Vijay Iyer on improvisation and the science of music: It's the rhythm we respond to

One of the more exciting pianists in jazz today, Vijay Iyer has won a slew of awards over the past few years, including five different nods in the DownBeat International Critics' Poll. Awards notwithstanding, if you need proof of what amazing chops this Grammy-nominated composer-pianist has, look no further than any of his ACT recordings, especially this year's outstanding Accelerando.

See also: - Vijay Iyer at Dazzle, 10/11-10/12. - The five best jazz shows this month

Iyer holds a Bachelor of Science in math and physics from Yale, as well as a master's degree in physics and an interdisciplinary Ph.D. in technology and the arts from the University of California at Berkeley. With that in mind, we spoke with him about studying science and how the science of music has influenced his playing, as well as the similarities between his last two trio albums.

Westword: Has studying math and physics inspired your music at all?

Vijay Iyer: I should just clarify that my undergraduate was in math and physics, but I graduated from college twenty years ago. And also, I started playing music when I was three, so the physics thing was kind of -- I'm forty years old now -- it was a six-year period that was in the middle of my life. I did a lot of music on either side, and I did a lot of music during that time.

I would say what really influenced my work is what I did after I left physics and academia, which was that I switched my focus on the science of music, essentially -- basically the cognitive science of music perception. These days, they call it the music of the brain. My research and reading and the kind of conclusions I reached and ideas I developed were along the lines were that it's not just about music and the brain; it's about the music, brain and the body as one big thing.

So trying to understand music in terms of what the body does, what the body can do and the brain is intimately intertwined, so that we don't think of music as some abstract thing that just happens in our heads, that we actually think it's as an experience that's in the world and in the body in real space. That, to me, is the main thrust of what I did in academia, studying science of music, and that really was informed by my lifetime of experiencing music, and that has also kind of influenced the work I've done as a composer and a bandleader and a player.

So, that, to me, is much more important than the influence of math. I studied pretty serious math and physics. I was doing quantum mechanics and learning about Einstein's theory of gravity and stuff like that, but that's not particularly useful in the scheme of anything else I do. But what is more useful is all that other stuff I just talked about, which has to more with what music really is for us as people. That's some basic stuff that I think every musician should learn about.

Did you find out about what actually happens with the brain and the body when you improvise?

Well, some of that research is more recent, actually. I did this work that I'm talking about in the '90s. I wrote this dissertation in 1998, and that was kind of, more or less, the end of being academic for me, and then I moved to New York and became a full-time artist. Really, that's what I've been doing for the last fourteen years. What was really meaningful to me was understanding rhythm as action, as movement. Understanding that intimate connection. It's more than a connection; it's really like the same thing. When we talk about rhythm, we're really talking about human bodies in motion.

When we perceive rhythm, we perceive in terms of our own ability. So, it's like the parts of your brain that light up when you perceive rhythm are the parts of your brain that are involved in making your body move. It's called motor sequence planning -- moving of the limbs, basically. So that intimate link between what we call rhythm or what we call movement is, to me, what the heart of music is, and when we respond to music, we respond first and foremost to a rhythmic component -- a rhythmic profile - that's rhythmic feeling, and we respond in a very physical way to that.

And we do all of that before we even notice what key it's in or what the melody is. It's really kind of the first that hits you about music. It hits you kind of in your gut. It hits you in some really physical, deep level, and it's the reason we're able to synchronize our actions, like when we do anything together, whether it's playing tennis, or marching, or clapping our hands to a beat -- really just synchronizing our actions in any way.

That is all part of this very important thing that we as humans can do. There's rhythm as action -- rhythm as bodily motion. That, to me, is the heart of music. That's something that kind of emerged after several years of research. In a way, it's almost obvious to us when we think about it, these terms if you've listened to music at all. It's kind of hard to deny that simple fact about it.

Do you consciously think about these things when you're playing, or maybe just go into the zone and tap into more of a subconscious thing?

