Mu­sic for the heart and mind from pi­anist Vi­jay Iyer

The National - News - Arts & Life - - Front Page - Rob Gar­ratt

Over the years I have asked nu­mer­ous jazz mu­si­cians the same ques­tion: what goes through your mind when im­pro­vis­ing?

The an­swers vary wildly, from the tech­ni­cally ob­tuse to the in­fu­ri­at­ingly ab­stract, but the gen­eral con­sen­sus – whether the in­ter­vie­wee is a leg­end such as Her­bie Han­cock or John McLaugh­lin, or an un­signed mu­sic stu­dent – gen­er­ally boils down to “as lit­tle as pos­si­ble”.

No one has ever an­swered with the same il­lu­mi­nat­ing in­sight as Vi­jay Iyer, an Amer­i­can pi­anist re­peat­edly ranked among the best im­pro­vis­ers of his gen­er­a­tion, who will per­form con­certs at NYU Abu Dhabi to­mor­row and on Fri­day.

“To say that we’re not think­ing when we im­pro­vise is an im­pov­er­ished un­der­stand­ing of thought be­cause, ac­tu­ally, thought is dis­trib­uted through ac­tion – that’s the no­tion of em­bod­ied cog­ni­tion,” says Iyer. “The brain and the body are not sep­a­rate, not in the slight­est. We’re stuck in this Western par­a­digm of sep­a­ra­tion between the mind and the body, and that’s just wrong – a wrong un­der­stand­ing of what’s go­ing on in mu­sic, or any­thing we do.”

He is right, of course – philoso­phers and sci­en­tists alike agree that at any given moment, only a frac­tion of the sen­sory stim­uli around us is reg­is­tered. Yet, we re­act to it.

This per­cep­tive an­swer draws at­ten­tion not only to Iyer’s tal­ents as the im­pro­viser voted Down­beat mag­a­zine’s Artist of Year for a third time last year, but also to his roles as a Har­vard pro­fes­sor and MacArthur Fel­low.

It’s these aca­demic ac­co­lades, he sus­pects, that of­ten lead lis­ten­ers to de­scribe his rig­or­ous, of­ten densely or­gan­ised mu­sic as “cere­bral”.

“I’ve found that peo­ple who talk about the cere­bral as­pect of my mu­sic aren’t re­ally ex­pe­ri­enc­ing it – usu­ally they’re re­spond­ing more to my bi­og­ra­phy,” says Iyer, from his home in New York’s Har­lem.

“But I don’t find any­body who comes to our per­for­mances, or lives with my record­ings, has that ex­pe­ri­ence – re­ally, lit­er­ally no­body.”

I might ar­gue that Iyer’s mu­sic is both vis­cer­ally emo­tive and in­tel­lec­tu­ally en­liven­ing – like the mu­sic of, say, Th­elo­nious Monk or any de­cent im­pro­vi­sa­tional mu­si­cian.

Both sides will be on dis­play at NYUAD this week­end, when Iyer per­forms two very dif­fer­ent pro­grammes, loosely linked by the fact that they both draw on India for in­spi­ra­tion.

Each evening will open with a per­for­mance from Tirtha, an improvised trio project fea­tur­ing two other US- based mu­si­cians of In­dian de­scent, tabla player Nitin Mitta and guitarist Prasanna.

Con­ceived and first pre­sented in 2007 to mark 60 years of In­dian in­de­pen­dence, the project, cap­tured on Iyer’s 2011 al­bum of the same name, high­lights his con­tin­u­ing ex­plo­ration of South In­dian clas­si­cal mu­sic in the jazz id­iom be­gun on his de­but The project was con­ceived as an artis­tic re­sponse to Igor Stravin­sky’s The Rite of Spring record­ings of the mid-1990s.

“It’s ad­dress­ing my her­itage in some way, try­ing to fig­ure out who I am,” says Iyer.

“To be a part of this tra­di­tion of African- Amer­i­can cre­ative mu­sic [ jazz], and still bring some­thing to it that isn’t al­ready there, some el­e­ment of who I am.”

The Abu Dhabi con­certs will close with the far larger, more or­gan­ised – and, dare we say it, cere­bral – Radhe Radhe: Rites of Holi.

In this am­bi­tious mul­ti­me­dia project, Iyer will lead New York’s 15- piece In­ter­na­tional Con­tem­po­rary En­sem­ble through a cham­ber suite, per­formed along­side, and in re­sponse to, a 35-minute film doc­u­ment­ing the dra­matic, de­vo­tional fes­tiv­i­ties of Holi in the North­ern In­dian town of Mathura, India.

For eight days and nights, the town – known as the birth­place of Kr­ishna – is trans­formed into a team­ing “mosh-pit” with a ca­coph­ony of colour and sound. Iyer de­scribes it as an “all- en­com­pass­ing rit­ual – trans­for­ma­tive, cel­e­bra­tory, in­tox­i­cat­ing, earthy and spir­i­tual, im­mer­sive ex­pe­ri­ence.” The project was con­ceived as an artis­tic re­sponse to Igor Stravin­sky’s The Rite of Spring, and was com­mis­sioned in 2013 to mark the 100th an­niver­sary of the ballet’s pre­miere, which no­to­ri­ously caused a near-riot among the Parisian cul­tured classes.

For Iyer, the in­spi­ra­tion was not so much mu­si­cal as pro­ce­dural. Af­ter re­turn­ing from India, di­rec­tor/col­lab­o­ra­tor Prashant Bhar­gava be­gan by edit­ing 50 hours of footage to the Lon­don Sym­phony Orches­tra’s record­ing of the Rite – so Iyer’s work nec­es­sar­ily fol­lowed the dy­namic and emo­tional flow of Stravin­sky’s mas­ter­piece. Per­form­ing the work has taken on greater emo­tional sig­nif­i­cance since Bhar­gava’s death in 2015. This week­end marks only the sec­ond time Iyer has per­formed Radhe Radhe since then.

“You can see the world through Bhar­gava’s eyes when you see this film,” says Iyer som­brely.

“One of his great tal­ents was be­ing able to see the hu­man­ity in or­di­nary folks and ex­alt that essence – that’s what you see hap­pen­ing through his lens.”

Vi­jay Iyer per­forms at the Red Theatre, New York Univer­sity Abu Dhabi to­mor­row and Fri­day, 8pm, reg­is­ter for free tick­ets at www.nyuad-arts­cen­ter.org.

Photo by Lena Ada­sheva

Amer­i­can pi­anist and com­poser Vi­jay Iyer will per­form at NYUAD to­mor­row and on Fri­day.

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