Vijay Iyer Wants You to Feel Your Spine

Talks with Ross Simonini
photograph by Monica Jane Frisell.

Vijay Iyer was a graduate student of physics when he began playing as a professional pianist. He has since worked simultaneously inside and outside of academia, both as a professor and one of the forefront jazz pianists in the 21st century. This may give the impression that he’s an intellectual, but in fact he’s spent most of that time working to deemphasize the mind and to develop the feeling, proprioceptive aspects of musicianship.  

Iyer releases often—about yearly—and with great variation, performing with trios and sextets, composing for chamber ensembles and orchestras, and creating music that sits between the two — a systematic improvisation that relates to Brian Eno’s “generative music”and Butch Morris’ “conduction.” He collaborates regularly and has a handful of musicians he repeatedly works with—Rudresh Mahanthappa, Tyshawn Sorey, Wadada Leo Smith—nurturing longterm relationships over many projects. For him, music is a form of empathy and an expression of social awareness. 

While his style is clearly grounded in a tradition of American improvisational music, he usually finds ways of ignoring its boundaries to include sounds from Europe and India. He vehemently dislikes categories or genres of music, which he considers insidious, so I am attempting to not use them here, though it is difficult. In his studies he has also sought to bridge disciplines: his graduate thesis married his study of science with his lifelong (since age three) practice of performing, and he has continued to write about music from a scholarly and critical perspective. He releases his albums on the legendary ECM label; is currently a professor at Harvard University and received the MacArthur in 2014 for working “across multiple genres.”

I interviewed Iyer through video. He spoke confidently, always aiming for kindness, but usually with a sharp delivery of his ideas. His responses sometimes contained a little grit of provocation, which kept the conversation in the mode of a friendly, engaged debate.

Ross Simonini 

ROSS SIMONINI: Are you teaching these days? 

VIJAY IYER: Yeah, a lot of zoom teaching. I mean, it’s true that I’m a prof, but I keep it under control. I’m just currently teaching one course, and then I have a bunch of students I’m advising. So it’s not like an all day everyday kind of thing.

ROSS SIMONINI: I’ve actually been reading some of your academic writings…

VI: See that’s where you went wrong. [Laughs] But thank you. That’s above and beyond.

RS: You’ve written a lot on this concept of embodied cognition, which seems central to your musical philosophy. What’s the difference between this idea and just simply feeling the music?

VI: That’s basically the problem. It’s been more than twenty years since I wrote that dissertation and I’ve come around to resisting that phrase which was central to my thesis: embodied cognition. I don’t think it does what it needs to. What it was supposed to do was actually kind of undo or un-think the idea of cognition as a sort of generator of the self, the mind in the body. Embodied cognition was a framework for getting at the entanglement or the unity of the whole system in a way that is always both mind and body as one very complex entity. And also beyond that: one among many, because we’re also always social beings, interdependent on other beings. We don’t come into being just by ourselves. We don’t learn to speak or walk or eat in isolation. We learn because someone else is there helping us do it. We learn by imitating that other person—by call and response.  And that idea—I don’t know, I even hesitate to call it an idea because that reverts to the same problem of lodging at all in the mind, rather than just a fact of what we are…

RS: The brain in the vat.

VI: Exactly. 

RS: But a musical idea is not necessarily a brain thing.

VI: The idea of embodied cognition is not an idea, actually, what it is is a better way of understanding who we are. And of course I didn’t invent this idea, or whatever we want to call it… framework? Conceptual apparatus, shall we say. There’s a book that came out in the early nineties called The Embodied Mind written by Francisco Varela, Eleanor Rosch, and Evan Thompson: a neurobiologist, a psychologist, and a philosopher. And they were very influenced by Buddhism, so that kind of infuses the entire project, particularly this emerging understanding of the mind as having no center, as born of experience. And the phrase they use is “interdependent arising,” meaning that what’s called the mind actually comes into being through all these different systems working together, within and without the body. 

So, now back to your question: how is it different from merely feeling the music? Well, it isn’t! In fact, what it is meant to do is recenter what the body does and how we at least try to talk about what music does. Or: how does what the body does have to do with what music does. Let’s put it that way. Brian Massumi says—and I think he’s probably quoting either Spinoza or Deleuze here—what does the body do? It moves and it feels. Simply, those are things it does.

