to perform risk.

As far as the music world is concerned - or maybe I should say specifically the music business - there's a certain risk involved in just being a collective. The system operates by singling out and lifting up individual personas and creating a "rising star" narrative around them, which can often thwart the egalitarian ideal of a collective. I'm just glad that we've made it this far with the group, which has existed in its current form for over six years.

In the liner notes for Solo you talk about two concepts: autoscopy, which I understand as providing a sort of self-reflexivity, and hexis, understood as comportment in the active moment. In short, how one holds oneself (disposition, attitude, character, etc) is accessible through the autoscopic glance. You specifically mention the hexis of composers such as Thelonious Monk and Sun Ra. Can you discuss these concepts in relation to Fieldwork, namely the hexes corresponding to Steve Lehman and Tyshawn Sorey or, if a legitimate category, the hexis of the group?

One of the traits of this band (though it is not unique to this band) is that each of us leaves traces of ourselves in the music. For each piece, regardless of who wrote it, there is the instrumental part as it is notated, and then there is the part as it is played; there is in all cases a deliberate difference between the two, and perhaps you could locate that difference in our individual hexes. That includes the ways in which each of us plays (or often in my case, doesn't play) a notated part, as well as the ways in which we elaborate and expand upon it. Each of these involves choice, and therefore personal narrative, and therefore a trace of bodily experience. For, the act of improvising is as much a bodily act as it is a purely musical one. It's easy to forget since we listen to so much recorded and otherwise disembodied music, so it bears reminding that all of these sounds ultimately come from the physical actions of people in a real-world environment! And, by design, there is an incorporation of players' bodies (or you could say "personal sound") into the aesthetics of the music.

Following the trio performance on Saturday, March 12, the next night you’ll be performing Mutations I-X with the JACK Quartet. One of your conceptual aims for the piece is to move away from a pejorative view of mutation – that which is abnormal, impure and dangerous – and toward a conception of life as being constituted by mutation. Can you elaborate on this idea and specifically talk about how these concepts are realized in the music?

In particular, the idea is that evolution consists of the situated, sustained interaction of multiple, slightly different expressions of similar genetic material, where those differences are caused by mutation. "Situated" means immersed in an environment that can include interdependent and mutually interacting (or "competing," I suppose) entities.  There's a brutality to it, but there's also an aesthetic quality to it, because it allows for the emergence of order and even beauty, often in the most unlikely places. In particular it's not only the "best" things that survive over generations; more generally, things simply persist whenever they are able to find a way to do so, for however long the situation allows.

Mutations I-X is kind of a big piece constructed out of a large number of small and disparate fragments, so these mutation concepts are reflected in multiple formal elements. For example, there are samples of a string quartet playing non-pitched, "wrong" sounds which then get incorporated into the electronic and ensemble textures. There are also musical motives and ensemble passages that transform gradually in real time into "abnormal" versions of themselves and then become "normalized" - a tactic that at least goes back to Bach, if not earlier. There are motives interacting with warped versions of themselves, as well as interactions between things that sound "human" or lyrical and things that sound "non-human" or mechanical, and transferring of the logic of one instrument onto another. There are sections in which improvisation interpenetrates notated passages, and there are sections that involve the execution of an algorithmic set of instructions. Certain ideas appear, disappear, reappear later in deformed fashion, transform, persist, and simply vanish.

In the program notes you mention humans as “embodiments of change.” Are we also agents of change, or always improvisers within structures? Is improvisation a structuring force within the piece or is it a response to structure?

It is true that we (that is, humans) generate structure as improvisers, but we are never "outside" of structure either. It's true that we build things, and we often identify traces of a human presence in remnants of built things; we act upon, transform, and often destroy our surroundings. But we are also constituted and constrained by forces and factors around us, elements that truly make us who and what we are. My point with that line was to describe our genes as a record of our ancestors' mutations, which make us literally the embodiment or "expression" of that record.

How do you think Composer Portrait: Fieldwork is important for the trio and also the larger narratives of contemporary music?

It's a landmark for us to have our ensemble considered not just as yet another avant-garde jazz band (since we usually disappoint people who come expecting that) but rather as an ensemble connected to the more specific and broader American tradition of experimental composer-performers. To me this includes artists as diverse as Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, Muhal Richard Abrams, Anthony Braxton, Roscoe Mitchell, Anthony Davis, Wadada Leo Smith, John Cage, Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Pauline Oliveros, La Monte Young, George Lewis, Yoko Ono, Frederick Rzewski, Steve Coleman, Butch Morris, and many others. Though such artists are often discussed separately, they have much in common in terms of their approaches, methods, and influences, and neither the standard jazz narrative nor the standard "new music" narrative can fully account for them all.  So I'm grateful to Ars Nova Workshop for allowing us to complicate the picture a little and present a more thorough version of ourselves.

To learn more about Vijay Iyer and Fieldwork, please see the event pages on our website, where you can also choose between two ticket options: $12 for single events and $30 for a 3-Concert Pass. Below is a summary of the events, all of which will take place at Old City's Christ Church Neighborhood House Theatre (20 North American Street).

Composer Portrait: Fieldwork
March 11, 2011, 8pm | Tyshawn Sorey’s For Kathy Change
March 12, 2011, 8pm | Fieldwork
March 13, 2011, 6pm | Free Public Discussion with Fieldwork + The New York Times’ Nate Chinen
March 13, 2011, 8pm | An evening of chamber works by Vijay Iyer and Steve Lehman performed by JACK Quartet

Composer Portrait: Fieldwork has been supported by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage through the Philadelphia Music Project with support from Chamber Music America’s Presenting Jazz Program, funded through the generosity of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation.