Interview with Vijay Iyer by A. Shuman (continued)

5) Computer music: I get the willies whenever I hear this phrase because 1) I don't know much about computers and am easily intimidated by mine; 2) the music that comes immediately to mind is the worst, trebley techno; 3) one of the things I like about jazz is its human-ness. Seeing John Tchicai, for instance, fill a room with his sound from a puny horn, and then collapse that sound down on top of you, is powerful in a way I don't think computer or even amplified music is.

That said, your project of developing "sensitive interactive music software for improvised performance" seems different because it's grounded in rhythm, and it's intended to be complentary, playing with others, instead of creating the entire music on its own. What is CNMAT? How far along are you in developing the CDM? What inspired you to do this, and what do you hope to learn from it? And for us technophobes: why design a computerized drummer to do presumably what a human drummer could?

First of all, you ought to acknowledge that computer music is already all around us. Hip-hop is computer music. Most film scores and most pop music these days employ synthesizers, which are basically computers with sonic output. Sun Ra and Stevie Wonder used electronic keyboards very effectively. So don't let the fact that computers are involved scare you. Technology is just whatever people use to interact with their environment or extend their own abilities. A hundred years ago John Tchicai's soprano saxophone was as new as samplers are now. Only a few millenia ago, plucked strings were relatively new. Today it's just a matter of people figuring out how to be as expressive with digital technology as they have with brass and carved wood and stretched animal skins. And hand-in-hand with this, our popular esthetics have to change, in the same way that they changed to accomodate the saxophone in the first place, or in the same way that the Yamaha DX-7 or the sampler have driven popular esthetics. It is pointless to make value judgments on those new esthetics, because they are part of the world and therefore should be recognized as valid.

Anyway, CNMAT is the Center for New Music and Audio Technologies, a computer music research facility that is part of UC Berkeley's music department but is rather independent, getting extra funding from corporate sponsorships and grants. I spend time there as a graduate student in a Ph.D. program I put together myself, entitled "Technology and the Arts," through which I focus on the cognitive-scientific study of music, specifically rhythm and improvisation. Inspired by the great trombonist, composer, computer musician and philosopher George Lewis (an AACM member currently on the faculty at UCSD, and also on my dissertation committee), I attempt (as he has done) to use computers as a laboratory to test theories of rhythm cognition and concepts underlying improvisation and interaction. Lewis has constructed an improvising environment called "Voyager," in which the computer, driving a bank of synthesizers and sound modules, improvises along with improvised (analog) input. It produces quite convincing and satisfactory output which sounds orchestral and expansive. His work with computers is meant to model these processes as carried out by humans, but also to be creatively empowering -- you could call it a robot or a composition or whatever, but in any case it is a work of art. It deals with music in a way that is shaped by his musical knowledge and esthetics (i.e. his life experiences), and makes no claims to "answer" the question of what improvisors are "thinking about".

So part of my goal in the work I do with computers is to develop models of how the musical mind is structured, but these models are not meant to be all-encompassing or universal or generic; rather they are meant to provide specific concepts that can help me think about and create music in new ways. I want to develop rhythmic principles for improvisation, and these principles are mainly informed by my experiences as a musician, but also by my work with computers. I treat the computer in this way as a conceptual tool where I can test ideas, and as something that can also be musically functional. But I have my own esthetics, and I'm not going to throw them out the window in favor of the proverbial bleeps and blops.

6) I read your on-line essay about jazz collectives, and one of the things that struck me is that when you mention the elements of Signifying and improvisation-- "verticality, intertextuality, history, multiplicity, reference to shared knowledge"-- you're citing all the things that people discuss as "postmodernism" and pay oddles of money to read about in the books of white French guys. Is this just another example of academic racism? Are these qualities what enable jazz to serve as metaphor for so many things: as democracy, as "America's music," as black history, as a progressive cry and struggle for change?

Hmm, this may be over my head. What I can say is that this whole post-structuralist movement (wave? trend? fad?) in academia has opened the door for academics to discuss alternate paradigms that come from non-European philosophical or esthetic traditions. It's not that these things didn't exist before, but that there was no framework for talking about them in academia before. So Henry Louis Gates, an African-American scholar who got his Ph.D. with deconstructionist Geoffrey Hartman at Yale, was able to look back at ancient African myths and contemporary African diasporic history through the lens of contemporary "postmodernist" critical theory, and develop the beginnings of a rather autonomous and highly influential theoretical framework for looking at African-American literature. (I'm referring to his first book, "The Signifying Monkey," from which I have borrowed the concept of Signifyin(g).) Yes, he developed everything within this European-derived framework, so his is typically the most institutionally-accepted and oft-cited non-white literary theory. Does that make him an academic racist? I don't really know. Academia is generally racist, and he is a specific academic. But he is also a very accomplished black man -- a Harvard professor, a New Yorker columnist, a prolific author, cultural critic and educator who has done a lot to deconstruct racism and reconstruct history -- who works with and within the system, because he can.