RS: I studied jazz, partly in the academic context, and there’s so much emphasis placed on the intellectual component of it. It was fascinating but also tricky, as this kind of thinking actually led me away from what drew me to music in the first place. Since you’re deep in academia, do you find this a slippery aspect of teaching music? To counter this, do you emphasize feeling in your teaching style?

VI: Uh, certainly yes. I foreground feeling. I ask students, what grabs you? That feeling of being grabbed by music, of being caught or held or called—that’s the feeling. Henry Threadgill said it best: when you’re drawn to something, whatever that is, that’s sacred and you have to honor that. You have to go toward it. You have to take that call seriously. Go close to it and try to find out what it is. What is it? Try to incorporate it into your being and  harmonize with it.

So for me, I show up as an artist at Harvard. I’m not trying to turn students into lifelong scholars. I mean, I help some people who are doing that too, but I’m there to speak with artists, you know? As people who make music, what is that to us? What is that? Can you show up as a listener in your own music? Can you experience it on the terms that someone else might? Can you consider the listener when you make what you are making? Can you hear it from the outside? And can you experience it as a full-body event in the way that they will? So that’s all of that is very central to how I make music and also how I try to help others make and study music. I think it’s harder to get at this in academic kinds of situations, because it’s harder to talk about in a direct way. 

RS: As a musician, how do you work on developing this kind of embodiment? Do you practice the way that you move your body while playing?

VI: Well, I mean, there’s what is called feel. When people talk about your time feel, your rhythmic feel, your groove, how you communicate rhythm to other people—it’s not just what you are internally feeling, but it’s how that feeling is getting across to you a listener, to somebody else, and how you attend to that. And the way it works—this is kind of bringing it back to where we started — is that when I, as a listener hear your pulse, when it’s made apparent to me, when it gets inside of me, then literally what happens is that I generate that same pulse too. That’s what the scientists call entrainment. Someone communicates groove and pulse to you so that you then also have it in your body. It’s in your nervous system. It’s actually activating your attention and your comportment in a periodic way. And so that’s what happens with rhythm: we communicate body to body. That’s how it works. In other words, it’s actually an active conjoining of inner experience through sound. It’s pretty remarkable when it’s understood that way, that, basically, a musician’s job is to foster that and to help make that happen for somebody else—not just for yourself but radiate pulse to everyone in the room.

RS: Is that a different experience for different instruments?

VI: So, with the piano, everything we do is with the hands, you know. So it’s always an action of an extremity. But when I listen to you, I’m not listening to your extremities. Those are meaningless to me in the sense of body-to-body communication. What I need to feel is your spine, your torso. I need to feel the centrality of that, that pulse that’s governing your actions because it’s also going to instantiate itself in me. It needs to come from your spine to my spine, not from your hands to my ears.  That’s not the pathway. Those are conduits, you know, the hands and ears. So it isn’t just me playing, trying to get it correct. It’s about me as a responsible fellow being trying to give something to somebody.

RS: Pianos and drums are played sitting down which is quite different from singer or saxophonist, standing, moving their spine in that way. Does that change how this gift is given?

VI: I used to study how people moved, not just because it was cool or funky, but because they would regulate all this internally for themselves. I’d see Herbie Hancock or Ahmad Jamal or Geri Allen and they all tapped their feet in very specific ways, like quite actively. And it’s not random. It’s very organized. It’s controlled in a certain way, but it’s activating the body. And it’s not just the toe. It’s actually bouncing your entire leg, which is connected to the spine and into the torso. It’s all connected and you’re reminding yourself that it’s all connected. I think it’s actually harder for people standing up to find that in themselves, that kind of buoyancy. You see someone like Mark Turner, the saxophone player; he’s often got his knees loose. So he can bounce. 

RS: I’ve heard that Miles Davis would tell people in his band not to tap their toes. 

VI: Yeah. I’ve certainly gotten that, um, directive too from elders and I understand that it can be distracting, certainly if like a bunch of people are just banging on the floor when you’re trying to make music. So you have to keep it in control. It’s a controlled activation of the whole body.

RS: The spine-to-spine pulse sound like empathy, which is another idea that is central to your musical philosophy. Can you connect with people’s pulse even if you have difficult social relationships with them? Do personal feelings affect the musical connection? 

