Does music make you empathise with the person making it?

In Conversation with Vijay Iyer

“The artist is the consciousness of society… but musicians’ role is very special. It’s a way of making an example of the perfect state of being for the observer, causing, if it’s successful, the observer to forget just for a moment that there is anywhere else existing except that moment that they’re engaged in, and to eclipse everything that was happening to them before they began that process of being the observer, or being involved in/engaged between art and music and listening… and to transform that life in just an instant, so that when they go back to the routine part of living, they carry with them a little bit of something else.” — Ishmael Wadada Leo Smith

My first experience with pianist-composer Vijay Iyer’s music was in 2011 through his then newly released album Tirtha, which also featured guitarist R. Prasanna and tabla artist Nitin Mitta. Listening to Tirtha struck a chord within me as something truly unique and revolutionary, amidst the host of shotgun attempts at fusing elements of Indian music with the vocabulary of jazz.  As a young Indian-American scrambling to figure out what it meant to be a professional musician in the U.S., I was immediately hooked and wanted to hear more. As I continued listening, I found that Vijay’s music boldly defied genre and resonated with me in profound ways, creating continuities within my consciousness where there had only been contradictions before. Sounds and sensibilities that I never believed could coexist were interwoven seamlessly in his music.

Since 2011, I have had the honor and joy of working with Vijay in various musical situations in New York City and learning a great deal about improvisation, rhythmic modulation and composition. Through him, I met a whole network of his collaborators — brilliant musicians and community-oriented artists — further illustrating to me the compassion, expansiveness, and spiritual rigor at the core of Vijay’s music. In 2015, I joined the new cross-disciplinary doctoral program in music at Harvard University, which Vijay initiated as part of his new appointment there as Franklin D. and Florence Rosenblatt Professor of the Arts. As his PhD student, I have gotten to know the academic roots of his artistic philosophy. Vijay continually pushes his students to reflect on the improvisational potential of social movements and the radical magic involved in communities coexisting through sound. Below are excerpts from a conversation I recently had with him on March 14, 2016.

In your life, you have cultivated a delicate balance between your performance career, academic research, and community activism. This strikes me as an incredibly difficult nexus to occupy, rife with contradictions and conflicts of interest. How do you envision the dialogue among these worlds and your role as a facilitator in that conversation?

People often pin the tag “activist” on me, and I am honored, but I know political activists, and I know I’m not one of them because they work really hard, tirelessly and thanklessly, and really put their lives on the line… I think that there’s a certain consciousness that underlies the work I do that is in line with some core activist principles or ideals, but for me to call myself one is a little bit false, so I’m careful about that. All these sensibilities that you’re talking about come from being a person of color here in the United States. In our case, we’re what are called “non-Black people of color” (NBPOC), which means that we have a particular and complicated vantage, because we come with a set of privileges that often get swept under the rug when we frame ourselves in political terms. It has become hugely important to me, especially in recent years, to be a little bit more honest about where we stand and what “coalition” means, for example.

In my life, it kind of all fell together, especially the period in the 1990s when I was living in the Oakland/San Francisco Bay Area, and in graduate school at UC Berkeley. I just fell in with all these different communities… different crowds that I found myself running with: African American activists and also young African American artists in the Bay Area, you know, poet-activist-artists, performers, MCs, music makers, DJs… I connected with Steve Coleman, George Lewis, Asian Improv, and Amiri Baraka. So the academic path I found myself on was informed by all of that, in the sense that I was basically finding my way into this area of research — music perception and cognition research — but I found that it didn’t represent the music that my life was increasingly centered around. It didn’t really honor Black perspectives in music. What I found myself doing academically was just trying to redress that in some small way by offering some other supplemental theoretical framing through which we could understand music perception and cognition that wasn’t predicated on all these Eurocentric assumptions about what music is, how music works, and what’s important in music.

