There perhaps isn’t another jazz musician north of Manhattan as widely regarded as pianist/composer Vijay Iyer. Born 42 years ago in Albany, NY, and raised in the small town of Fairport near Rochester known as the “crown jewel of the Erie Canal,” this Yale-educated son of Tamil immigrants has quickly become one of the most renowned voices of his generation of jazz players over the last 20 years as both a leader and a sideman, working alongside a wide spectrum of artists ranging from avant-garde legend Wadada Leo Smith to Brooklyn alt hip-hop act Das Racist. Yet while Iyer might be renowned for his exquisite skills on the Steinway, his ECM debut Mutations finds him furthering his role as a major player in the world of creative classical music with a ten movement work for strings and electronics originally conspired in 2005. Jambands.com had the unique opportunity to catch up with Mr. Iyer, who made his debut as a professor of music at Harvard during the Spring 2014 semester, before class, to speak about working for ECM, translating this magnificent and challenging piece of music for a studio recording and how the role of electronics played into the mix.
So you are teaching at Harvard, what is your curriculum like?
I kind of teach whatever I want to. This time I’m doing a workshop course for some of the advanced musicians here. It’ll be pretty varied…it’s sort of up to me to create my own role here…it’s academic music, so it doesn’t have a performance program yet at Harvard. But there are courses that people can take for credit. I guess it’s kind of a combination of academic stuff and applied workshop for a creative musician.
Are you happy with the amount of young people that are taking interest in creative jazz?
A lot of these academic departments don’t generally have someone like me around. So my presence here kind of changes the dynamic a little. I think more people see the department as a place that might have something to offer them. In the past it’s generally been courses about nineteenth century German music or music theory from a Western perspective. I think it’s been evolving pretty progressively at this point.
I’m very surprised that for your first ECM record you went the more classical route. What was the decision behind that? When you got signed to ECM did you always have Mutations in mind for your label debut?
I had kind of sent a few different options to Manfred Eicher. He’s very involved in all the productions, so I sent him a few different ideas. I had some live recordings of this piece and I also had different ensemble…different live demos of my own band—the newer stuff. He went for this first. I think he thought it was a good way to establish a different profile for me in relation to what I’ve done before without excluding that other stuff. We’re going to make a trio album pretty soon too.
What inspired the Mutations suite initially? I know it’s a few years old. What inspired you to create this at first?
It premiered in 2005. I was commissioned to create a piece for the string quartet ETHEL. So that itself was kind of an invitation to get out of what I usually do. And I had grown up playing violin in classical ensembles. I played a lot of the string quartet and symphonic repertoire on violin, and I had a kind of ear for it. And I had also been studying composition in my own way and dealing with small obsessions I had—different ideas about how music might be generated. So since I was invited to make a piece for this format, I decided to take that opportunity to use some of the ideas about growth and evolution. It’s not really trying to be scientific or in relation to genetics. It’s more about difference and how we accommodate difference, and how we accommodate and incorporate things that are abnormal or not like what we’re used to. So there are moments that I guess you could describe them as beautiful in a conventional sense. They’re tonal and rushed, they have a sort of grandeur to them or something. And there are moments that are a little bit strange and give you an uneasy feeling. Those sorts of juxtapositions were part of the idea. I was inspired by some visual artists that I was checking out at the time that were dealing with some ideas like that, about juxtaposing the familiar and the strange. And the other thing about it is that this was all created in New York in the years after 9/11, so these ideas about the alien in our midst, the kind of foreign contaminant in our midst.
You mentioned some of the stuff was a little uneasy. I point right to one of my favorites, Mutation V: Automata. It reminds me of the Krzysztof Penderecki composition Polymorphia that Kubrick used in The Shining almost. Is that what you were going for?
Well the beginning part of that movement, I guess my point of reference was Gyorgy Ligeti, who was used in The Shining and other Stanley Kubrick movies, so it has the same sort of aesthetic. It shifts focus and sort of becomes this almost robot fantasy kind of thing. That, to me, was sort of about investing how you might continuously move from something that’s a little jagged and aesthetically challenging to something that is, you know, using the same elements, the same ingredients, moving to something that’s actually kind of sweet sounding.
Did any of ECM’s classical albums play a role? Like Arvo Part or anything?
He’s definitely a point of reference to admire. But I don’t know that that was a conscious influence. I wouldn’t say it was. At the time I don’t think I was that familiar with his work.
When you sent Manfred Eicher the demos, maybe he heard an element of that, which inspired him to choose that as your label debut.
I think he heard it in line with other things that are out there, for sure. Maybe there just might have been a home for that strain of music, a resonance there, a familiarity.
How was working alongside Manfred Eicher? Did you learn a lot from him?
I think we learned from each other. We kind of met as equals, I’ve made seventeen albums, he’s made, I dunno, nine hundred albums. He still had a very genuine connection to what was happening. He was listening very intently. I gave him a copy of the score, he was following along making detailed suggestions to the ensemble. He also had his hands on mic placements, had his hands on the faders. He was involved in choosing takes. He did all the stuff that producers are actually supposed to do. No shooting the breeze about the good ol’ days which some producers do. He wasn’t like that, he was very focused and everything he said was very constructive. He listened to what I wanted and what my ideas were, took what I said very seriously and tried to help me make it happen. It was good, that’s the way it should be.