On break stuff and open cities

Sarah Posman and Matthijs de Ridder in conversation with American jazz musician Vijay Iyer. This interview was conducted in May 2015, when Iyer’s trio with Stephan Crump (bass) and Marcus Gilmore (drums) had just released the album ‘Break Stuff’.  A Dutch translation first appeared in the literary journal nY #27 (November 2015). 

MDR: Let’s start with the title of your latest album, Break Stuff. The trailer presents the cd as an album about stuff that happens in the breaks, but the phrase is also, of course, an imperative. Is it okay to read it as an invitation to break stuff?

VI: Well, I didn’t want to rule out that possibility. Sometimes these titles create a certain energy that activates the listener. It’s of course difficult to say that music is ‘about’ something. From our perspective, of course it is, but one of music’s great strengths is that its meaning is open because it doesn’t denote anything but connotes a great deal. We are used to talking about music in terms of associations with other music. Often music criticism is about comparison. It’s almost like différance, an endless chain of associations. But there’s also something to that musical moment that, because it’s about sensation and of being with other bodies, makes a space for meaning that exceeds language. And that to me is important. So all that in order to say that the title is merely a stimulus.

MDR: How does the new album relate to the larger jazz tradition? Whereas on your album Solo you deconstruct melodies by for example Thelonius Monk, you now seem to be incorporating chunks of compositions by Monk, Billie Strahern and John Coltrane. Has your position in relation to the jazz tradition altered?  

VI: Hm, I think you’re being selective in the examples you’re choosing. If you look at more of what I’ve done in the past, you’d see other examples that are also closer to their source material. Our version of ‘Fleurette Africaine’, for example, is pretty faithful. I stretched it out so it’s certainly longer but that’s it. Engaging with tradition always involves acts of translation and displacement. If you listen to the trio’s version of Herbie Nichols’ tune ‘Wildflower’, you’d find we deconstruct that and then if you listen to our version of Henry Threadgill’s piece ‘Little pocket sized demons,’ that’s pretty faithful. When we use the term tradition, often what people mean is everything except the last fifty years. Jazz is only a hundred years old so that’s not unproblematic. I also don’t know whether we can speak of the jazz tradition as if it amounts to a coherent whole. I think what it is is a lot of different individual and collective actions. It’s only through a kind of commodifying process that we come to believe that it’s a whole. It isn’t. It’s a lot of things. ‘The tradition’ has been dynamic and full of rupture and transformation and change. It’s also been full of continuity across different so-called genres. For example, I covered a song from Thriller a few years ago and that was produced by Quincy Jones, who played with Count Basie, and arranged for Ray Charles. And the people on that record had played with Miles Davis. So when people talk about the words ‘jazz’ and ‘tradition’, and especially about ‘the jazz tradition’, that’s a way of confining and delimiting a field that hasn’t really had limits.

MDR: How, then, might we understand the notion of the break, if not in relation to the jazz tradition or the tradition of modern music?

VI: The term break in its particular usage in African American music refers not to emptiness, a void in which to start over. It refers to rhythm and specifically to moments in songs that were mainly rhythm, where the song stops being a song and turns into a rhythmic, ritual environment. The elongating of those breaks and the multiplication of breaks became the substrate for a new multidisciplinary art form and cultural movement. You can’t even say it was just movement. That’s something that had a collective, community-oriented force to it. It’s something that emerged unexpectedly and from the margins. All those qualities are what helped me make sense of what we have been doing. Also, it helps me make sense of this century of music that has been called jazz. Although jazz is a lot of different things, what these seem to have in common are qualities like that. It actually comes from almost the stripping away of existing forms to a sort of skeletal structure that then provides possibility for individual and collective action.

So when you look at these so-called jazz standards and the way that they were used by Charlie Parker or Bud Powell or any of their contemporaries in that movement, it was similar. Listen to Charlie Parker’s ‘Bird of Paradise’; that’s actually all the things you are without all the things you are. It’s the guts without the skin, or something. He finds a way of embodying it differently. He creates another melody that is full of wisdom and surprise and detail. It’s completely informed by the underpinnings of that song but it’s not that song anymore. You could say that that’s our mentality; taking a fragment of something and multiplying it, turning it into a vehicle for a different kind of expression entirely that exceeds the intention of the original and in many cases eclipses it. That’s what interests me and it’s how I make sense of the history of jazz.

