Vijay Iyer is the Franklin D. and Florence Rosenblatt Professor of the Arts as well as graduate advisor for the Music Department’s Creative Practice and Critical Inquiry program. He’s an internationally recognized jazz pianist and toured for many years before beginning to teach.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
MGB: Before your career as a full time musician, you studied physics and math. And then I read that you created your own, or helped design your own Ph.D. program, studying embodied musical cognition. So I just wanted you to talk about your path to Harvard, for people who aren’t super familiar with your work.
VI: I went to Yale for undergrad. I was a physics and math major.
Of course, like all college students, when I was there I studied a lot of things: a lot of humanities stuff in particular, you know, literary theory, and I read everything that Freud ever wrote. I got into post structuralist critical theory stuff. But the main thing was that I had been playing music my whole life. I had violin lessons, and I also picked up piano by ear and then became an improviser, then composer, and became a jazz pianist.
I basically got into physics grad school, and I thought that was what I was going to do at UC Berkeley.
But the summer before that, I started playing on the scene in Oakland, Berkeley, San Francisco with elder musicians in particular.
There are multiple deep musical communities there that I ended up interacting with and becoming a part of, and so after a couple of years of that I had this pretty profound change of heart. After two years in the Ph.D. program in physics, during which I had been living this double life and playing music by night with all these folks and started to do my own music. I realized that I actually wanted to pursue that instead. So I quit physics, which was really disorienting.
What my dissertation ended up being about was actually deeply informed by experience making music with and among and for people, and particularly with being embraced by Black musicians and Black musical communities.
I was exploring this research field called music perception and cognition. Nowadays, it might be referred to as the neuroscience of music.
My whole thesis essentially was that music is action. That’s basically the embodied music cognition hypothesis. It’s that music starts as embodied action, not simply abstract ideas that we then implement.
MGB: You mentioned synchronicity when you were explaining your dissertation. And I was wondering about, how the idea of time or temporality can function as a unifying dimension of all the different fields that you’ve worked in, like it’s obviously really important in physics, and it seems important in music theory, and obviously, in the experience with music, it’s important, so I just wanted to know if you had any sort of reflections on that point.
VI: It’s basically a consequence of living in our bodies that things take time.
I’ll be saying a lot of things, like sentences that sound preposterously simple and obvious, but it’s the sort of thing we have to be reminded of, you know?
When we say time, we think of it as this abstract quantity that just flows, right? But it isn’t that. That’s not what time is.
Isaac Newton invented time as a parameter to solve equations. It’s not really a thing. It’s literally a parameter in the equations of motion. Motion is a thing. Motion is what happens.
One of my favorite articles in the cognitive sciences was actually by a psychologist named J.J. Gibson. The title of the article is basically his thesis, which is that events are perceivable, but time is not. So we don’t actually perceive time, we perceive events. How do we do that? Well, it turns out that our bodies are full of events, actually, that have cycles to them, that have temporalities to them. Breathing, heartbeat, different brainwaves. Circadian rhythms, menstrual rhythms, Seasonal Affective Disorders and things like that. We’re tied to the rhythms of the planet.
These rhythms are the stuff of music; the things that our bodies do in time are what musical time is made of.
All these things that bodies do — they don’t just correspond to music. They are the source of it.
MGB: My next question is about your musical inspirations. You write in your bio that your music draws mainly from South Asian and West African rhythmic traditions — most concisely, referred to as jazz. And so I was wondering how you would describe your musical voice, but then also how you navigate cross-cultural art making and specifically music innovation in a genre that’s very steeped in African American history specifically.
VI: I’ve been very fortunate to, for the last 30-something years, to have been mentored by really visionary and generous Black musicians. And prior to that to have digested and studied the creative output of this incredible legacy of Black artists.
It’s partly that they embraced me because it was evident from my playing that I had studied that legacy and that history and heritage. But the other side of it was that they wanted me to be myself — not to pretend I was somebody I wasn’t. That’s the question: How does one work from that foundation and yet somehow also be true to yourself? And what it means to be true to yourself is not necessarily defined by your race or your ethnicity, right? It might be a part of your, say, musical language, it might not.
I was not someone trained in say, Indian classical music or any of the South Asian traditional forms of music making. I had to learn about it.
I started trying to come to terms with it, knowing that also for me to be in public, and particularly coming of age in the ’90s, when you didn’t see many people like me in public. It’s hard to really imagine this for a young person, but there was a time before Mindy Kaling and like Aziz Ansari.
Since I was living in the Bay Area, I knew that I didn’t want to exoticize myself because I saw too much of that around me — this sort of white hippie culture consuming all things South Asian. I didn’t want to be anywhere near that. What I did want to do was be able to build community with other South Asian Americans or the South Asians in diaspora and to figure out what that meant to each other.
MGB: So, could you tell me at least one, you could name more than one if you want to, musician who you think it’s hard to fully understand where you’re coming from without listening to them, or just one musician that you see as in your musical heritage, if that makes sense. Doesn’t have to be ethnic musical heritage but just in terms of you finding your musical voice.
VI: I’d say Thelonious Monk, but I’d also say Prince.
MGB: Could you just tell me a favorite song you’ve written or co-written? I know favorite is a hard word, so maybe just one that you like and why you particularly enjoyed the process of making it.
VI: I mean, I don’t really write songs, exactly. But pieces of music that I’ve been a part of — I mean, I’ve made a lot, it’s been like 30 odd years.
