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American Pianist-Composer Vijay Iyer: ‘Critics are Really Bad at Listening’

The jazz musician on the ugly politics of music, and facing prejudice from music reviewers who tend to be ’99 percent white men’

Urvija Banerji May 15, 2017
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Pianist-composer Vijay Iyer didn't always know it was possible for him to be a musician. Photo: Lena Adasheva

Pianist-composer Vijay Iyer didn’t always know it was possible for him to be a musician. Photo: Lena Adasheva

In the past decade and a half, American pianist-composer Vijay Iyer has grown to become one of the most celebrated names in modern jazz. He’s just completed writing a concerto for violin, an instrument he’s played since the age of three. He’s also fresh out of the studio after having recorded his 22nd studio album (that number increases if you count his numerous collaborations), a sextet recording which is due out in September.

His music career might be following a dream trajectory today, but things weren’t always this effortless for the American-born Iyer, who counts himself in the first generation of South Asian Americans to grow up in the U.S. “I was very serious about music growing up, but aside from that being all of my extra-curricular activities when I was in high school, it wasn’t really seen as a serious thing to pursue… There was no precedent for us, there was no clear series of steps that one would go through to have a career in the arts,” says the 45-year-old musician. “We were a strongly curated community of Indians, or basically of non-Western immigrants, who had scientific and technical training.”

As a result, Iyer has a degree in physics and mathematics from Yale University. When he moved to California in his early twenties to pursue a doctorate in physics at UC Berkeley, he found a community of Asian American musicians that accepted him into the fold, but it was the influence of saxophonist Steve Coleman that served as the catalyst for Iyer’s decision to drop his physics program and become a musician.

Iyer’s trio albums, like Accelerando (2012), and collaborations, such as his latest with avant-garde jazz legend Wadada Leo Smith, A Cosmic Rhythm with Each Stroke (2016), have garnered critical acclaim. He teaches at Harvard, as the Franklin D. and Florence Rosenblatt Professor of the Arts. He is an undeniably accomplished musician, for someone who hasn’t always wanted to be one–because for the longest time, he didn’t know that he could be one.

He may have deviated from the cultural norms that he grew up with, but throughout his musical career, Iyer has consistently placed importance on the politics of race and cultural identity. He speaks at a measured, thoughtful pace and somehow maintains the same quiet volume no matter who he is addressing, whether that’s a room full of people at a panel discussion or me, over Skype from his Harlem apartment. Over the course of our conversation, Iyer spoke about translating his political stances into music, his role as a cultural worker and the almost spiritual bond people experience through music.

Photo: Lena Adasheva

Iyer: “What I find is that people use difference as an excuse to not pay attention.” Photo: Lena Adasheva

I wanted to talk to you a little bit about recent events in the U.S., particularly with regards to the hate crimes against Indian Americans in America. You’ve been very vocal about community building. How has your role as a cultural worker changed in light of these events, if it has changed?

I’ve always situated myself somewhere in relation to music and activism. My life as an artist in this last quarter-century has been about imagining and creating community. Most of my collaborations have been with that in mind or trying to move in that direction, or to even explicitly address certain questions or concerns. As a musician, particularly as an instrumental musician, the way that I tell stories is a little bit more abstract. You can always just name a song with some politically oriented title, but that doesn’t really do the work. It signals to other work, but it doesn’t really do anything otherwise.

So how do you translate your political stances into music?

What I’ve found is that [it’s through] the kinds of collaborations I’m involved with, the artists I associate with, the rationale for doing it. Nowadays I have more and more of a curatorial purview. I’ve been given more opportunities to curate festivals or assemble a lot of people in different ways. One way is as an educator, even, that’s a sort of curatorial effort too, when you teach a class. I’ve noticed that a lot of syllabi about music and activism still have a lot of primarily white authors, and primarily male authors. So often, the terms are set in the realm of white discourse, and I try to push back against that.

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I’m the music director for the Ojai Music Festival, which is in June. Historically, that’s been a Western classical music festival, often dealing with modern classical music. At one point [Igor] Stravinsky had this job, and Leonard Bernstein did it. A lot of different composers, performers, conductors, impresarios have had this position. The fact that I got it feels like a little bit of a fluke. Feels like somebody lost their mind and decided to pick me.

Zakir Hussain is playing at Ojai, right?

Yeah. And it’s an overwhelmingly white audience, and wealthy. So this is a chance to infiltrate and ambush into that space with a lot of different ideas and different perspectives on music that they may not have been aware of or willing to pay attention to. You know what I find is that people use difference as an excuse to not pay attention. So I guess it’s there that I have a chance to do political work, and it’s different from calling oneself a political artist.

Would you not call yourself a political artist?

No–other people call me that. I’m someone who cares. I just have different perspectives on what music is and what music can be and how it can emerge from the politics of listening.

Could you elaborate on that? The politics of listening?

