We’re going to see Vijay Iyer perform from his new album Tirtha, with Carnatic guitarist Prasanna and tabla player Nitin Mitta, for the Portland Jazz Festival tomorrow, Saturday, and were privileged to get some words with him in anticipation of what promises to be a jaw-dropping show. Vijay is a jazz pianist, composer, bandleader, producer, electronic musician, and writer based in New York City, who’s worked with an enormous array of musicians in many genres, including Mike Ladd, Dead Prez and saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa. We talked about the democr/anarchic personality of jazz, the potency of identity and the magic of collaboration.
How has your background in Indian Classical influenced the work that you do now and how has it it influenced your approach to composition and interpretation of Western Classical jazz?
Well, I should clarify that I’m not trained in Indian music. I was born and raised in the US, and I was trained in Western music; particularly I played classical violin in the Western tradition for many years, and then I had more and more opportunities. I started playing piano by ear when I was little and then I had opportunities to study the history of jazz and I was in a high school jazz ensemble and stuff, so I kind of got into it the way a lot of people get into it in the States nowadays, which is through some sort of educational opportunity. It wasn’t until I was actually an adult, when I was about 20 or so, that I decided I wanted to learn more about the music of my heritage. So I just sort of, among many other things, pointed my attention in that direction, particularly looking at Carnatic music, which is the classical music of South India, and especially looking at the rhythmic techniques that you find in that music. It’s something I’ve been thinking about for a long time, close to 20 years, but I was never immersed in it in the sense of having a guru or studying it formally or anything like that. What I have had are a lot of opportunities to collaborate with Indian musicians. And as a composer I’ve worked with ideas from Indian music and kind of structural concepts from Indian music — especially rhythmic ideas from Indian music, so that’s all kind of led into the work I’ve been doing since the mid-90s. As I’ve had more and more opportunities to collaborate with both musicians from India, and with other Indian-American musicians like me — basically people who are part of the South Asian global diaspora — that relationship has deepened more and more over the years. As I’ve said this is all parallel with a lot of other things I’ve been doing, so it’s been one major priority for me but it hasn’t been the only priority.
Once you were in your twenties and you started to learn about the music of your heritage, did that start to affect your interpretation of or your approach to the jazz you’d been raised on?
Yeah, well, I guess as a composer and band leader, the kind of choices I was making, starting in the mid-90s with my first album which came out in ‘95, it displayed connections between all of those things — you know, a lot of the rhythmic ideas were influenced by Indian music. But then, structurally, it had a lot in common with experimental music from the African American creative avant-garde of the last century, so that includes everyone from Thelonious Monk to John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman and all those, you know, major figures. So I’m influenced by all of that and I’m also influenced by my heritage, but its all been, in a way, a discovery for me, little by little, just finding ways to bring it together.
And do you think that your work gets a specific kind of attention or audience in the jazz world because of your contact with Indian musical themes and other influences outside of — either parellel to or at a crossroads with — Western jazz? I know a lot of people think of “world” themes in themes as a bit psychedelic, like Alice Coltrane. Even playing the Portland Jazz Festival — do you feel like you were approached in a particular way because of your engagement with Indian themes?
I guess I’ve kind of been around long enough that I think people who follow this stuff and people, particularly like the people who run the Jazz Festival, are connected to the mainstream of the jazz industry, so they’ve seen me for many years do lots of different things. Last year I put out an album that probably, more than anything else I’ve ever done, displays that connection with Indian music because I’m collaborating in a trio with two musicians from India. One of them plays tablas, which are the hand drums of North India, and the other plays basically a normal electric guitar but he’s trained in Carnatic music, which is the South Indian classical music, so the way he plays the guitar is more like the veena, which is a South Indian stringed instrument. So I think this particular project — I don’t want to say wears it on its sleeve, but it is a collaboration among three people in the South Asian diaspora, so that is something that’s going to be apparent to people in various ways. It’s not that it’s trying to be jazz or that it’s trying to be Indian music, it’s just that we’re all being ourselves and creating something together. So I suppose, if this is the first or only thing they ever hear of me, that a person might assume that about who and what I am — that I’m the guy that fuses jazz and Indian music or something like that, but that’s a real reductive way of looking at what I’ve done. And if you look at anything else I’ve done, the picture is a little more complicated. It just so happens that that’s the band I’m bringing to Portland because often the kind of timeframe on these things is that you put out an album and someone says, “Hey, nice album, do you wanna have a gig in a year?” then a year later I’m putting out another album with a different band. But then anyway, here we are, doing this concert. This is one event among many that I’ll do in the coming months, and I’m working with a lot of different projects and collaborations and I’m fortunate to have a lot of opportunities like that. I guess from my perspective, I don’t feel pigeonholed because I have a lot of chances to do a lot of different things.