Well, I think that line between what's conscious and what isn't is just a matter of preparation. When you talk to a martial artist, for example, there are a lot of elements or routines that are mapped out patterns that they internalize, and they practice to the point that it becomes unconscious or it becomes second nature. And then you find implementing them in a very improvisational way in the course of actual sparring or combat or whatever it is.

Maybe a more familiar example is how we speak to each other. We learn about language. A lot of it is learned at a level that's not really perceived as learning. It's more like a lot of trial and error and a lot of experimentation in context. We're always improvising when we speak to each other, unless you're Mitt Romney [laughs]. For the most part, we're responding to the conditions of the moment and acting based on what we know. And that process is transparent in the sense that it's not like you think about forming syllables or you don't even really think about grammar that much.

At some point, all these things that have structure become intuitive. So going back to your question, the ideas that I was talking about, to me, are the heart of music and are the center of my thinking about music for close to two decades now. So it's hard to say that I'm thinking consciously about it.

They guide my choices every step of the way, and that includes a choice of where to put my left hand on the piano. It includes my choice of whom to hire to be in my band. It includes the choices of what music to play and my choices of how to arrange them and what specific notes to play, what material, how to put music together, how to remixes. To me, it all comes from the same perspective.

So I just try to maintain that unified perspective and just be true to who I am and to moments, and that also requires being interactive and just responding to not just who's on stage, but who's in the audience and how they're responding. That's a big factor, too.

To me, the whole act of improvising is pretty fascinating when you think about all the millions of decisions that are made in split seconds. It's almost like you don't have time to really think about things.

I guess we have to maybe reform our notion of what thinking is, because, to me, there are physical forms of thought, in a sense, that you can have ideas but not physical acts, and you can also be coordinating consciously what your body is doing. To say it's unthinking is uncharitable to the kind of detail and rigor and discipline acquired. It'd be like saying that Michael Jordan was just kind of making it up as he went along. Obviously, there's a lot of discipline and skill and training and focus and detail.

It's similar to what we're doing with music, but just because it's physical does not mean it's not an idea or a thought. This also goes back to what I was saying about the brain and the body - we need to consider that as one system, as one large entity that us. I guess the ideal conditions for improvisation are some of kind of unity between thought and action. That's sort of how I see it, where what you're doing is exactly what you intend. And that intention is a response to conditions in the mind.

I know you took violin lessons until you were about eighteen or so, and you got early training by ear. I was wondering what you might have transferred some of what you learned on violin onto piano.

It gave me a way of listening that was not specific to the piano. In other words, I could basically hear a melody in my own way as a child -- I'm talking about when I was four or five years old. I could hear a melody and then kind of figure out what it was made of -- what its building blocks were -- and I could execute that on piano somehow in my own way. It was very gradual it was a lot of trial and error and experimentation, and I had zero guidance.

It became something else I could kind of work through in the same way that you just figure things out about your environment, figure out how to interact with the environment. The way you learn how to walk, it's trial and error. It's not somebody moving your legs for you. You have a little help in that your parents try to keep you from bumping your head on the coffee table or something. You have to do it yourself. So that's kind of what it was for me.

I think the piano became a richer prospect for me because I already had some ear training that was specific to the violin. I found myself many years later, like when I was in high school and college, when I'd hear a melody, I would find myself fingering it on my left hand as if I were playing a violin.

I think that habit is still somewhere deep in me. I don't do it so much now. It's almost like you can feel your hand twitching or something. But I think since that knowledge was not specific to the piano that it was somehow in another realm, it actually made my relationship to the piano a little more interesting at least.

It meant that I could have musical ideas but then the piano became another context for it. And the piano, to me, is a lifelong project. There's a lot that I'm still close to executing on the piano and I have a lot of work ahead of me in the next forty or fifty years to figure those things out. I guess I treat it as a field of possibilities and it's somewhere where I can explore musical ideas that are not necessarily piano specific.

