Hybrid and Alive

Vijay Iyer, New York-based composer, pianist, improviser, and scholar, has been at the forefront of South Asian American culture and music emerging in the past decade. His body of work remains distinctive in its probing of the aesthetics of music performance and composition, simultaneously embracing and speaking through political positions, all while engaging current philosophical debates. His major recordings include Memorophilia, Architextures, Panoptic Modes, and Blood Sutra under his own name; Your Life Flashes, as the trio Fieldwork; and In What Language? in collaboration with poet/performer/producer Mike Ladd. He has performed around the world with his ensembles and collaborations, including the multimedia performance In What Language?, the Vijay Iyer Quartet, Fieldwork, and Raw Materials, his duo with saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa.

Iyer has also performed, toured, and recorded extensively with artists such as Steve Coleman, Roscoe Mitchell, Amiri Baraka, Dead Prez, Butch Morris, Miya Masaoka, Trichy Sankaran, Imani Uzuri, Will Power, and Burnt Sugar, among others. His recent album, In What Language? (Pi Recordings, 2003), was lauded as a powerful political and artistic statement in Billboard and The Village Voice. His latest quartet album, Blood Sutra (Artist House, 2003), was the highest-ranking independent release in the JazzTimes 2003 critics' poll. Iyer took some time out of his busy schedule to share some of his considerable knowledge and insight on aesthetics, politics, and identity with SAMAR's Manu Vimalassery:

MV: A lot of the highly visible music in the South Asian diaspora tends to use instruments or instrumental sounds associated with South Asian music. Your music tends not to use these instruments, although you use rhythmic and melodic forms from South Asian musical traditions, in communication with structures and forms from jazz, which has a very different ideal listener and concert form than the other South Asian diaspora music. Do you feel your music addresses a similar audience as these other styles?

VI: I've listened to and learned from a large range of music from around the world, and nowadays I tend to hear music as both ritualistic and discursive in nature. That is, music provides an occasion to bring people together and place a heightened, collective experience in their bodies; but it also carries messages to those people, and it produces its own meanings. And this is true of instrumental music as well; there is a real exchange of information taking place in music, which is not often discussed even though it's undeniable.

I think the main difference between the other instances you mention and my own music is that perhaps my music's emphasis is slightly more on the discursive side. That isn't to say that the ritual side is not operative as well in my work; I use a lot of cyclical rhythmic/groove-based concepts associated with ritual, along with much attention paid to sensation and emotion. I also don't mean to suggest that the discursive is not operative in dance-oriented forms like bhangra or the Asian underground. Of course, these elements are always active to varying degrees. But my work is meant not just as a soundtrack to an environment, which is how a lot of listeners treat music these days; rather, it is meant primarily as a form of address.

Because of this, my ideal listener is someone who is willing to engage actively with music in this way, and for whom music functions not just to entertain, or to accompany a social occasion, but also to provoke thought, to unsettle, and to question. That doesn't mean that there is no overlap with the audiences for Panjabi MC; it's just that these listeners have to be open to a different kind of musical experience.

I say all this because I think it's more accurate than saying "this is jazz, and this is pop" or whatever. I take such categories with a grain of salt.

MV: How does the internal discourse of your music--especially in your instrumental music--interact with non-musical discourses? Especially in terms of titles, such as some of the songs from your album Blood Sutra, like "Habeus Corpus". Do you feel that you have control over these discourses, or do you think they take shape in relationship with your audience?

VI: I've been thinking about this a lot lately. "Aboutness" in the case of instrumental music is never obvious. In the past I've made assertions that certain instrumental pieces were "about" some issue or another; for example, on my 2001 album Panoptic Modes I had a piece that was dedicated to Rishi Maharaj, and another that was dedicated to Mumia Abu-Jamal, still another dedicated to the people of Iraq under sanctions. I made this clear in the disc's liner notes; in keeping with these specific concerns, the music displayed its share of rage, yearning, mournfulness, and ambiguity.

In my more recent instrumental album Blood Sutra, though the work is coming from the same critical, politicized perspective, I was thinking more about how instrumental music works. Its strength is that it asks more questions than it answers; it sets up a field of possibilities, in the way that poetry does, and it also works on the sensations. These pieces all came from being in New York after 9/11 and trying to make sense of it all, as we all were. So that music came from a dense emotional place of grief, rage, sympathy, numbness, and disbelief. We were all trying to understand the history that brought us to where we are, responding to the atmosphere of panic, fear, and shameful intolerance that followed in this country, and ultimately trying to get back to the experience of love in spite of it all.

