On 22 September, New York pianist Vijay Iyer opens his 2019/20 Wigmore Hall Musicality residency with two concerts (The Transitory Poems with Craig Taborn, and The Evolution Tapes with Mike Ladd. There are also performances with different ensembles in January and June 2020. He spoke from New York to John Fordham:
If you were to read Vijay Iyer’s CV without ever having heard him play a piano or lead a band – it includes a Yale degree in maths and physics, a PhD dissertation in the psychology of experiencing and making music, and latterly a Harvard professorship – you could ponder for a moment if the output of the 47-year-old New York-born son of south Indian Tamil parents might go a little over the average jazzbo’s head. But such assumptions couldn’t be further from the truth in the case of this remarkable and much-feted artist, whose music may often sound startlingly advanced, but never rarefied or remote. Since his emergence in the 1990s, playing with such dynamic experimenters as Steve Coleman or his Indian-American saxophonist contemporary Rudresh Mahanthappa, Iyer has revealed himself to be an audacious original who drives bold musical thought with headlong energy, and whose work almost always sounds explicitly jazz-rooted however radically it bends the rules.
Over the quarter-century since he began juggling a piano-playing and bandleading life alongside an academic one, Iyer has involved himself in an astonishing range of assignments and fascinating challenges. His pollwinning decade-old group with jazz/classical bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Marcus Gilmore has become a dizzyingly flexible vehicle for ideas drawn from African and Indian cultures, the jazz tradition – and maths. Since 2003, Iyer has periodically renewed a creative mixed-media relationship with poet, musician and producer Mike Ladd, addressing political and social issues, often satirically. He composes for classical ensembles and film-makers, has won a MacArthur Fellowship and been an Artist in Residence at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, writes on music matters, and since 2014 has taught in Harvard University’s Department of Music as a Professor of the Arts. On 22 September, this indefatigable artist now brings that wealth of knowledge and shared experience to London, as he begins a 2019/20 tenure as the Wigmore Hall’s Composer In Residence – an assignment that will take in two duo performances on the opening show, a world-music gig on 10 January featuring Iyer’s virtuosic Afro-Cuban/Indian-influenced Ritual Ensemble, and a performance on 10 June 2020 focusing on his through-composed work. The latter will include a new Iyer contemporary-classical piece (world-premiered next January by the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s New Music Group under conductor Paolo Bortolameolli), which will be performed at the Wigmore Hall by London’s Aurora Orchestra.
So there’s a lot to talk about when I call Iyer’s Harlem studio to seek his thoughts – and since the residency is simply but tantalisingly named Musicality, it seems likely that we might stray on to some broader themes too. An artist with as crowded a diary as Iyer’s might be forgiven for pushing the conversation along with some briskness, but when he comes on the line he immediately sounds cordial, funny, formidably articulate, and in no hurry at all. The two 22 September shows – a 7pm performance with a celebrated fellow pianist, Craig Taborn, and a 10pm late show of electronics and poetry with long-time collaborator Mike Ladd – are evidently ventures close to his heart, since his associations with both performers go back a long way.
“Craig and I have known each other since the 1990s, and played in some of the same bands at different times, including Roscoe Mitchell’s, Steve Coleman’s, and Wadada Leo Smith’s,” Iyer says. “We made a duo album together for ECM recently, called The Transitory Poems, and that’s the title of this performance, but we’ve always approached our collaborative duo as a spontaneous activity, the results are unique to each night. That title fits the activity rather than a repertoire of pieces, it says something about the ephemeral nature of what we do, composing and performing at the same time, and then it’s gone.”
Would it therefore be fair to say that you don’t prepare for such an encounter, but just sit down and play?
“I’d hesitate to have it characterised like that, because there’s a discipline to it,” Iyer says. “When you improvise with someone, it entails personal care in the kind of choices are being made, including questions of rhythm and timbre and orchestration and form and texture, a lot of compositional awareness – and how things sound in the space you’re in.”