What it means to compose for situations like that is that you have to create with a certain lightness because you have to be able to get out of the way, as a composer, so that others, including yourself as a player, can make something out of it. I found that in a lot of cases the best way for us to accomplish that was by using the trio and take something that I had written for a different purpose, a different ensemble. Then the trio could just inhabit it in a different way and we could find our own collective way of expressing ourselves informed by those structures. That to me worked better than actually writing songs for the trio. So that’s how most of the original music on this album worked. To compose for the trio is to create a stimulus for the trio, that’s what that really means.

MDR: How would you describe the correlation between your academic work and your work as an artist?

VI: I guess what I tend to do as an academic is speak as an artist. So it often is in the form of a kind of intervention. I know that people overuse that word. It’s a way of patting yourself on the back for being really radical or something, but what I mean is that I don’t find any allegiances to existing academic disciplines. What I care about is what music does. I’m just interested in being honest about how I have experienced music. Sometimes that means speaking against a prevailing orthodoxy or slicing through a given field or discipline, or ignoring it entirely. So my sense of what’s important as an academic is different from other academics because I’m coming in as an artist. My priorities are artistic, meaning the priority of telling the truth with fearlessness and then withstanding the consequences. For me, for example, publications are not a commodity. They are not a way of getting tenure. It’s something I do because people ask me to, but my relationship to the academic praxis is not one of entanglement or investment. Having passed through the different studies that I have, gives me a certain stomach for certain things. I will actually listen to some pretty abstruse theoretical talks or read dense writings or things like that but I don’t live and die by it. It’s just something I interact with.

MDR: Do you sometimes use things you find in theory for your compositions? Or does your music lead to theorizing?

VI: Well, to me what I study is not really theoretical. I write about the body. That’s actual. I’ve observed over time how people talk about bodies. And that’s all just real. For me the use of theory, like for example critical race theory or feminist theory, is to give you ways of understanding how people talk or write. To me theory has to be empowering. I don’t consider theory and practice as separate. I live them entangled. One of the main assertions in my academic work – I don’t know what else to call it, I guess ‘research’ – is that music is made of action. It’s made by bodies; our bodies are the means through which to experience and create music. If we take into account that simple fact, we can regard music in slightly different terms. The fundamental parameters shift from theoretical parameters to actual ones. It may seems as if I’m simply shifting words around but music isn’t just discourse, it’s action, and musical understanding or perception is also action, body movement. The process of perception is a resonant process. I guess the word to make clear that it isn’t discourse is ‘erotic’, because it’s so physical and sensory and intersubjective. I don’t want to say that it’s completely outside of language, but we can have musical experiences that language can’t access.

MDR: Do you think that jazz needs language in some way or another? When I was researching my book on jazz, I found that in all the eras in which jazz was very popular people connected the music to stories about liberation. After the world wars, during the 1960s or at the time of the revolutions in Eastern Europe, jazz was almost a standard bearer for freedom. Isn’t there always the need for some greater linguistic structure in which the music can reside?

