Interview with Vijay Iyer by Ann Yoshinaga

for ImprovisAsians! newsletter

Q: What were the first steps of your musical journey?

A: When I was three-years-old, I started playing the violin and the piano. I watched my sister and mimicked her...first with melodies, then with chords. In high school, I joined a jazz ensemble and started listening to people like Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and Duke Ellington. I gradually learned by listening and playing along -- which is less conventional but closer to the way that many musicians actually learn. When I went to college, I learned about where the music came from and why jazz is significant. It was then that I could really see that music has a function in the community.

Q: Maybe you can elaborate on that.

A: I played with older musicians in Oakland and began to see the music in its natural habitat and less divorced from reality. The audience would become an integral part of the creative process. I would feel from the audience an incredible outpouring of warmth. These experiences helped me see music as expressions of people's lives and an expression of collective identities.

Q: And how did this challenge your previous notions of jazz?

A: Academia interprets jazz history as a continuous, linear evolution. I would go to New York and meet and talk with people. It helped me see that there were revolutionary artists making this music and that, in actuality, this music was filled with many revolutionary discontinuities and offshoots...opening up new readings of jazz. This music and these musicians are making music as an expression of their own lives.

Q: You've worked extensively with artists from Asian Improv aRts in the past few years. How did this begin?

A: I began playing with Lee Yen who was involved with Asian Improv aRts. Over the course of things, I began realizing that the message of the artists and the music of Asian Improv made sense to me in terms of where they were coming from. I wanted my music to make sense and these people were similar to me as children of immigrants and as ethnic minorities. I could really see the origins of the music rather than understanding them on an abstract level. Music is never made in a vacuum. It makes more sense if you understand where it's coming from or how it's coming to you.

Q: So how does where you're coming from direct your work?

A: Being an artist of color necessitates a certain cry. You feel a sense of urgency in your work because you're up against so many obstacles in order to create; in order to have your art regarded as legitimate and valid.

December 1995

Interview with Vijay Iyer by Kenichi Nishio

for a Japanese magazine

Q: Congratulations for releasing your first CD, Memorophilia. To begin with, could you tell me what the title means, so that Japanese listeners understand?

A: The title is a made-up word, but it has meaning. In English we have the word "memorobilia," which means souvenirs -- objects that we use to remind ourselves of a certain memory. These can be photographs, newspaper clippings, or anything that serves this purpose. The suffix "-philia" means love or affinity, and appears in many English words such as "hemophilia," "pedophilia," and so on. So "memorophilia" means love of memory, but it also refers to the word "memorobilia," which describes objects that contain memories.

My father once invented the word accidentally, when he meant to say "memorobilia." He was asking me to send him more press clippings and stuff related to my performances.

Q: I heard you have not had any formal education in piano playing. It's kind of amazing. How did you learn playing piano? Also, if I remember correctly, you studied music with "suzuki" method. How it worked to you?

A: It's true, I never took piano lessons. But I had about 15 years of Western classical violin lessons, and studied western music theory (harmony) and learned some basics about jazz harmonies. I started on violin at age three with the Suzuki method, which was a great way to develop my musical ear. It became very natural for me to play back whatever I heard. I started doing this on the piano just because there was a piano in the house! My sister was studying piano while I was studying violin, but gradually I started trying songs on the piano.

I think that studying Suzuki made it possible for me to trust my ear, instead of relying too heavily on theoretical knowledge. A lot of people learn music theory first, which makes it difficult to move beyond conventional musical forms, and also makes it difficult to make their music a personal expression.

Q: So far I understand from your CD, some of your compositions share some concepts with Steve Coleman. How does he influenced your music? Is there any particular method to make music sound like that? Also, please tell me about the history of your collaboration with Steve Coleman.

A: In the two years that I've known Steve, he has influenced me tremendously in many ways. He is an incredibly creative and dedicated artist and a brilliant thinker. I guess the most obvious way that I am influenced by him is my focus on rhythm. This is true both on a small scale in terms of the way I improvise, and on a larger scale for the way I compose. The centrality of rhythm is a very non-western concept, and it gets lost when people try to use standard Western music theory to talk about this kind of music.

Even though I'm very heavily influenced by him conceptually, my sensibilities are different enough from his that my music doesn't sound derivative of his music. He liked my playing the first time he heard it, which was before I had really listened extensively to his work. I think he and I have a lot of influences in common, so he understood and related to what I was doing and vice-versa. Also he liked the way that I could improvise very freely over chord changes, maintaining the key voice-leading motion without resorting to pattern-based improvisation or repeating other people's phrases. I guess he saw what I was doing as creative.

I got to know Steve well because of a 6-week residency he did in the Oakland-San Francisco area in the fall of 1994. Harold Lee Yen and I and some others had helped him organize the whole thing, so we got to work with him on the business side of things. Gradually he got to hear me play and he let me sit in with his band a lot. Then, after he left town, he phoned me to do the gig with one of his three bands in Paris in March 1995, which got recorded and released as part of a 3-cd box set. Since then I've been part of that group (the Mystic Rhythm Society) as well as a quartet of his, called The Secret Doctrine. And of course, he was on my CD! The Mystic Rhythm Society just finished a two-week whirlwind tour of Western Europe, and I guess we'll do some more stuff in California soon.

Q: When I was playing with you, I was always feeling something very special in your sound. But it's impossible for me to describe it. Do you have any idea with this?

