Ashok Kondabolu speaks to Vijay Iyer about an alternate history of jazz, opening institutional spaces, and the resistance and defiance within music.
April 20, 2017
I first met jazz pianist, MacArthur genius, and Harvard professor Vijay Iyer in a friend’s music studio in 2010. He came by to mess around and play keyboard and drum machine on what ended up being a hidden track on Das Racist’s second mixtape. Intimidated by all those things preceding Vijay’s name in the previous sentence, I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to keep up when we met for this interview a few weeks after the election in November. We ended up talking for well over an hour over tea at his kitchen table, moving into the basement when his daughter came home so she could do her homework in peace. Vijay is music director at this year’s Ojai Music Festival in southern California from June 8-11.
We had a wide-ranging conversation that touched on jazz beef, the physicality of music, and teaching undergrads a deconstructed grassroots history of jazz.
Have you ever been at an event, and coincidentally there happened to be a piano, and people are drinking and they try and get you to play?
Usually these days I say no. You do get cornered, usually by people who not only don’t know anything about music and think musicians are just there to entertain them.
Right, like, “Tell me a joke, comedian!”
Yes. And then you’re like, “You’re a doctor, can you…” People don’t do that to doctors or teachers or politicians, like ask them to do their work in front of you.
And then you’re the asshole.
Exactly. I mean sometimes, especially if it’s a very emotional event, like if you’re gathered to mourn someone or celebrate something…
Where people are more likely to actually listen.
And the music can function as a way to focus all the energy in the room and focus the emotions in the room. That’s when it really feels worthwhile. Otherwise, it’s just like “Hey, show me a trick.” I don’t do tricks, I’m not a monkey.
You talked about music relating to bodily action. How do you think that relates to electronic music and electronic music production?
In the last century there’s been this avalanche of new music technology that’s electronic in nature, starting with recording technology. That already created this disconnect between music and people, in the sense that music can circulate without us, and it could somehow be present when the person who made it isn’t present. That was this huge breach, a breakdown of what we thought we understood about each other.
Uncoupling the music from an event where people play music.
Yes, from the social, basically, from being around each other, and from witnessing the act of music-making. Then it became not only purely aural, but at a distance. Displaced not just in space, but in time too. So then you could ask, how is it that we could still dance to music if it wasn’t about being in each other’s presence? We could dance to records of people playing music. Imagine how bizarre that must have felt initially, right? Every step along the way in terms of music technology has been right in the middle of that same conundrum. But on the other hand, you could say that about instruments, too, what we think of as normal, traditional instruments. They are also in some way an extension of the body, or a kind of interface between you and something else. The piano is a machine. Saxophone is this weird kind of appendage—you blow into this tube, and somehow you’re making someone cry across the room. It sounds ridiculous. I think music has always been right in that strange zone. It’s been a way for us to extend the notion of who and what we are.
When it comes to electronic music, most of the electronic music that you would think of is dance music, right? That means there’s something in it that we do feel physically. Like, “Oh, I could move to this, this reminds me of somebody moving.” That’s where our notion of rhythm comes from. The reason electronic music doesn’t lose a sense of embodiment, or the cases when it doesn’t, are the cases that remind us of embodiment, of presence, and of movement.
You had written a thesis that I didn’t understand; I didn’t read the thesis but I was reading an explanation of what the thesis was about, and it was about cognition. Could you explain what that means?
Well that’s sort of like what I just said. Body cognition in general is the idea that what we think of as thought is not removed from bodily experience. It goes against Cartesian duality, the understanding that what we call thought emerges from fumbling around experiencing the world physically and socially, which means you learn about your body in relation to the environment, but also in relation to other people’s bodies. That becomes a basis of thought. The very basis of what we call intelligence or cognition comes from that, not from somewhere else.
It comes from sense impressions and social judgment?
Yeah. One example people use is that there’s babies who know how to walk and babies who don’t. At some point you cross that threshold and you learn how to walk, but before you do, you haven’t experienced falling down. You haven’t fallen down the stairs, or fallen on your face. There were these experiments where basically they’d let a baby crawl off a cliff—there would be this glass sheet over the cliff so the baby doesn’t actually fall, but it’s lit from below, so the baby just perceives it as empty space. A baby will just crawl out into empty space.