VI: You know, we’re complex creatures. So we are capable of relating in very complex ways, musically. Sometimes someone plays in an overbearing way or in a resistant way or in a circumspect way with you. They don’t trust you or they want to bully you. That all can play out just in the way you play quarter notes together. This is why you find certain people playing together for years and years. Because there’s a bond being forged there, you know, and, and it’s being constantly articulated with each beat. Like with Tyshawn Sorey, I‘ve played with him for twenty years and I hope to play with him for 200 more. Because it’s always new. It always feels alive and fresh and playful and even at times goofy. And we’ll send messages to each other in music. We have an entire relationship just in that room that’s not verbalized and it is very deep. It’s like family and family can be all kinds of things, right? It can be contentious. It can be alienating. It can be loving. All at the same time.

RS: You’re releasing this new track, Children of Flint which is a reference to the contaminated water of Flint, Michigan. When you write instrumental music with a subject matter in mind, how do you define the connection between the abstraction of music and directness of subject? Are you feeling Flint when you play the music?

VI: I can say that I don’t often just make instrumental music about something. It’s a bit nonsensical to say that some set of sounds is about some set of realities in the world. What I can say is that the reason that that piece came into being is a bit of a backstory to it. I did a concert at Columbia University at Miller Theater in fall of 2019. It was with the Composer Portrait series. They played my violin concerto and then they said, we want to commission you to write a new piece and the theme is, The Year of Water. And I said the year of water for who? And as soon as you ask that question, you find yourself immediately thinking about inequality. So I took the commission money and sent it to the Community Foundation of Greater Flint. I wrote a solo viola piece and it premiered that night. But there’s eight measures that kind of haunted me for quite a while longer. Like there was something unresolved about it. So I took those eight measures and made another piece and that’s what this new track is. It came directly from that set of concerns in that circumstance, where I was like, okay, multi-billion dollar university institution, you want to talk about water? Let’s give some of your money away to someone who needs it because of environmental racism, because of unequal access to safe, clean drinking water.

RS: Do you see all your music as connected through some a larger musical system you are building?

VI: Yeah, it’s a funny, I just got asked by some Italian jazz magazine why I have so many different projects on ECM records. Like, why can’t you stay with the same band for two records, you know? 

RS: Seems a little aggressive. 

VI: Yeah. I got a little mad actually. I haven’t answered them yet. I hate email interviews. It’s the worst. It’s like a homework assignment. But I think what I would say is that all my records are made the same way. I’ve been trying to make music for more than twenty-five years. And if you pay attention to any of it and you start to notice like, Oh, he’s doing that again. It’s actually pretty consistent. Then there’s these circumstances where I’m up against—collaborating—and those are contexts where you might hear me do something a little uncharacteristic, but for the most part, I think if you really listen to like, what’s on all the albums, you hear a lot of this similar ideas manifesting in different ways. I mean, part of it is like, are you working with people who are going to co-create with you or not?

RS: Do you think any musician evades that kind of cohesion? I mean, is there anybody out there who sounds like a different musician on every release?

VI: I think that mentality is out there. People who write film scores, for example, where it’s like, this is more of a rock sound I’m going for here or this is when they entered the jazz club. You know, this kind of stuff, where it’s really like style-based and some generic kind of dehumanizing way to conjure place or feeling. And it’s not really about what’s in the music. But I don’t trust that.

RS: Right. You seem to have a strong dislike of genre in general. I can see why jazz or classical are ridiculous distinctions, but I wonder, on the flip side, can genre serve like a dialect? Like a language to organize community? 

VI: Well, it’s nice to do deep dives, right? Like, uh, this morning I was listening to Power to the People, that Joe Henderson album. That’s from the late sixties and I’m familiar with just about everything he did before that, and almost everything he did after that. But somehow that one escaped my ear until today. So getting to like dig into the album and triangulate objectives in there is nice. You have all these people who were also playing with Miles Davis. So then being able to piece all this together and say, Oh, this is a certain historical moment and it’s meaningful in that context. Why those people? Why is it called Power to the People? What is it about this like political circumstance and as a set of aesthetics that are kind of hovering around this one record? And the reason I’m able to think through all of that is because I’ve studied it for thirty-five years, I’ve spent a lot of time doing these deep dives. I experience the richness of detail that you get from being in a culture that values these things. So, I guess, the main thing is to think of it from the ground up as community building, rather than from the superstructure down as a way of organizing commodities. But then, why are these cultures so separate? Or why have they been historically so separate? The answer is racism. There’s no other answer. And so, what is it to uphold genre now? That’s why I’m always trying to problematize those nouns.

RS: Quincy Jones said that jazz is the classical music of pop.

VI: That’s good. [Laughs

RS: What do you think about that? 