The music on that album is a series of pieces related in some way to the word "blood," in all of its associations: family, disease, race, ethnicity, violence, desire. But beyond that, I didn't see fit to clamp down any one piece to a single association or interpretation, beyond the titles and the suggestions that they carried with them. So I let go of the insistent "explanations" of what each piece was "about." It was maybe about something specific when I composed it, but in collaborative improvisatory performance, so much else happens. Really, if it's played with commitment and authenticity and grounded in the perspectives that we share, each piece is about everything, or nothing; it's about a certain time and place in our lives, and everything that happened to us. Because these pieces feature so much improvisation, they're really exploding with meaning.

I wrote an article called "Exploding the Narrative in Jazz Improvisation" which is about just that, the ways in which meaning is omnipresent and continually reconstructed through the improvisatory act. The composed elements of the music just become the frame for this process, the environment in which these meaning formations are made possible.

MV: What links and differences do you see in your mode of address to your audience, between your quartet work, or your work with Raw Materials or Fieldwork, and your work in other contexts, like Burnt Sugar, Dead Prez, or In What Language?

VI: Instrumental improvisational music can have so many different valences, so many ways of suggesting — not just through association and antecedent, but also through the kind of collective work that goes into it and the meaning of it. In addition to my own compositional, improvisational and aesthetic input, what all these different projects have in common is a commitment to collaborative process. Working together seriously over time is how we build.

Raw Materials is my long-standing duo project with saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, a fellow desi with whom I have an strong communicative dynamic based in our our common experience and complementary interests in South Asian musics and compositional innovation. Rudresh also plays in my Quartet, but we draw more deeply from the "jazz" well in that group, trying to bring new ideas to that idiom through group explorations. Fieldwork is an experimental collective project where we take copious rehearsal time to develop and expand each other's compositions, sort of like what a rock band does. Mike, myself, and the performers in In What Language? took a year and a half of intense collaborative work to develop and assemble that elaborate project. Greg Tate's Burnt Sugar is a group of 15 or more musicians who have been doing collective spontaneous live improvisations for 5 years running. And the people in Dead Prez are relentlessly collectivist: the I-Ching symbol they use as a logo stands for "collective work," and accordingly they share everything — opportunities, resources, and ownership. I'm in M1's "Downbeat Production Collective," and because of that sharing ethos, I co-own a track with them and Jay-Z!

Really, even though each of these projects is totally different from the others, and they might even seem at first listen to have little in common with one another, it all still comes from the same essential collaborative impulse. And the musical result you can hear is the sound of people coming together, the resonance of mutual trust developed over time, the sonic trace of a collective path of action.

MV: In a way, it seems that your music speaks through a channel of identity, or speaking from a particular voice, but develops that voice in relationship to a series of others, where the end result blurs the lines, or explodes the possibilities of clear and coherent identities in the outcome. Is this a conscious strategy on your part? If so, how do you try to convey it musically?

VI: I put a lot of faith in the collaborative process, which is the space where this phenomenon emerges. I never stop "being myself" in a collaboration; I can only improvise and compose from my own knowledge and aesthetics (which are always in flux but are also pretty well-defined — I'm too opinionated to go along with stuff I don't like!). But I am also forced to highlight different aspects of myself in different collaborative contexts, and also to develop and grow beyond what I already know, to meet the other people somewhere in between. And this is true whether I'm working with other desis, or with African Americans, or anyone else, young or old.

Something that we as desis are always up against, which I try to address in my aesthetic and collaborative decisions, is the notion of mobility. If we are always seen as "ethnic" and "particular," then no one else ever has to imagine that they have any points of contact with us, outside of what they see as our quaint little sphere. We are rarely permitted to have any larger impact in the world.

We should work to confound all of that, by claiming our place in a larger conversation. This is where we have so much to learn from African American culture. I think of people like Jimi Hendrix, or Duke Ellington, or John and Alice Coltrane, or Paul Robeson, or Nina Simone — uncompromising artists and thinkers whose work had such a searing clarity that it harkened a new reality, something towards which we could all aspire.

MV: We seem to be in the midst of a re-conceptualization of the coherency and usefulness of a South Asian American identity, especially in response to the War on Terrorism. This comes through, for example in Biju Mathew's editorials on identity-based organizing in the two most recent issues of SAMAR, and in scholars and activists re-aligning South Asian Americans with Arab Americans, away from Asian Americans. Did you find it necessary to confront these issues when you were putting together In What Language?