A: Not really -- but another time you described it as "magical." I suppose I like ambiguity (maybe you need to look up that word), both rhythmically and harmonically; in other words, I like the simultaneous presence of multiple musical meanings. So it might sound sometimes like I'm playing weird rhythms or weird chords, but I'm always relating it to the total sound, trying to expand it and set up contrasts and progressions. I try to remain grounded, honest, and confident in whatever musical situation I'm dealing with, whether it's Steve Coleman's groove-oriented material or so-called "free" improvisation. That is the first thing you notice about masters like Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington, Cecil Taylor, as well as African masters like Mustafah Tetty Ade, or Indian musicians like L. Subramanian or Trichy Sankaran -- not only are they playing amazing music, but they are playing it with amazing confidence and character.

I guess I could also talk about this "inside/outside" distinction. Often people describe playing "outside" as "leaving" the musical form, and playing "inside" as "staying" with the form. I do not think in this way; instead I like to think in terms of "expansion," of making the material grow from the inside, rather than disregarding it. This also applies to the difference between playing "over" changes and playing "through" or "between" changes. I don't know if this makes any sense to you or anyone else.

It's hard for me to describe my playing, even though I hear it every day!

Q: Please briefly tell me what the AIR is. What activities does the AIR do? How can we listen to AIR artists' music when we visit the Bay Area? Any plan for AIR products' Japan distribution? If not, how can Japan listeners likely get AIR products?

A: Asian Improv Records and the corresponding Asian Improv aRts are collective non-profit organizations run by and for Asian-American creative musicians (i.e. American creative musicians of East or South Asian descent). Among these musicians are pianists Jon Jang, Glenn Horiuchi, and myself; kotoist Miya Masaoka; bassists Mark Izu, Tatsu Aoki, and Jeff Song; saxophonist Francis Wong; and others. The record label has nearly 25 releases now. The easiest way to find out about their releases and activities is by visiting their web site, which has an AIR catalog and calendar.

Some individual artists on Asian Improv, including myself, have distribution into Japanese Tower Records stores through a third-party distributor, XDOT25. I understand that they had a full-page ad in Bounce magazine which included my disc. I don't know what AIR's distribution plan is at the moment, outside of the Bay Area. XDOT25 also has a web site, which features their catalog of world music, jazz, and fusion.

Q: In Japan, any "Asian community" kinds of idea doesn't always make sense, because Japan is a complete sole-race community. What do you think is the benefit of keeping Asian music community in the states/Bay area? Do people recognize the jazz music played by Asian American players to be different from that played by the other jazz players?

A: That's a difficult question to answer because it relates to the role of "jazz" in American society, and the roles of people of color (i.e. non-white people) in this society. I touch on these points a little bit in the essay inside my CD, which I will quote here:

... I found myself most attracted to music that lay outside of conventional teachings: Ellington, Monk, Cecil Taylor, and other artists ... As a person of color in America, I identified readily with their revolutionary forms of self-expression. To my ears, these artists possess a certain "cry," an incisive, ironic stance with respect to conventional musical forms, practices, and discourses. Often supporting and enriching this approach is a critical sociopolitical outlook, a desire to change the world, that many artists of color cannot help but share. This dimension carries utmost importance for me, and it ought to be heeded generally as a musical reality -- as a governing concept in the "jazz tradition."
I don't know if you can relate to this, but to me it is what this music is finally about: radical expressions of alternative identity, challenges to mainstream aesthetics, and expression of the collective voices of an oppressed group. This is what AIR artists try to do too -- to issue a rallying cry to unify and strengthen their community.

I think it's important to be truthful about who you are as a person before you can be effective and strong as an artist. It has social relevance that I am an artist of color (Indian-American, in a European-American society) playing music that came out of the African-American community. I also experience the effects of white-supremacist racism and discrimination, and that affects my identity and my music. At the same time, I'm not descended from enslaved people, so my heritage has enjoyed more social status and privilege than the average African-American living today. But I am the child of immigrants, and they have struggled to get to where they are now.

I don't know if that can be heard by a casual listener, but I'm convinced that someone who attunes his or her ears can hear the difference between musicians who have this kind of "cry," and musicians who don't. I'm not saying that you can hear the color of someone's skin, but you can hear what their music is about, and you can hear how honest they are.

Q: Tell me about your future work.

A: I hope to record another album this year, and it will probably feature both my trio and Poisonous Prophets. Maybe they will be on two separate discs, if the finances and support are available. I want to take both of these groups on tour around the US, Europe, Japan, and wherever else people are interested. Of course I also travel and record with Steve Coleman. I am also trying to study West African and south Indian (Carnatic) music on my own, and I'm also developing rhythm-based interactive computer music software to be used for performance.

That brings up another subject -- people often ask me about the connection between science and music, and it seems to run pretty deep. I keep running into more and more people -- especially of Indian descent -- with similar interests in both. Maybe it's in the blood! Or rather, it's part of a general cultural sensibility.

I don't know how familiar you are with Carnatic music, but its rhythmic intricacies require considerable mathematical skill and dexterity, which are integrated into the overall concept of good musicianship. For this reason I guess you could call this music a "science"; and you could say the same of African-American saxophonist Charlie Parker's pioneering rhythmic and melodic figurations. It seems to me that in the past, science and music were not such separate concepts.

Maybe someday all of this will come together!

April 1996

Back to Vijay's homepage