That awareness of basic ways of interacting with the world around you is a learned experience. Everything that we do comes from those kinds of experiences. That was the basic thrust of body cognition. It’s not a revelation or anything, but it’s a theory that came up in order to correct or push back on Eurocentric thought.
So then I came along and thought, well, why don’t we talk about music in this way? Because the way people talk about music and especially the way researchers and scholars talk about music is as this disembodied object. So they’ve been kind of confused by things like scores and recordings. It’s almost as if they forgot that music comes from us, comes from our actions. So I just kind of tried to remind everyone of that—that music is us. Very basic.
When you record albums and put out albums, does it sometimes feel like a chore that you have to do, to be able to continue touring and improvising?
Well, it’s not a chore, it’s its own art form in a way. The live experience, making music with and for people in a room altogether so we experience it altogether, that’s very different from making a record. You might sculpt it a little differently, you might be a little less direct about things. You might have more subtlety and layers so people can revisit the same recording and find something else in it the next time, you know? I’ve been listening to the new Tribe Called Quest record, because their stuff was so important to me from when I was 16 or 17. They’ve been a big part of my life. To come back to that sound has been kind of a revelation for me all over again, but as I’ve listened to it over and over, I’m like, “Oh, that’s that sample.” You’ll notice it on the third or fourth time like, oh, I know what that is, I know where it came from. That’s what I mean by layers of information that a recording can give you access to, because you can sit with it.
And it doesn’t change.
Yeah, and then it’s a little different in the pop world maybe, or in hip-hop, because that’s treated as a reenactment of the album.
Right, which is one of the issues I have with going to see rap shows throughout my life, it just kind of seems like karaoke, and it seems like that’s what people going want. When Das Racist was touring there were a lot of really unusual performances. A lot of people would be upset afterwards because they were like, “I just wanted them to sing the words to the songs.” I was like, “You can do that in your bedroom.” This is a different kind of experience.
When hip-hop was becoming mainstream in the 1980s, I remember there was a lot of complaining about live hip-hop shows not really being shows; there wasn’t enough to go on, there wasn’t enough to do, or not enough to look at, or something like that. So maybe that’s been a persistent problem, but what it really is is a problem that goes back to your earlier question, it’s a problem about electronic music and presence and absence. Because what hip-hop tracks do is evoke the presence of a band, but there is no band. They’re made out of “found” stuff, like samples and turntables and finding breakbeats and juggling, and looping sections of people actually playing, but looping it into infinity. Or programming on machines to evoke human presence, but it’s predicated on absence. Basically the fusing of black aesthetics and technology at that level. Robert Hood, who’s a Detroit techno producer, called it “squeezing blood from a drum machine.” How do you make this stuff feel full and soulful and alive when it isn’t? It radically is not alive. So then you have these couple of dudes shouting into mics in front of nothing. And it took awhile for America to get used to that, to get used to looking at that type of performance. Now it’s been like thirty years of that—or forty.
How does a permanent appointment work? You have a permanent appointment, right? It just sounds so…
Yeah, it means I’m in a waiting room forever. No, it just means I was hired with tenure. So it means that I don’t really—
It means you don’t wear pants, you curse…
Well actually what it means is they let me sit in on committees that make decisions on what’s going to happen next at the university. So it’s kind of weird to be a brown man in the middle of all that. It’s new to them.
Are all your students intending to be musicians?
No, most of them don’t imagine that it’s something available to them. I get a lot of students of color, a lot of Asian students who are science majors. A lot of them are just ridiculously talented musicians. So then they’re at this crossroads, they’re like, what should I do now? Of the ones who come to me, there’s a pretty strong contingent there of people who are like “Ok, this is a part of the music department I can plug into.” Otherwise, they might perceive the department as Eurocentric in its focus and maybe they can’t find themselves reflected in it somewhere.
