On the Record with Pianist Vijay Iyer
Vijay Iyer is a world-renowned jazz pianist and composer who has also written music for various classical and electronic ensembles. Iyer visited Oberlin last weekend to attend a workshop performance of his new violin concerto, titled Trouble, by Oberlin Sinfonietta ahead of its worldwide premiere at Ojai Music Festival June 8. The piece featured violin soloist Jennifer Koh, OC ’97. Iyer and Koh also held a residency that included several master classes and discussions.
Iyer graduated from Yale University with degrees in Physics and Mathematics. Iyer soon began playing professionally after moving to California to pursue a doctorate in Physics at the University of California, Berkeley. He began his career by playing with Donald Bailey and Steve Coleman, who invited Iyer to join him on tour in 1994. Aside from performing with his trio, Iyer has taught at various schools such as the Manhattan School of Music and New York University. He is currently the Franklin D. and Florence Rosenblatt Professor of the Arts at Harvard University.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Is this the first time you composed a piece for a larger classical orchestra in this setting?
Mostly for smaller ensembles like string quartets [and] wind quartets, but I wrote a chamber orchestra piece 10 years ago. That was the first of that size.
What made you want to want to write the violin concerto? Is Jennifer Koh someone who you picked out and wanted to perform it?
She picked me. In all these cases, it’s usually because someone invites me to do it. It’s not because I want to dedicate that many months sweating over my laptop and the details of a score. It’s moreso just a stimulating challenge for me to push myself into a slightly different world and a different way of working. I grew up playing the violin, had classical lessons for 15 years, played in classical orchestras and a lot of solo repertoire. I had a feel for it from that side of things, but I didn’t formally study composition or orchestration. It kind of came about through my own self-study and explorations, kind of a learning on the job through trial and error.
You went to Yale but never officially went to school for music. How did you get started in the jazz scene? Was that when you moved to the Bay Area or had you always been playing?
I was pretty active as a musician in college, I just wasn’t doing it through curricular means. I was making my own path. I grew up playing music and was in the jazz ensemble in high school. That gave me the point of entry into more formal settings for improvisation. I grew up playing piano by ear, and I still basically play by ear. When I moved to Oakland when I was 20, I suddenly found myself playing with elder musicians in the scene around the Bay Area. One thing led to another, and I think the main catalyst was Steve Coleman. I connected with him in 1994, and shortly after that he asked me to go on the road with him. That’s when I realized that this isn’t just a hobby, it’s probably something I should take seriously.
But before you started playing professionally, were you still transcribing a lot of the older greats like Thelonius Monk or John Coltrane?
Of course — that’s how I studied the music. I couldn’t just waltz in without any knowledge. I’ve been obsessed with Monk since I was 15. Initially, I was into people like Herbie [Hancock], Keith Jarrett [and] Miles Davis’ recordings. Monk became a touchstone for me. He had just so much to offer and so much creativity and so many ideas. His feel and his sense of time and the way he played with time felt very alive — so much more alive than anything else I’d heard before. I studied his music, Coltrane [and] Duke Ellington. When I moved to the Bay Area, I became the house pianist for this jam session, so I ended up playing with a lot of singers and backing up a whole line of saxophonists taking chorus after chorus on standards — being able to transpose some standard for a singer to the most distant key, usually, and then just learning not just to be a sensitive accompanist for the other musicians, but also to help communicate to an audience. The jam session was really good for that because there was a crowd there and you were accountable and had to deliver something to them. It wasn’t just musicians playing for each other.
How do you view that kind of jam session, a natural way of developing your playing versus conservatories like this? Do you think, “What if I’d gone to a conservatory for music like this?” Do you see value in that way of learning?
I think it’s a little bit of an awkward fit for this area of music — I mean it’s a bit awkward across the board, but particularly in this area — to take the music out of a living context, when we barely understand it as it is. To try and distill it, you’re not even sure what you’re losing in the process [that’s] the main thing I noticed, not only at Oberlin, because I’ve taught at Manhattan School of Music for several years, NYU and The New School. Particularly, when I was on the faculty at MSM, I actually had people come to meet me at my place instead of meeting them on Manhattan School turf because I felt they needed to get out into the world more. Then we’d be able to talk more artist to artist, and not a teacher to student-type thing. We could just explore ideas together and think more broadly about what we’re doing and what’s happening in the world around us. We could ask deeper questions about the role of an artist and their responsibility — how to challenge yourself, be in service to your community — all these larger questions that a conservatory is not equipped to ask.
I liked in your master class when you suggested to one of the student groups that they do something new with the music and look to more recent improvisational concepts. One thing I sometimes hear about conservatories is there’s a lot of circulating the same history and ways of soloing. Do you have any advice for people who feel like they’re always learning old stuff and want to get to that level of playing?
To relegate ourselves and treat the music like it ended 50–60 years ago — those people are missing out. Part of why it feels like you’re tapping into something old that you’re disconnected [ from] is because it is. Even within the so-called “jazz community,” there’s been a lot of new ideas brought to the table in the last half century. The music is only around 100 years old to begin with. If you shut out that half of the history, you’re not really dealing with it.
But do you think you really have to have a good grasp on that first half-century and have the vocabulary under your fingers to really move on to newer work? I feel like a lot of instructors have said things similar to that.
I think there’s a lot of ways to study the past. That’s true in English, for example. If you’re an English major, you’d be able to talk about contemporary literature. You can still read [Geoffrey] Chaucer while reading Colson Whitehead. You could even realize they may have some things in common.