VI: I wouldn’t say that the music resides in the linguistic structure. Those stories are ways of justifying or rationalizing in retrospect. The word ‘jazz’ comes with a discourse attached to it. Meanwhile there is a history of people who made it and of people who listen to it, a community. Writers have been part of that community, but not as arbiters. The music continues regardless. What we have access to through the archive is only this tip of the iceberg. The extreme reactions that jazz elicited after World War One, for example, tell us something about race. The entire history of this thing called jazz is entangled with the history of the concept of race in the West, with the history of the concept of blackness in the West. So the major, extreme reactions to jazz in the late 1910s and 1920s, those were from white people who didn’t want their daughters to listen to black men, or to be in any way associated with blackness. The hysteria and the fetishizing, the particular pleasures and fantasies associated with jazz, that’s all racialized. That is the history of jazz. For its entire 100-year span it’s been entangled with questions of racial mimesis, or erasure or fetishization. That’s what it all has in common, more than anything else. That’s why I tend to hold the word ‘jazz’ itself at arm’s length. I’ve studied the history of jazz very carefully and I’ve been very closely connected to people who are a big part of that history. Out of a hundred years I’ve been making records for twenty of them. So I guess I’m one very very tiny part of that history too. But I have a hard time with the proposed coherence of the genre because it seems to me that that is the product of an industry that needs it to exist. There have been many artists, Coltrane among them, who had no use for the word. From an artistic perspective it’s not useful to believe in the coherence of the genre. I guess I’m going to keep responding like that whenever you ask me a question about the jazz tradition.

SP: Let’s switch to literature, then. We’ve had différance, discourse, dynamic artistic experiment across boundaries, race – in my mind that all leads to Amiri Baraka. Could you tell us something about your collaboration with the poet? Do you see any ways in which his legacy finds continuation, in poetry and in music?

VI: He was a hugely important figure, someone who changed many times in public. He was unafraid to change his mind. He was also someone whose community was so vast and diverse that it’s impossible to encapsulate him. I was at his funeral. I actually played at his wake, early last year, and I was one of many musicians there. David Murray was there, Grachan Moncur, Gregg Harris, Pheeroan akLaff… And of course thousands of people came through to pay their respects and say a final goodbye. The range of people in the room was enormous. And then the next day there was a big funeral for him. You had activists, artists, musicians, poets, playwrights, clergy from different religions, community organizers, the black nationalists… My experiences with him were like that. He was so omni-directional and very committed to being present to many people. My first trip with him was to the Cape Verde Islands, and I found out that he had been close to the freedom fighter Amílcar Cabral. He was close to people like Stokely Carmichael, Harry Belafonte, Angela Davis, Nina Simone… The kinds of associations and affiliations he had were so rich and varied, but there was always this sense of real commitment and presence. I got to work with him for several years. My first time working with him was when I still lived in California in the 1990s and then when I moved to New York I found myself in his band for a few years. When he passed away I was very shocked. Nobody lives forever of course, but somehow he had been someone who had been so ubiquitous, who had such a major impact on the music world and on the arts world and on how those relate to activism… We just sort of imagined he’d always be around. He used to come to our shows and call out requests.

When he passed I revisited some of his writings and I realized he had written about me in the 1990s. He was one of the first major critics to write about me. He did it in some kind of obscure place, in some German, Marxist newsletter or something like that. He wrote not just positive but very insightful and empathetic things. He was one of the only critics to talk about my feelings. He heard the music and he heard me as an emotional being. That is rare for me to happen in particular but I think it’s rare in general in music criticism, or in jazz criticism, that there’s any sense of emotional investment, or some sort of acknowledgment of the emotional investment of the artist in the work. It struck me. It actually made me cry when I reread it because I realize that he was one of the only people who heard me on those terms, who could hear the person and the music in that way, and empathize with that. He was above all an amazing listener. That’s something that pervades all of his writing I think.

SP: You’ve also collaborated with the poet and hip hop artist Mike Ladd. Together you’ve made the compositions In What Language, which addresses the situation on airports after 9/11, Still Life With Commentator, which deals with the role of media in wartime, and, recently Holding It Down: The Veterans Dreams’ Project, for which you have teamed up with veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. How different are the reactions to that work, compared to those on your musical projects? Does poetry or spoken work elicit a different, more empathic response?