I give them a DIY handbook. If you look at the history of this music, it’s actually a history of community organizing. It’s not a history of just heroic individuals. I’m talking about the music that’s called jazz, which is a term that I and many other people distance themselves from. For example, if you look at the record industry, which is something that emerges at the same time as this music, it was just a set of imperfect documentation of what is actually this vast set of musical practices that are always going on at some underground level. Treating it more like process, while the record industry turns it into product. We only have access to these records released by record companies because they thought they could sell them. What you really have is these different business plans, that were like, “Let’s record these guys, because we can sell this,” and that’s not going to be a comprehensive story of what happened and why. So when you really get into that, I give them almost like an alternate history, a grassroots history of the music. It’s like a deconstructed jazz history course as well as a community building exercise within the class, because everyone in it is a musician, so they end up having to make stuff together themselves. That’s been kind of a nice, organic process with lots of surprises. I don’t make any bones about the fact that jazz was born in the context of extreme anti-black violence and white supremacy. A lot of them are shaken by it, because some of them might come into the class thinking they’re jazz musicians, and may have never dealt with any of that before. It might give them a moment of crisis, where they have to sit with some hard truths.
Like they’ve only conceived of the music in terms of pure musicianship?
The way that high school kids will come into jazz is through a jazz ensemble program in their high school. But that’s generally only the case in privileged high schools. Basically, they’re just like, “Oh I play the saxophone now, I’m going to try to read these notes on this paper,” and then they’re like, “Oh, you can try improvising and playing some of the notes on this scale,” but it’s not really in relation to any heritage or even real life examples. It’s in a vacuum. And it tends to be at these suburban, well-heeled schools where the revenue from property taxes is high enough to pay for instruments. So that’s created this huge divide, where you have these privileged kids from suburbs who can play instruments and think that they’re jazz musicians, and who’ve never dealt with basic facts of blackness.
Did your parents listen to a lot of music growing up? What were your initial music influences? Just the first few things you remember hearing.
I have an older sister, and the first things I remember hearing were things that she chose. My parents listened to some music. They came in the early-mid 60s,, I was born in ‘71, and my sister was born in ‘68. My parents had a reel-to-reel tape player, and they had these reels—one of them probably had some Ravi Shankar, stuff like that. But for the most part as I recall, my sister and I dominated the stereo. I remember the first LP that she bought, must have been ‘77, was the soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever. I also remember that I was starting violin when I was three, so ‘74 or ‘75, and we would listen to a lot of Western classical. Like Beethoven’s 5th, or some disco version of something. And then what was on the radio, I remember the 80s pretty well. I was way into Prince and The Police. My sister’s friends were into the Beatles, so just through hanging out with them I ended up learning almost every Beatles song. I’d pick them out on the piano.
How do you feel about how the Met Breuer residency went?
The Met Breuer thing was just one part of a longer residency, so I did a few other things at the main Met building in the fall. But last March, I had this idea that we would just play every day, all day, for the whole month. The idea was that we would open by not closing; we would just be this constant presence. But also that we’d bring in our people. I wanted it to be about a clash.
Opening that institutional space.
Yeah. So basically being difference, or enacting and creating experiences of difference and making people deal with it. Everybody goes to the Met, even tourists who don’t like art go to the Met. It was under that guise that people were stumbling into the Breuer. Not to see contemporary art, even though that’s the focus in that building, but actually just because it’s the Met, and they could be anybody—like tourists, or students, or just senior citizens, or people out on dates in the middle of the day. It’s a little unpretentious in that way, which is what I liked about it. So there was that experience of the organization kind of finding itself. But that is exactly the purpose of having an artist in residence at a place like the Met, I think—to help the organization find itself. Because you’re going to get right in the middle of stuff, you’re going to start relating different departments that don’t normally even talk to each other or know each other exist.
You’re curating the Ojai Festival that happens this June. And that’s a classical music festival?
Historically, that’s been its identity.
Do you think that the work you did at the Met is going to help you do that job?
I’ve been trying to get into this post-genre mentality, not in the sense of like “oh we’re mixing genres,” but we’re not beholden to genre. You might think that this is a classical music festival, but I do not believe in that as a unity. To me, that’s like what Coltrane once said about jazz. He was interviewed by this Japanese journalist late in his life, and they asked him “What’s the future of jazz?”, and he said “Jazz is a word they use to sell our music, but to me that word does not exist.” To me, that’s an essential attitude for an artist. You cannot create authentically if you are trying to adhere to someone else’s idea of what’s supposed to happen in it.
