Transitory Poem: an espresso with Vijay Iyer

July 2, 2019

Vijay Iyer Trio @ Tokyo Cotton Club

Vijay Iyer (p)
Stephan Crump (b)
Jeremy Dutton (ds)

 > Eliza Wong; pictures courtesy of Yuka Yamaji


Can you tell us more about the 2013 Mac Arthur Fellow? How do you think that helped you in creating music during the recent years? Is that like opening up more channels to you, more freedom to do music?
It’s been 5 years since the Fellowship and it’s finished now. I haven’t got time to reflect on what I did, or how that changed my life. There were many different things happened at that time, which were all important. First, there was the Fellowship, second, teaching in Harvard, and third, starting to record for ECM. All literally happened in the same month. It’s been 5 and a half years now, and I have done so many different things and I did a lot of different things before that too. I cannot say it’s only because of one specific thing. Now the Fellowship is over, it’s a question of whether I am a different person now. You may notice that last time when I was here (Tokyo Cotton Club) it was exactly 5 years ago, I am not in a different place now but actually in the same place (ha, ha ha)!!!
But I would say, the main different thing is internal, like how do I see myself? Particularly when you get the Fellowship, you are suddenly in the elite with other Fellows who spend decades in contributing in all different disciplines, not just art, not just music, but also in education, culture; then in an account that everyone is in the same breath. Maybe if I think about my life on a larger scale, in terms of what my contribution is. It’s not unlimited to just music. I now have this community that transcends discipline, and it’s more about doing good work in the world that changes it.
 
 
As you mentioned before, Monk is your “number one hero”, can you tell us which of his album inspired you most?
Vijay: A lot of them, but it’s about the live recording. His live concerts inspired me most. I first saw the footage of Monk playing when I was 17, that was when Monk’s documentary movie “Straight No Chaser” came out. That was back in the 80s when there was no YouTube. I had listened to his recordings but I had never seen him playing before. But when I saw him playing, I suddenly felt the kinship. I felt this relationship with the piano. It’s not about a specific album, it’s the way he interacted with the instrument. The way he excited it, the way he activated it. These are “all” his music. Once you see it, you can hear it better. You will know why he had made those sounds. For example, there was a live recording of his quartet in 1966 in Oslo. He played the solo while half of the solo he crossed his hands like this, it sounds in a very specific way. I have heard those sounds but I didn’t know that was how he did it. So seeing him playing resolved the whole picture, I understood it better.
 
 
Let’s talk about art. From your recent album “Transitory Poem”, the song “Sensorium” is paying tribute to modern artist Jack Whitten, and some of your previous album covers show the installation artwork by Anish Kapoor; how do you associate your music with modern visual art?
There is not just one way to explain…. Have you ever seen Romare Bearden’s work? He is a very famous African-American artist. His paintings are about collage, very iconic work from the 20th century. There is an interview of him when he talks about rhythm. He said when he was young, he went to a museum to copy painting. It’s an ancient technique to learn painting. He talked about Rembrandt, his portrait painting. The pattern, the elaborated folds of the cloth, the way of how the cloth folds, each of these has a rhythm, a visual rhythm. When we think of rhythm, we think of time, we think of no time, we think of art… so this is a connection, the rhythm actually is not the object, it is the time appearing when you encounter the work. That’s why time matters, there is a temporality to your experience… It’s not about a colour, an essence or a fixed object, it’s more like a relationship…
Another example, do you know artist Richard Serra? He makes these gigantic sculptures with steel like the size of a ship. It’s huge that an individual slab of steel can be like the size of a bus. He also describes that there is a specific tempo of such a big slab of steel. The tempo is more about what happens to you when you come close to the slab of steel, what is your experience of space, and how you move through the space. And that becomes something more like music (14:28), the experience when you encounter the work.
 
For your recent ECM albums, they are very different from traditional jazz, which your related with poem, hip hop music, traditional Indian music; is there any other type of art that you would like to collaborate with in your next album?
It’s not about the form of art… I think one of the problem is that we are considering art forms as symbols, but they aren’t. It’s more about analogy, finding the connection, that means it can happen to anything. I have actually done a lot of things even with photographers, film makers, authors, so… I don’t think of a specific art form, it’s more about a personal relationship, with artists that inspire me, if I have a chance to collaborate with.
 
Is it your first time performing in China? What do you think of Chinese audiences?
Yes, we have three very different lives in three nights. There is a huge diversity there. It’s new for everybody, when they met me and I met them. We played two nights in Blue Note Beijing, which is a pretty new place. It’s been there for three years, so my feeling was the audience is still figuring out, learning and discovering how to relate to the music. It’s an all new experience, and we were excited to be a part of that, to be a part of the discovering process.
 
For Asian audiences who are not familiar with your music, can you recommend three of your albums to us?
Em… I will say “Tirtha”; “Cosmic Rhythm with Each Stroke”, and “Break Stuff”
 
 
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