VI: These issues were in fact the basis of the In What Language? project. When I heard about Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi's pre-9/11 INS ordeal at JFK, I saw it as emblematic of an issue common to the entire "Brown Atlantic." It became clear that for me to develop a project that felt relevant and real, I had to address not just being South Asian but being brown and transnational in the West, in an age of increasing global panic and suspicion. Collaborating with poet/hip-hop artist Mike Ladd (librettist/performer/co-producer for In What Language?) made this idea even larger, because he's a mixed African-American who is often taken for Arab or Latino. Mike's opening lines describe "the delicate distance of brown" and "the uneasy proximity of tan" — evoking this third-world mutability in relation to the international privilege we possess as Americans. I think Biju's critique of experience-based politics is so crucial, because it's so important to maintain a historical perspective and understand our own struggles in relation to others, and to understand what realities shape our uneasy proximities. The airport is such a metaphorically rich site for the investigation of these issues, so we made that the setting for this song cycle.

Incidentally, we received some hate speech (or maybe hater speech would be more accurate) on the Amazon.com page for the In What Language? album. Someone criticized our focus on issues facing "people of color," saying that those issues don't compare to the enormity of the WTC attacks. He called it "whining in the face of real tragedy," as if to suggest that the attacks somehow invalidate any kind of oppositional critique or inquiry. It's sad but unsurprising.

MV: What role do you think identity plays as a motivating force, as well as a burden of representation, in your music, especially in relationship to these same questions with the other styles of South Asian diaspora music?

VI: Perhaps for a lot of desis, the attitude toward those other forms you mention is something like: this is the music that my parents listened to, but now with a beat that I can dance to. Or: this music creates a safe space where I can be fully desi with my desi friends, where we can participate in the same clubbing rituals that non-desis can indulge in everywhere else.

All of these attitudes are valid and important, but to me there's sometimes a danger of self-exoticization. Even in certain cases where the music is made "for us — by us," if we are in view of the mainstream, that dynamic is always in play. It can reach the point where that gesture of incorporation of difference into the mainstream — what Stuart Hall identified as a hallmark of the "global postmodern" — is the primary function of such music. It lets us indulge our self-orientalizing fantasies, in which we suddenly become desirable or cool because we're desi; it lets the mainstream feel like they're being more tolerant, inclusive, "global."

In many cases people listen to the music and think: cool, that's electronic but it's also exotic; it's modern but it's also ancient; it fuses x (the familiar) and not-x (the unfamiliar). In this logic, we still get put in the not-x box, so nothing has really been undone.

My own relationship to South Asian music is not very simple, so I would feel dishonest simply foregrounding South Asian sounds, and not acknowledging other sides of myself. I didn't grow up with tabla lessons or with Bollywood movies; my parents are urban Tamils, and I grew up in a time and place (upstate NY in the 70s and 80s) where we didn't really have access to a lot of supposed hallmarks of Indian culture, and my immigrant parents weren't all that attached to that stuff anyway. I grew up with occasional bhajans and Michael Jackson, brief doses of Karnatak music and Hindu ritual, a lot of Beethoven, Saturday Night Fever, math club, rice & sambar, Pizza Hut, the Police, Star Wars, Prince, and (more than anything else) the experience of being dark-skinned with a "foreign" name in suburban America, trying to figure out how to be.

I have to imagine that this is what childhood was like for lots of other people in my generation; it wasn't just about being Indian, but being utterly hybrid, and brown, and mystified by it all. So in my own music, more than anything else, I just try to tap into that mystery of being hybrid and alive. I make music that tries to make sense of my world, not as a representative of a subcontinent, but as one individual among many in our diverse communities, sitting at the confluence of many different streams.

For me one of the most important aspects of this "identity" thing is the possibility of providing a template for others to identify with. When I travel around and perform, I am able to provide an example or a precedent for other young people from our community. It's happened many times, this act of connection with South Asian American (or other Asian American) students and youths, often just as they're trying to figure out how to be in the world. Typically they don't tend to have a broad notion of what their options are, but if they see me performing alongside a legendary figure like Amiri Baraka, or leading my own group, or in collaboration with Rudresh Mahanthappa, they might feel inspired to pursue their own dreams. So I'm glad to be able to suggest alternative possibilities, just by the sheer fact of doing what I do.

And the flipside of that is the possibility that someone from outside our communities might be able to identify with someone like me. This is a power of music and the arts, to create an occasion where people can suddenly recognize themselves in the work of someone "different" from them.


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