Another way to say it is that genres are historically emergent categories that came along mostly for business reasons. They didn’t really tell us anything about the music, they were just ways of actually categorizing people, and basically they’re racial categories. They’re record industry terms. It’s time to jettison all of that and be true to who we are, whatever that means. So what I did at the Met and what I’m doing at Ojai is reaching into the network of associations that I have by virtue of being in the city and being the artist that I am. A lot of those associations or relationships have been transformative for me, pivotal moments in my life to get to be next to this person who’s this brilliant artist, this brilliant improviser, composer, instrumentalist. These are people that have come from very different musical communities: Indian classical musicians or Western classical musicians, like world-class so-called jazz musicians, or MCs, or poets, electronic jazz musicians, installation artists, conceptual artists, authors.
You’re trying to program a relevant, interesting lineup.
It has activated me personally. I mean, what else do I know? I could try to prescribe some menu of awesome stuff, but to me, these are people I know and trust who will deliver something that will change your life. That’s fine, I don’t care if you don’t think that’s classical music, that doesn’t matter to me anymore. The fact that they let me come on-board, they let me come in with that kind of attitude says something about them too.
Maybe they sense that they need to change. I figure that anytime anyone tells me to spend their money, it means they lost their mind, or they actually want something that they don’t have yet. It doesn’t make sense to step into that opportunity or space and make choices that they’ve already made, or remind them of themselves again. That’s how I’m approaching it, and it’s not like I’m trying to resist the history that they’re part of, but rather to show how it’s always been connected. I guess what Ojai has been known for is a certain kind of 20th century modernism in European classical music. It’s kind of a showcase for that, like one time Stravinsky had this gig, doing what I’m doing now. But really, all that stuff happened alongside these underground histories that we talked about earlier, this music we call jazz, it’s all part of the same town, maybe not the same zip code. It’s possible, if you live in a city, to find yourself in contact with all of it, if you don’t close yourself off to it. That’s basically what we’re trying to demonstrate.
I wanted to talk about your beef with Kurt Rosenwinkel, the jazz guitarist?
Oh no, how did you find this. I thought they scrubbed the internet of all this.
No, there’s still some Reddit discussions on this.
[Laughing] Oh God no, you Reddited me.
Basically after the MacArthur in 2013, he attacked you about your musicianship, right? Is that essentially it? Did you resolve that, or—I don’t know how it works. I just gravitated toward the beef situation, I found it interesting.
Everyone loves a good beef, a slab of beef. And actually some of the journalists tried to turn that into the jazz story of 2013. Not the fact that I received an award, or made any music, but that some guy decided to throw darts at me. Well, basically it was just like Kurt getting high and ranting on Facebook. And then a bunch of people co-signing, being like “Yeah, fuck Vijay Iyer,” clicking “like,” and being like, “Yeah, he doesn’t know!” It was like a thread that just went on, and then other threads, like phantom threads, parasitic threads, and threads within threads—when you see this happening you’re like, “Oh, this is where the Tea Party came from.” Exactly the same sentiment of generalized disgruntlement in a complete absence of fact-checking. Nobody did any homework before making all kinds of accusations about me. One of the most hilarious accusations was that I’m ignoring a hundred years of black music. These are all, by the way, leveled by white guys, all this stuff.
There’s this real kind of possessiveness going on. And bullying. There’s about a dozen white dudes in this music who I haven’t spoken to since then, and I just won’t answer anything. But Kurt and I, it’s not that we buried the hatchet exactly—he got some heat for it, because a lot of people actually stepped in on my behalf.
I wanted to read this quote from another interview: “From the very beginning a hundred years ago, that shit was happening, so that is actually one thing that holds the whole history of jazz together—the impulse of white men to try to possess something that comes from black people and to rob it of that cultural identity, or to just arbit what it is, what it isn’t, and where the limits are. So to me when I get caught up in a stupid conversation like the one we’re talking about it’s really about white men trying to possess black music.” And the person asked you “You’re Indian American, what does this viewpoint yield when it’s applied to you,” and you said, “They think they can bully someone maybe because they feel like maybe I’m not really part of that equation.”