Does my citation of his or any academic work make me an academic racist? Does my situation in academia make me racist? Does my implication in the current socioeconomic superstructure make me "part of the problem"? Does my glib armchair discussion of music as a social force and a communalist metaphor have any bearing on anything real in the world? Do these alternative historical narratives that we construct carry any weight, or are they as easily deconstructed as the history books we grew up on?

Sometimes the point of reconstruction of history of an oppressed group, for whom history or traditions have been lost, is not so much to be "objective" about history (which is impossible) but to be subjective about empowerment, to provide disenfranchised people with a story about themselves that is honorable and dignified, to give them the strength to continue in the world, to give them a point from which to build. Construction of historical narratives will always be a tool of sociopolitical power, and that's really what weÕre talking about -- a struggle for power. Like I said about the web and the library, there are as many conflicting accounts of history as there are people to tell it, and what we need to do is let as many voices be heard as possible.

To answer your question, I think that the qualities of "jazz" that I have been stressing all along -- the privileging of improvisation (which encourages individualism), and the heightened awareness of "extra," culturally-encoded elements (which encourages collectivism) make it such an easy target for social metaphor. And these metaphors are worthwhile readings of what's actually going on. No single reading is the whole story, but each one carries some weight.

7) Comments on your current projects and the different things you try to do or are searching for in each. (The list I've assembled so far includes: Spirit Complex, Poisonous Prophets, the Trio, Steve Coleman and M-BASE, Midnight Voices; any more?) One of the web-linked interviews refers to new recording sin the works; when will you have stuff coming out?

Well, last summer (August 1996) I recorded and mixed a second CD of original music, and I'm now shopping it around to small record companies that might be able to fund it. It features the same trio as on the first CD (myself on piano, Jeff Brock on bass, Brad Hargreaves on drums); this trio is augmented for about two-thirds of the album to an octet, with additional musicians Rudresh Mahanthappa, Liberty Ellman, & Aaron Stewart (mentioned above), saxophonist Eric Crystal, and second bassist Kevin Mingus (yes, he's the grandson of Charles Mingus, 20 years old and a UC Berkeley undergrad). I feel that the new album, entitled Architextures, delves deeply into symbolism; the compositions and improvisations feature symbolic encoding at multiple levels, from the imagistic to the metaphysical. In some ways the influence of Indian musics and cultures is much more audible than on the previous record. I also feel that the sound of the octet conveys a powerful unity of intent from diverse voices. Memorophilia was relatively spacious and subtle, and this album is more direct and simple. Anyway, it ought to be out soon -- maybe this summer or fall.

My main current ensemble is known as Vijay Iyer's Poisonous Prophets. ItÕs the same group that appears on track 5 of the first CD -- myself, guitarist Liberty Ellman, electroacoustic bassist Jeff Bilmes, and drummer Elliot Humberto Kavee. We have more than an album's worth of material, and I intend to record it this summer. This is one of the most exciting bands I've ever been in. The focus is on rhythmic expression and interactivity, and development of creative rhythmic concepts and new improvisational structures. The material, generally "groove"-oriented and designed for collective improvisation, is quite challenging to play, so it has fostered a great deal of musical growth among all of us. Every musician in the group has a totally unique sound, so the combination is not like anything I have ever heard. Bilmes and Kavee are rhythmic virtuosi who interact well, and Ellman and I have a long-standing musical rapport. People often ask me about the name of the group. I guess it has a funny connotation for some people. To me it describes a certain kind of prophetic or futuristic knowledge as contaminating, poisonous -- not lethal but mind-altering or hallucinogenic. That's what the band sounds like to me. It's not that the band members are poisonous prophets, but that the music sounds prophetic and poisonous. Whatever!!!

The Vijay Iyer Trio is also around, and it started out a few years ago as another space for experimentation. Most of that music focuses on the kind of piano sounds that I have learned from Monk, Duke Ellington, Andrew Hill, Randy Weston, Cecil Taylor, and Sun Ra. But it also functions as a laboratory for the sciences of rhythm and interactivity. It has a darker, earthier and more elegant sound than Poisonous Prophets. It was in this group that I first began experimenting with South Indian rhythmic concepts that I had learned from recordings, and that became something we developed collectively, always filtering the information through our own sensibilities. We have a lot more material than has been documented so far, but now that Brad Hargreaves is in a rock band on Elektra Records, we won't have many more chances to play or record in the near future. But the way I see both of these bands, which have rehearsed collectively for hundreds of hours, is that we can always come back and pick up where we left off, even years from now.