VI: People tend to write more about the lyrics than they do about the music. In a sense it compares to the reactions I get to the few covers I have made. Critics tend to say more about them. I think that’s because it’s just hard to talk about music. It’s easier to talk about lyrics and previously recognized music than it is to talk about a new sensory experience. People end up responding more to the content, which is fair. What’s funny is that people think that the music for the trio is substantially different from those projects. It’s sonically different but the ingredients are basically the same in terms of the rhythms and structures. It’s all coming from the same place. I think that people tend to think that when I do those kinds of projects with Mike that I am making something that’s more in line with pop music or something, but I’m not, I’m doing the same thing. What I find that over all those years of making music and observing the responses, and performing, and observing the responses to that, I find that music can become a probe to assess others’ understandings of things or other people’s working through certain issues. I like observing that process. I’m not very dependent on reviews. I can just kind of watch them happen, and empathize with the writer. Often their anxieties come out, or their own assumptions or their own hang-ups. How do we talk about music? It’s a conundrum, it’s very hard.

SP: Do you tackle that issue in your own writing?

VI: I don’t really write many reviews. I wrote a couple for The Talkhouse, but I just don’t have the time anymore. The couple of reviews that I wrote for them, I tried to make it purely subjective and sensory, and then making associations to non-musical phenomena, so it becomes more of a poetic exercise. Not that it’s poetry, of course. But working with poets and lyricists, ends up being an intuitive, sonic-driven process. One thing that poetry has is this kind of sonic richness that elevates it outside of normal speech. If you live with it or if a poet tries to build the language with your music then you feel this kind of counterpoint, sonically and rhythmically, between the sounds of the words and the sound of the music. It’s a way of hearing poetry as music. Sometimes that can work in contrast against the actual content and sometimes that’s very productive. In our work together Mike and I have explored that a lot.

SP: How important has Holding It Down been to you? I think you spent three years working on it?

VI: Yes, we did, and that was the third in a series, so overall Mike and I have been working together for more than a decade. But it was very important for me, it actually was revelatory. Collaborating with people who are outside of the arts world or with becoming poets was almost like working with non-artists. And they caused that distinction to blur for me. I learned so much from them; about creating and about honesty and how to listen. What you find is that, when you spend enough time together you start to hear each other, you start to find ways to build something together. To see that happen with someone who was coming from outside of the performing world, that was an amazing feeling. It made me wonder whether I even know what an artist is and of whether I deserve that title or whether it isn’t the wrong word.

SP: The idea of community is important in all your work. In your essay on the city, for example, you explore the ways in which we live entangled urban lives. The essay also made me think of Teju Cole’s Open City. Can you tell us something about what that book meant for you? What is your experience of American cities?

VI: I’ve known Teju Cole for a long time. I know him by another name, in fact, since Teju Cole is his pen name. He, too, is a great listener and lover of all kinds of music. What comes through in the novel is his interest in the German tradition of classical music. I know him because we used to run into each other at concerts in New York. He lived in my neighborhood and we’d often take the subway together. So I got to know him by sitting on a train with him and just well, waiting together. That again is break stuff. What happens when you’re not really doing anything? That allows for a different kind of bond with people, unhurried, unforced.

At one point I was invited to create some large ensemble music and I didn’t want to make a big band composition so I thought I’d just bring together some of my favorite musicians. When I brought them all together I had just read Teju’s novel. The vision of New York that comes up in that book is a very diverse one. It’s what the city looks like now but you don’t often encounter it like that in cultural depictions of New York. Seeing New York from the perspective of its internal others, that resonated with my experience of the city. When I had the confirmation of all the participants to the ensemble, I suddenly had my Open City. So I asked Teju whether we could use his title and he said ‘of course’. And then I wrote him back and said ‘I think you need to be in this, you can do whatever you want.’ He had been doing readings of excerpts of the novel that had to do with birds, the different birds of New York, and he created a skeleton of the book that was made up of just those episodes. That’s what he read with us, in the episodic moments of the piece. And then for the trio album we extracted open versions of those pieces, made for the ensemble, which, instead of full of events, are full of possibilities. I like that, that the pieces for the trio bore the trace of our years together.

As for other American cities, I love playing in places rich with the history of American music, to which I consider myself to belong. There’s a certain recognition that you find when you play in American cities because there’s been a dense history of interaction with this music. To play in a place where Billie Holiday once played, that’s a profound experience. It’s a way of re-acquainting yourself with the American story.