That really resonated with me after being in Das Racist because that was something we always started to talk about towards the end. There would be a lot of resistance both in the oblique ways where we would be labeled as joke rap, and in the critics who would write about us. White arbiters deciding what is and isn’t legitimate for something that originated outside of their culture.
It’s interesting to see that same pattern echoed in your experience, but I’m not surprised at all.
It’s just boring, corny. Like is that really a question.
It is, but when you think about it, what is an Asian American male entertainer? What are the kinds of models that are out there? I think the most common one is a buffoon or a clown, like I think Psy is maybe the best example. Because, you know, he became the most famous Asian person in the world, but then “Gangnam Style” was just clowning. Nobody who watched it from here had a clue what he was saying, and that’s what made it funny, he was just doing that as they would probably put it, “ching-chong” kind of stuff. It wasn’t about actually understanding the person or what he was trying to say, it was just, look at that stupid Asian guy doing that goofy dance, looks like he’s riding a horse. And of course he was mocking the preppies of Seoul. Most people who are watching it don’t have any clue about that. This guy who might actually have something to say, it’s all being drained out of that. It’s just observed as a comical spectacle. And that to me is just emblematic. He’s not the only one, but you see that constantly. If you’re not a martial artist or something, you’re a clown. There isn’t really anything else to be. When you’re an artist for life, you keep coming up against that dynamic, where you have to keep reestablishing a certain basic sense of “I’m a person.”
The humanity, yeah.
And you know, you realize that black musicians have been dealing with this for as long as there has been something called black music. And basically the music contains its own ways of resisting. [I have] worked with a lot of elder musicians who had grown up under segregation and toured, but touring was like combat. Actually going on the road was like—okay, you’re putting your life in your own hands, literally.
The stakes were very high.
Right. And that’s how they approached it, so music had that kind of force behind it. Defiance. Because there was danger right in their midst. That’s the kind of important point of reference to have. But when you think about what it’s like to live that life—I actually wouldn’t say I’m a constant Kanye fan, but I have actually really appreciated the moves he’s made, because it’s been constantly defiant. Usually what people mock him about is moments when he stands up and says, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” or “Beyonce should have won this award” or something like that where it’s like yeah, why didn’t you guys treat black people as human? He’s willing to just take the heat for it and be seen as a clown or an idiot. He’s always making those kinds of moves. That, to me, is part of the same tradition, actually. I guess in a way, being an Asian American man in this black musical form can be a bit of a trap, but at the same time it can be an opportunity for moments of coalition and moments of allyship, moments of collective action.
Do you have a religious practice?
No, I wouldn’t say I do. This will make me sound like a hippie but I would say that making music can be a spiritual practice and I find that at times it takes me to that place. It’s partly because it’s improvised, so it means I can actually tap into what’s happening internally and externally, and release it.
Like it’s a “transcendental” kind of thing?
Yeah, but that’s real. That comes from a real disciplined knowledge. When people talk about it that way, it’s not a joke. At this point I’ve been playing music for more than 40 years, and I’ve been playing it in front of people for more than half of that time. I’ve observed some things. I’ve seen things happen, I’ve been a part of certain experiences where it almost brings you back to a pre-cognitive self. It’s so deep within us, it almost feels like you’re leaving your body, but actually what you’re doing is going deeper into it.
I do a lot of sitting meditation, and there might be some similarities with the synchronicity, the being-in-the-zone-ness.
Yeah, there’s that. But that tends to be focused on an individual, and I guess I’m kind of talking about a collective experience. The fact that you can have that individual, internal experience in the context of a social environment where everyone might be doing something like that. Not identical, but basically that everyone finds their way into a similar experience. So there’s something there, I guess the more I do it, the more I tap into that, and just—
You find it sustaining.
Yeah, because that’ll take you to a place where you find yourself doing something you didn’t know you could, or you’ll hear something and be like, where did that come from? But it came from you. That kind of experience is like, okay, there’s something here that no words can explain.