I've been involved in Steve Coleman's music for about two and a half years, and it's definitely given me an expanded vision of what's possible in small-group improvised music. Through my experiences with him I learned to focus more pointedly on rhythm and alternative ways of structuring improvisation. I had always been into "strange" stuff, and I had always maintained the old masters (Monk, Duke, etc) as my models, but he showed me that it was possible to execute things at a high level, with great attention to detail, retaining the spirit and the attitude of the masters while not sounding derivative. And most importantly, he was one of the first people to tell me that what I was doing was worth hearing. Anyway, I have been part of a large group of his, Mystic Rhythm Society, playing synthesizer; and IÕve also been the pianist in a quartet of his called the Secret Doctrine. Both of these groups have toured Europe, and the first recorded a live CD in Paris two years ago, entitled Myths, Modes, and Means. So now I'm in New York preparing for Steve's big-band recording, and immediately thereafter I'll be subbing for Andy Milne in Five Elements, on a month-long tour to Europe and Senegal, with special guest percussionists from Afro-Cuba de Matanzas and some dancers too. In Senegal we will work with some West African musicians, and possibly do a recording there. It's going to be quite an experience!

Midnight Voices has been a continually rewarding experience. The group has an organic, family vibe to it; they've been together for many years in various incarnations, and they have always featured theatrics, dance, and live music, and a very positive and spiritual message. Nominally we're playing hip-hop, with talented lyricists Mohammed Bilal and Will Power, but since the group features a tight live band (myself, Liberty Ellman, bassist Rahsaan Fredericks, drummer Simone White), we are actually pretty unclassifiable. We are always encouraged to be ourselves and experiment and improvise, and so the collectively-developed music is pretty solid and fresh. One great project we did earlier this year, which weÕll probably do again in the summer and fall, is a hip-hop musical about AIDS in the African-American community. We had a 5-night run at a community center in the Fillmore district in SF, where the two rappers grew up, and we also did some matinees for high-school kids. We've also done a number of collaborations with the talented young black choreographer Robert Henry Johnson's dance company.

Simone White's Metaphors is a heavily improvised jazz-funk-fusion band, actually a spinoff of Midnight Voices. It includes the four musicians mentioned above. Simone is a talented funk/rock/hip-hop drummer who has worked with Disposable Heroes of HipHoprisy, George Clinton, and others, and he had the idea of getting together outside of the hip-hop context to try to do some other stuff. Rahsaan Fredericks is a very subtle young bassist who has a nice groove and very positive energy. He works in Conjunto Cespides and a lot of other salsa bands around the Bay Area. This quartet may record this summer as well.

E.W. Wainwright's African Roots of Jazz is another band with a family vibe and a strong political message. 58-year-old explosive drummer Wainwright studied with Elvin Jones and has toured with McCoy Tyner, Pharaoh Sanders, and Oscar Brown, Jr. He has always been committed to social change and empowerment of African Americans. The music covers a broad spectrum of African diasporic forms, from jazz and funk to Caribbean and Afro-Latin styles, as well as Senegalese and other West African musics which are segued into the other material. It also features poetry, storytelling, and song by griot/dancer/trumpeter Phavia Kujichagulia. She and Wainwright are employed by this agency called Arts in Corrections, and through them we get to perform for and talk to people (mainly young black men) in prison. That is one of the more rewarding experiences I've had. The inmates are starved for that kind of attention and care, and the music really gives them a positive image to relate to.

I also work in guitarist Liberty Ellman's group, which just recorded an excellent album soon to be released. Liberty is one of my closest friends and most frequent collaborators. We have similar tastes and similar ears, and as you saw above, we work together in a lot of different groups. His music is rich, rhythmic, and powerful, and I'm sure you'll be hearing a lot more from him.

I work in my friend Miya Masaoka's creative orchestra, which also just did some recordings and multimedia performances. She is also interested in issues of interactivity, ethnicity, gender, and the body, and her work has a colorful, hard-hitting postmodern flair.

Finally, I just did a recording of standards with a talented singer named Rod Sherrell.

All of my sideman projects, you will note, are unique situations that encourage me to be myself, rather than to fit into some preconceived notion of "piano player." My playing is different enough that people who hire me usually know what they're getting into, and that's why I don't do a huge amount of ordinary sideman work. I guess that's it for now!

April 1997

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