VI: There is something to that in the sense that it’s actually kind of flipping all the labels. First of all, all three of those terms are a little bit silly. So what is classical music the classical music of? Pop? British pop? 

RS: And of course jazz was pop.

VI: Right, but the last time that was true as the 1930s. Calling something pop has to do with market share. 

RS: It’s just an adjective.

VI: If you’re Quincy Jones and you’ve produced some of the best selling records of all time, then that word matters to you. But to most of us maybe not. What that phrase does, is it reminds us of how emergent these categories are and how interconnected they are. And I would like to ask Quincy Jones, what’s classical music the classical music of?

RS: It’s a koan.

VI: I don’t think that question resolves. What would you say? Rock? Probably classical music was the classical music of rock. See, it all sounds nonsensical.

RS: So if rock is no longer pop, and jazz was once pop, is rock headed where jazz is now? 

VI: When you’re looking at charts, you’re looking at superstructure again. So there’s a bit of a circularity there because things are branded certain genres with concerns about market share. They are business terms is what they are, but the actual ingredients in these different musics are often similar. The more you look at the history you see the these genre categories, like R&B, are essentially racial classifiers. They’re basically serving systemic racism and white supremacy and anti-blackness. That’s what they’re doing. So, that’s the main reason I don’t use them, but I also know that using those terms is a way to say I’m part of this community.

RS: Would you prefer that music do away with categories?

VI: I find that when people use them, it’s lazy listening. It’s a way of stripping away detail and limiting possibility. I have a student currently who wrote in response to listening to Gonzalo Rubalcaba and said that it sounded “like jazz.” And I’m like, that’s a way of saying almost nothing. I didn’t go off on them, but you want someone to actually go into a little more detailed about what they’re hearing rather than saying, oh, this is stuff from the past that I don’t know anything about. These tags just shut down a listening process.And so that’s why I find them a little oppressive.

RS: There’s a site called Every Noise at Once, which is archiving all the genres in world, and it’s growing. There are almost 6,000 sub-genres and micro-genres and regional genres, most of which I’ve never heard and some I can’t quite comprehend. Thousands of tiny cultures.

VI:  Yeah. I appreciate that. I mean, if it’s a way for people to find one another and like, feel like you’re part of something larger than yourself, then I suppose that’s doing something. It gives people a feeling of belonging and helps them place themselves in the world. Cause the world just seems infinite until that starts happening for you. 

RS: That site makes me think: how many artists do you need to make a new style?

VI: You know, I think it’s like, what’s the relationship of an artist to an art historian? We’d like to think that we’re making our own choices but… Maybe it’s an illusion or a sort of hopeless quality that artists have that we are free and independent-minded and not just following someone else all the time. But then it’s the job of an art historian to notice what’s going on among them, you know, and to be able to tell a larger story, that’s not just about one person. So I think maybe that’s the most kind of like charitable reading of what’s going on. It’s that sort of inevitable dynamic of people making things and then other people trying to understand what it is they’re making and how they fit into the world of other people making other things. I mean, that’s what art is.

But like I said, this all strips away detail and the detail is sort of what captures you, what grabs you, that might be something very different than the fact that it was a hip hop, R&B crossover. It might actually be a certain snare drum sound or a certain turn in someone’s voice at a certain moment in the melody, or it might be a phrase or a rhyme that stays in your ear and just kind of like lives on for you. 

RS: Right. Genre allows you to become disengaged and and you’re talking about deeper engagement, which hopefully is the direction we all move in. In response to all this, I want to throw a final question to you, a bit of truism: is music an international language?

VI: I mean, that phrase can be used as a kind of cudgel, like a way to sort of beat you into accepting that there is a thing as universality. But then I can also stay having traveled all over the planet and made music on all the inhabited continents, it’s true! People show up because they bought a ticket to a jazz concert, which means that they believe in something, right? They believe that there’s something there for them, no matter what. They don’t necessarily know what I’m going to do. I might do something that defies their expectations. I can say that even in the most unlikely circumstances, I’m making my goal to try to connect body to body with everybody in the room. And that happens. It can happen. Twenty years ago I might not have said that it can happen, but now I can say it does. There’s something in the ritual of sharing musical experience that reminds us of what we are, what we have in common, what we’re made of, what it is that we can do together. At its best, it can really bring us together. I’ve seen it happen. I’ve done it. I know it can be done. In those fleeting moments, something else becomes possible.

Vijay Iyer Trio’s “Uneasy” is out April 9 on ECM Records.

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