What it takes to collaborate with somebody is a lot of time spent listening to each other, in ways that we usually, in everyday life, don’t get a chance to do, and certainly in our professional lives, don’t really have opportunities to have a sustained creative encounter with somebody that might unfold over months or years. Because you’re pushing yourself into someone else’s worldview, you undergo a transformation of your own, so this requires a certain willingness or acceptance to admit to that. To me, it takes a certain kind of compassion or empathy, mutual respect and willingness to change. That’s what I see as a politics.

Do you think that because you are making jazz, which you’ve heard thousands of people tell you is something they’ve not gotten into, and because you are a brown artist, that that makes you especially difficult for a lot of people to listen to, like white listeners?

People listen to what they listen to… because it sounds good [laughs]. Or because it gives them a certain feeling. Sometimes, people will just close off all areas or sectors of the world without actually listening to or experiencing it whatsoever. Or they’ll make assumptions based on surface characteristics. So I’ve seen all of that happen over the years, but the thing is that music actually works. What I mean by that is that it’s a way that we communicate with each other and it’s a way that we are able to be together in time. And I don’t just mean ”˜we’ as musicians. I mean everyone in the environment of music-making, which means everyone in the room with us when we perform.

My work is the music. That’s the hardest thing to get someone to engage with. But I’ve had the good fortune over these decades to interact with a lot of audiences and a lot of listeners, both through the circulation of my recordings and through playing thousands of concerts. Over that time, some genuine connections have been made. And I don’t mean connections in the sense of networking, but in the sense of creating a bond through a musical experience. That outweighs all these issues of difference and prejudice. Music creates community. I don’t want to pretend that none of that’s a problem, but I guess I try to keep it in perspective, the perspective of having been a part of these very powerful experiences, these almost spiritual moments. An entire room full of people transcending time and space. To say that it transcends difference is almost a banal way to put it. To me, that’s the real point of it.

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I remember reading something where you said that a lot of people tend to differentiate you from other jazz artists by saying that your work is “cerebral.” You said you noticed that might be something they were saying because you’re an Indian, Asian artist making this music and that’s the perception of Indian and Asian people.

Critics do that. And critics aren’t the only people in the world. Actually, critics are really bad at listening. I should also say that critics are overwhelmingly, maybe 99 percent white men. That discourse is the white gaze in action. Of the thousands of reviews that I’ve received, I can count on one hand the number of times it’s been by a person of color of any kind.

I will review your sextet album when it comes out.

[Laughs] Okay, that’s great!

Iyer with recent collaborator Wadada Leo Smith. Photo: John Rogers

Iyer with recent collaborator Wadada Leo Smith. Photo: John Rogers

What about from the other end? The people that think that Asians don’t have any business in the music industry?

Those are basically the same people [laughs].There’s a pattern in the way that I was talked about. It’s the way that Asians are described by whiteness, Asians of different kinds. It starts with a set of stereotypes, and then you have to work really hard to undo them, but you’re not really given a chance. What it really boiled down to was that we are undesirable. This is my critical reading of the hundreds or thousands of reviews: I distill it down to a certain set of tendencies in how I’m described by white male critics in a certain corner of the industry. But that doesn’t mean that there are billions of people out there who think I shouldn’t be in the music business [laughs].

But there are probably a lot of people out there now who don’t think you should be in the country, even though you were born and raised there. Has this changed the music that you make? Is the sextet recording you’re making this weekend going to be different as a response to that?

There’s a strain of defiance and a liberationist aesthetic that has always been a part of particularly African-American musical aesthetics. It’s been there the whole time, as long as we’ve been able to listen to it. That has always been an important quality that I’ve strived for in my own work, and it’s definitely in the sound of this band, so I think it’ll be heard that way. It’s also the case that a lot of the music we make does have certain social or political associations that I don’t shy away from. All of that predates the Trump era, and will also outlast the Trump era. As tumultuous and potentially destructive as it seems, it’s also not out of step with American history. He’s got the incompetence of George W. Bush and the racism of Ronald Reagan. So we’ve seen it before. He’s also a criminal [laughs], he’s just a lying crook. But we’ve seen that too, because this country is founded on plunder and genocide.

So what you’re saying is that for a political artist, it’s more like a constant fight towards a better goal–it’s always been a fight, and it will continue to be a fight.

It’s radical, not in the sense of being extreme, but in the sense of being at the root a radical sensibility of defiance, refusal and presence–all of those things together. Plus, working towards small goals, like, well, it’s not a small goal: ending mass incarceration, or to give to the poor. Trying to address systemic racism and other systemic forms of oppression every chance we get. I have something like 25,000 Twitter followers, but most of them follow me because I’m a musician, and maybe because they’re interested in my work as a musician. So those people aren’t expecting to be told about prison industrial complex. I have a certain platform by virtue of being a pseudo-public figure. That to me is a way of channeling that energy. We have a chance to gather people in that space and telling them something they need to hear.

Listen to “Passages,” a song off ‘A Cosmic Rhythm With Each Stroke’:

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