Coming to New York in the late 1990s… A few of us tried several times and failed to start this organization called Creative Music Convergences. We wanted to form an organization to present experimental work by people of color. Because that wasn’t something that was being valued in the scene here. We wanted to feature intelligent discourse about music, and very strongly curated music, too. I’m not sure I would call it activism… Artists have a slightly different function. You take action in public, and it can become a sort of moment of focus, of public focus — it can concentrate a lot of energy in one place because people gather around it, but it’s not the same as doing activist work. It is just compatible with activism, or it can be a precondition for activism.

The reason I mention the word “activism” is because it’s radical for an artist to truly see their work as engaging with society in a fundamental way. Art is widely seen as transcending the social or as a way to escape the problems of society.

That’s true, but it’s partly also about who gets to be an artist. And that’s probably really where it started for me. I didn’t think I could be an artist. Eventually opportunities presented themselves that led me to suspect that maybe the world would let me be an artist. When we talk about art, we act as if it’s not in a marketplace, for example. On the one hand, there’s the artistic impulse, which everybody has. But on the other hand, there’s this thing that’s almost treated like a substance. This “stuff” called art. And usually when we talk about that substance, we’re already engaging in certain assumptions about where it comes from, who gets to make it, and what makes it valuable. That usually has to do with power, as distributed in culture…  I’ve known musicians who bristle at the term “art” or “artist.” Steve Coleman is one, he doesn’t really wear that term very well*. He’s aware of the whiff of elitism that’s inside that word. But on the other hand is insisting on wearing that term, especially when we do it as people of color.

[*Steve Coleman is an African American saxophonist and composer, and was one of Vijay’s mentors. I had the opportunity to study with Steve as I started working more in the jazz scene.]

You frequently reference your indebtedness to the African American creative music tradition in shaping your music. What do you think world (particularly the South Asian diaspora and India) stands to gain from engaging rigorously with the African American experience and struggle?

We’ve been speaking from a particular vantage of difference in the U.S., which is maybe not so apparent or comprehensible to people in India. India is full of divisions, and it’s extremely hierarchical, and there’s a tolerance of inequality… not just a tolerance, but an investment, a preservation of inequality. In that way, it’s not that different from here, actually. So that’s where there may be some kind of link, or a way in to these concerns. It’s a historical reality that the struggles for civil and human rights among African Americans here have been informed by and have also informed struggles for equality among Dalits, for example. Just as much as Gandhi informed Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X has informed Dalit struggles, and Marcus Garvey informed Dr. Ambedkar. So there’s been this awareness that there are lots of parallels. I find myself constantly conscious of this, partly because I work in a musical tradition or form that was created by African Americans… I would just hope that people hear in African American music a certain kind of insistence on being heard — a refusal to be silenced — and maybe imagine what might be some analogous movements or social situations in India that you might learn about by listening — by listening more carefully. I mean one thing music does is it dares you to empathize with the person who’s making it…


In light of these resonances, how do you personally connect with and define your heritage or community?

I don’t really find terms like heritage, or tradition, or even culture, to be very useful or empowering, or specific enough to define the life that I live. What it amounts to, for me, is a certain set of experiences. Heritage becomes a way of closing the circle, or delimiting it. But when you really think about it as a set of experiences, or movement within and across difference, we’re dealing with diaspora basically — and particularly, having a vantage as a non-Western person of color in a place that’s defined by these horrific histories. I’m not descended from enslaved people. That doesn’t mean I can’t empathize with people who are, or build community with them. But it means that I’m in a structurally different position than they are, so building community across different structural positions has to be part of our imagination. So my concern about building community around nation, around ethnicity, is that it limits the imagination.