Right now I’m traveling with this project called with the vocalist Arooj Aftab and bassist Shahzad Ismaily. We made an album that came out last spring called “Love In Exile.” In fact, we are performing in Boston on October 8th. The album and all of our concerts are created spontaneously from scratch. There aren’t songs exactly, there’s no existing repertoire. There’s just a process that we commit to. And it’s always been this uncanny sense that it’s coming from somewhere else. Or just coming through us, because it just sort of arrives as if it already existed.
The one that kind of rings in my ear often is called Shadow Forces.
I just started playing this thing on the piano. Shahzad started playing something that fit with it, and then she started singing and it felt like it was meant to be. It gives me a good feeling to hear.
MGB: So a lot of your music, from what I read and possibly you could even use “Love In Exile” as an example, seems to be in some way invested in sort of anti-racist ideologies or social justice. And I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about how you understand the relationship between music and change within cultural structures. I read a little bit of your writing on musical cognition and empathy. So maybe kind of any of those threads if you wanted to reflect on that, that would be really great.
VI: One of the things I learned from apprenticing with elder Black musicians is how music works. What I mean is how it produces this bond among people.
Richard Abrahams, who’s an elder musician once said, “When you play music together that creates a bond that can never be broken.” When I heard him say that, I realized that it was true, but never thought of it that way.
It’s not gonna change systems or structures exactly. But it reaches inside of people. And it’s a power that we have through music that not many other people have. So we just try to bear witness to that and follow it. Follow that phenomenon towards liberation. When I say that I mean, for myself, I’m doing fine, but more in the sense of what Toni Morrison said, which is like, once you have freedom, your job is to free someone else.
MGB: I was wondering if at any point during your research, and this could be your Ph.D. research, or your life after — living is research in its own way — that totally changed the way you you thought about making music, that was a paradigm shift that maybe student music makers would be interested in hearing about.
VI: Like I said, I didn’t have piano lessons, so I never really believed in myself as a pianist.
Sometimes that could get really bad. I’d be really down on myself. Especially because there’s tons of piano players out there who can play circles around me, like I don’t pretend to be the best at any of it.
It took me to such a vulnerable place, to the barest part of me. Then something else happened. Which is that the barest part of me met the barest part of everybody else in the audience. And like there was this like moment of real connection. I made a different kind of contact. It wasn’t about virtuosity at all. It was about humanity, just sharing one’s own humanity.
MGB: That makes sense. And that’s probably something that many Harvard students could stand to hear. So thank you.
I saw that you had been published in the Journal of Consciousness, and I was wondering if you’d ever had a musical revelation or experience that changed the way that you think about consciousness?
VI: There’s this phenomenon, neuroscientists call it autoscopy.
It’s similar to the old Greek term ex stasis which is about standing outside of yourself, ecstasy, you know? Has to do with a feeling of transcendence, but the specific term autoscopy has to do with this feeling of witnessing yourself from above, which is a kind of out-of-body experience. Music can produce that. Not reliably exactly, but it does happen and I’ve had it happen. And of course, it’s not that I’m literally floating above anything.
What’s happening seems to be coming from something other than my own volition.
MGB: I was curious, what made you want to begin teaching in the first place?
VI: What made me want to begin teaching was mainly that I wanted to continue learning and being in an environment where we can study things together. And that’s how I treated you know, when I’m with our students, it’s really like we’re discovering things together.
MGB: You founded the Creative Practice and Critical Inquiry doctoral program here at Harvard and I wanted to know about the impetus behind that and how it happened.
VI: Basically, when they hired me, they didn’t know exactly where to put me. So they’re like, why don’t you just do your own thing?
The way it had to happen was that there had to be a program. That’s basically how I got my Ph.D. was through this interdisciplinary track that allowed me to, as an artist who thinks, I create my own path through the institution. So maybe I can help other people do that too. So that’s basically what I do.
MGB: I read an interview that you did with for another journal, and it talked about how jazz education these days, or perhaps in the past decade or so, has trended towards a canon-making project and that you try to, or prefer to teach, the genre as sort of perpetually in progress. So I wondered if you could talk about kind of your teaching philosophy, but also just what are the sorts of things that you do with your students in class and what do they really respond to? And what’s really fun?
VI: I don’t really teach courses that are labeled as jazz, basically for the reasons you quoted me saying. No one who mentored me really believed in that term. And I’m talking like, Amiri Baraka, and Butch Morris, and Wadada Leo Smith, and Henry Threadgil. They don’t really have much to use for that word, because their scope is much grander. I’m just trying to honor that. What I do instead is teach academic courses and also teach music making courses.
There’s one that is called Creative Music: Advanced Ensembles Workshop. I allow in students who make their own music in whatever way — meaning composers, performers, singer songwriters, beat makers, a lot of different things.
At the end of that month, they’ve made something that didn’t exist before. Usually you can’t even put it in a genre.
MGB: Do you have any words for aspiring musicians at the college or just in general, you have anything that you think it would be helpful for them to hear, or that you would have liked to have heard at this age?
VI: A lot of young musicians are thinking about music as a profession. They think entrepreneurially — about how to get ahead individually.
And so I would just encourage them to focus, not on music as a career, but music as a practice of community organizing actually. It is not about individual achievement or success, it’s about strengthening community.
— Associate Magazine Editor Mila G. Barry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.