We’re beyond honored to host Eames Demetrios, grandson of Charles and Ray Eames, for Palm Springs Modernism Week at Ace Hotel & Swim Club next week, where he will be holding an Eames Retrospective on February 20 — talking about his grandparents’ work and legend, screening films about their iconic design gestures and discussing the connection with his own explorations and adventures. The retrospective is complimented by a pop-up shop with the A+D Architecture and Design Museum > LA. We have several other events to celebrate Modernism Week, including live mermaids.
We caught up with Eames on the eve of a trip abroad before the retrospective, and he was kind enough to go over some topics both familiar and new. We talked about his epic project Kcymaerxthaere, love, creativity, perseverance and fruitful failure, as well as how his legacy affects his work and process. We wished the conversation could have gone on infinitely, and we’re looking forward to seeing you next week as we keep it going.
I’m sure that you get asked at every turn about your grandparents. What I was noticing looking through your bio and your work is both that your work is very diverse and it seems like you have an almost spiritual thread through the things that you pursue. I was wondering how your grandparents’ legacy informs the work that you do now, especially this idea of 3-dimensional fiction.
Well I think we are all products of how we grow up and what we are exposed to. And Charles and Ray were definitely a part of my life growing up, and they are pretty amazing people. I think the real place that I find conscious inspiration from them is just this, you know — if you look at Charles right now, they are famous, they are iconic to a lot of different people, which is fantastic. But it wasn’t always that way. There were definitely a lot of struggles for them, especially in the 1940s. One thing I take inspiration from is just this whole idea of really sort of pursing an idea with great passion, an idea you believe in, and trying the hardest you can to pull it off knowing that it won’t happen right away. And I think for me that’s been helpful to know that it has worked for other people, it has happened to people that are a part of my legacy. But I think it’s inspiring to everyone. Because you know when you’re doing something that is really new, you don’t really know whether you are going to succeed or not. And so, one of the nice things I think for them, and certainly for me, was the process — I mean whether Kcymaerxthaere becomes incredibly world famous and successful and all that, it’s been an amazing experience no matter what. I’ve met amazing people, I’ve been to incredible places, and I’ve done some work that meant a lot to me. And so if you can approach things in that way, then whether or not you get the material success, it certainly helps you do more work, and I would be very happy about that — but it also means that you have something that you can feel good about looking back, no matter what. And Charles and Ray, I think, were very pleased with things that things worked out, but I think if they hadn’t, they’d had an amazing time learning about these materials — making the splints, understanding plywood better — and indeed if you look at what they actually did, the final chair that really sort of put them over the top, was not the plywood chair but the plastic chair, which came from their deep engagement with the challenges of molding plywood, even though the final result was plastic. So again, the process really is of value no matter how it turns out.
And you’ve spoken also about — in your Ted Talk and I think in your lectures that you give around the country and around the world — about this idea of “surrendering to your design journey.” Do these ideas relate to that, and what does that mean to you, necessarily?
Well I think that it is related to that. I would agree with that. I think of it particularly in terms of deign itself in the sense that there are so many times you hear about companies, or whatever, where people say they want to be design-driven, but they really have a specific end result in mind. And it’s not that that can’t work out sometimes, and sometimes that end result is really good insight, but very often it’s not really about being willing to surrender yourself to what you learn, and to what results from what you learn. And I think that that’s what I mean by surrendering to the design journey, and being really willing to do that. It doesn’t mean sort of giving up and not pushing back and not trying hard and making sure that ideas aren’t explored carefully and rigorously. But it does mean letting it take you where it goes. Because if you focus on what your real need is, if you keep your focus on that actual need, then certain other things become… they become…. they don’t take center stage when they shouldn’t. So, to use that example of that chair we just talked about, the important thing was making a comfortable and affordable chair. And they had an insight, keep in mind, that the seat and back is one, but there could be something really important there. Now, if the only acceptable outcome was making a mold of plywood, then you could be right, but you could also be destined to failure. But if an acceptable outcome is a successful and affordable chair that combines the seat and back, then success may come. They tried it in metal, they tried it in plywood, and they tried it in plastic — and that’s the one that eventually worked. And then, even with that, over the course of the next 20 years, they were constantly improving it, they were always trying to find a more of a uniform finish to it, and that whole time they had just designed one of the most successful chairs in history and they were still trying to make it better in the 70s.