I feel at a certain remove from communities in India, but I also know that we’re more connected now than we ever were, so I do know that we’re all kind of at least watching each other from afar. You know, when people see me enjoying what seem like the trappings of success or prestige, being a professor at Harvard or getting a MacArthur fellowship… then that’s used as some kind of validation of “Indian pride.” And I find that to be really dangerous, because it’s about coalition at the expense of others. What binds us is a set of experiences: it’s not about genes or ethnicity, except insofar as those create a certain historical circumstance for us to have a shared set of experiences. But it’s the experiences that matter, not that other stuff… I guess I try to be aware of similarities. And how similarities can emerge that aren’t purely ethnic, that can lead us to find a deep common experience with someone who’s ostensibly nothing like us…

Has music ever helped you through potentially uncomfortable situations?

It happens every day. It happened yesterday! That quote from Wadada, which you’ve probably heard me mention a few times**, where he talks about how music can eclipse the reality outside the door… That it offers a moment for people to imagine a “perfect state of being” so that when they return to the “routine part of living,” they take with them something else… So, the “routine part of living” is made up of power relations and difference. In a way, it’s deceptively simple when he puts it that way… The thing about music is that it vanishes as soon as it’s done, it’s gone. So it’s only about how it works at the moment that it’s happening. And then whatever mysterious residue it leaves as people scatter afterward. It’s in those mysterious moments of gathering around this strange ritual of making sounds together and listening to them. It’s like a ritual of forgetting. At some level it’s not real, and at some level it’s the realest thing there is. As a ritual, it’s staged and performative, but it’s also working on the body in a way that’s very hard to talk about. That’s where the work happens. It’s how we are in time together; it offers a glimpse of how we can be in time together.

[**quoted above — Ishmael Wadada Leo Smith is a trumpeter and composer, and an important pioneer in the African American creative music tradition. Vijay and Wadada recently released an album together on ECM, entitled A Cosmic Rhythm with Each Stroke (2016), inspired by the artwork of Indian artist Nasreen Mohamedi (1937-1990).]

What do you hope to accomplish through this new program at Harvard? What are the ramifications for artists, for academia, and for society at large?

What I’m doing is bringing everything I’ve been talking about to that environment. Which means tapping into the energies that are there but also bringing in energies that aren’t there. It’s about relation, about difference, about creating movement within and across difference through production of knowledge, and through art making and music making, which is a little different… They like to use the word “research” to refer to what I do as an artist, as well as what Mahadevan does as a physicist***. But I’m aware that what I do is a little different, because it has to do with performance, which means it has to do with interacting with the public and generating public perceptions. It means that it’s about activating a certain awareness across difference. That’s what I see my role as in a place like that, really anywhere I go. It’s just that I’m developing a sense of how to do that at a place like Harvard. But I’m also developing a sense of how to do that at a place like the Metropolitan Museum of Art****. Or at a jazz festival, or an arts nonprofit. What I find myself doing at Harvard is generating the kind of movement that feels right and that I’m able to do in that circumstance — by cultivating certain relationships across disciplines and inserting a certain destabilizing sensibility into the conversation, while at the same time inviting students to respect the process of art making and really take it seriously. Why the latter, I think it’s because what that does is it gives more people an opportunity to do what I’m doing, which is to interact with the public and deal with difference in those particular ways. So, working with even a dozen or two dozen performers every semester, they will carry that forward in a way that another kind of student wouldn’t. Because they’re going to make it their business to carry those ideas forward in public.

[***Lakshminarayanan Mahadevan is professor of applied mathematics, organismic and evolutionary biology, and physics at Harvard University.]

[****Vijay has been artist-in-residence this year at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and curated a series of performances in March to open the new Met Breuer building.]

(Rajna Swaminathan is an accomplished young mrudangam artist and disciple of maestro Umayalpuram K. Sivaraman. She has performed with several renowned Indian classical musicians and dancers, touring widely in North America and India. Over the past few years, she has been collaborating and performing with distinguished artists in the New York jazz scene, including pianist Vijay Iyer and saxophonist Steve Coleman. Rajna holds degrees in Anthropology and French from the University of Maryland College Park. She is currently pursuing a PhD in music at Harvard University)

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