The evening’s very different second concert, with the Boston-born, Paris-based poet and electronics artist Mike Ladd, will introduce new material from their partnership, as well as drawing on their collaborations since 2003’s exploration of post-9/11 paranoia In What Language?, 2007’s political and news-media satire Still Life with Commentator, and Holding It Down: The Veterans’ Dreams Project (2013), which addressed the dreams of soldiers involved in 21st century wars.
“Mike’s a brilliant poet, and he’s also an electronic musician and so am I,” Vijay Iyer observes. “So this will involve different textures and rhythms and beats, drawing on everything we know, with some new forays and some old ones. It also challenges the question of what composing is – not just about organisation, but about creating environments for what Mike does in telling a story.” As he does on occasion in our conversation, Iyer pauses for a chuckle that often seems prompted by the transitory nature of much of his work. “We have to find moments of lightness in it, of course,” he says, “because the subjects are serious matters and it can be quite a foreboding affair. We have to bring it to life, which is about musical co-existence, maybe sometimes when a sound-world that might be hazy and almost narcotic encounters something being said that’s quite jarring.”
Iyer’s enthusiasm audibly bubbles when he talks about the Ritual Ensemble’s performance at the Wigmore Hall on 10 January, because the venture emerged from his work at Harvard, and involves musicians from contrasting backgrounds who constantly surprise him. The quartet brings together the Grammy-nominated Afro-Cuban composer, saxophonist and percussionist Yosvany Terry, South Indian percussionist, artist and composer Rajna Swaminathan, and young American-born vocalist, composer and Berklee College of Music graduate Ganavya, whose 2018 debut album Aikyam: Onnu featured jazz standards sung in the Tamil language.
“Each of us brings our own compositiions to this group,” Iyer says, “and a lot of it has evolved slowly. I first met Rajna when she was eight, and later she was my first doctoral student at Harvard. She learned to play the mridangam drum with one of the all-time greats of Carnatic percussion, got into Steve Coleman’s and Tyshawn Sorey’s music in New York, and I’ve compared her more than once to Zakir Hussain as a traditional percussionist who’s taken off from being suddenly exposed to everything, I’ve never heard anything like some of the things she does. Ganavya is the most heartstoppingly brilliant vocalist, and Yosvany Terry – who’s the son of a famous Cuban musician, the violinist and chékere player Don Pancho Terry – brings a completely different kind of rhythmic access to our playing.”
When Vijay Iyer called this residency Musicality, he typically chose a word with a multitude of implications. One of them seems to take us back to the opening question of this story – whether such refined virtuosity, and the capacity to pack a wealth of fastmoving detail into spontaneous performances requires a comparable erudition from listeners. It’s a proposition that Vijay Iyer fields with a characteristic mixture of precision and candid directness.
“When I listen to Charlie Parker Live At Birdland, or Monk with Johnny Griffin,” he reflects, “there’s an intensity of information there of course, yet there’s also fluidity, swagger and grace, that’s the kind of prowess that intrigues me, and it also relates to the title of this residency. When you think of ‘musicality’ – well, we all know, we all have some idea, of how little this really has to do with form, or structures, or complexity. It’s what reaches to people in spite of structure. My definition of ‘musicality’ is… whatever grabs my ear. Whatever it is that calls to you.” (pp)
Vijay Iyer Residency: Musicality, at the Wigmore Hall
Sunday 22 Sept, 7pm: The Transitory Poems. Vijay Iyer (piano), Craig Taborn (piano)
Sunday 22 Sept, 10pm: The Evolution Tapes. Vijay Iyer (piano, Fender Rhodes, electronics), Mike Ladd (lyrics, electronics)
Friday 10 Jan 2020, 7.30pm: The Ritual Ensemble. Vijay Iyer (piano), Ganavya (vocals), Yosvany Terry (saxophones), Rajna Swaminathan (percussion)
Saturday 11 Jan 2020, 1.00pm: Vijay Iyer and Professor Georgina Born in conversation
Wednesday 10 June 2020: Vijay Iyer with Aurora Orchestra