From what I understand you are self-taught on piano, right?

Yeah, that's right. With violin I had lessons from age three to eighteen, so I was very seriously trained on that.

When you learned how to play to jazz was it listening to a lot of albums and maybe playing stuff by ear?

Well, I learned theory. I learned Western harmony analyzing Bach and Mozart and stuff like that. I started doing that when I was in maybe ninth grade. By that time, I'd also figured out enough about the piano that I could play chords and I could sort of figure out a chord progression for some pop song or something like that. And also my whole relationship with the piano was an improvised relationship. I won't say I was a soloist but I could just get around. I could create something, let's put it that way.

Our high school had a jazz ensemble and that's what got me into it, which was true for many people in this field. A lot of people entered into this music not because they hear it on the radio or see it on TV but because of school, if they're lucky. In eleventh and twelfth grade I was in the jazz ensemble and that meant that every day -- so every morning I was in orchestra and every afternoon I was in jazz ensemble.

It's not quite true to say that I just picked up all by myself. I was very much nurtured by a scholastic environment. And also the band director mostly focused on what the horns were doing so I was just sort of playing around in the corner with the rhythm section. The theory comes out of my own for most part. It's just that I had a lot of time to try.

I also took a few lessons from this local jazz pianist in Rochester, where I grew up. His name was Andy Calabrese. It was literally like three or four lessons and he showed me some basic stuff, and it wasn't like how to play so much as how to think and how to make decisions. It was the basics of reading a lead sheet, voicings... just some basic kind of jazz kind of idiomatic stuff that you use on piano.

Then he just loaned me some records and said, "Go check out some music." So that was all in parallel with being in the school jazz band and checking out records from the library. That started with Herbie Hancock, and then went to Miles Davis, and then to Monk, Bird and Coltrane, McCoy Tyner and a lot of stuff like that. I had enough of a template that I could start to figure out what people were doing and just study it. I studied it like you study anything, but on my own. Again, no one was really making me do anything but it was interesting and exciting and inspiring.

From there it just grew little by little. By the time I was in college, I started writing music. I started leading a group and playing around campus and around town in New Haven -- I went to Yale. This was all just because I liked to do it. I remember when I got to the Bay Area, I suddenly.... I saw a poster for a jazz piano competition so I was like, "Okay. I'll enter." And then I actually won. That was kind of like the first measure of any kind of level of achievement because for me I didn't really know if it was good or bad.

I was doing it because I liked it and it was challenging and interesting. It gave me a chance to express myself and experiment and play with other people. What's not to like about it? But in terms of any kind of external validation, that was the first. That was back in '92 I guess. And then I started playing at a jam session in Oakland as the house pianist and learned a lot there that I hadn't learned anywhere else.

I was reading a review of Accelerando where the writer looked at the album as sort of a companion piece to Historicity. Would you agree with that?

Much is made about both of them being like concept albums or something, but actually the concept came after the album. We just made the album and I just listened to it and sat with it and thought, "Well, what is it? Well here's one reading of it, or one interpretation or understanding." The title would come back to understanding of it. In a way, they are both concerned with similar themes.

I think that the ensemble became... or just developed a bit between the first and second album so you kind of hear the difference. That, to me, is the main difference. In terms of the different repertoire it's basically the same balance of covers and originals. It's a development but what it is is a development in terms of what the ensemble discovered. In the years in between, we found some things out just by getting to play a lot of gigs. So that's sort of what you're hearing -- the results of that real time experimentation and collaboration.

I could call it research but that makes it seem like it happens in some underground basement but really it happens around the world. It happens in the course of performance I have to say.

I think it's true in both cases that the albums came about in similar ways. Some of it was repertoire that we'd had around for awhile. Other songs were just stuff that I sprang on those guys the day before we went into the studio. I guess there's stuff in both cases that didn't make it on the albums partly just to be concise just because some things were maybe more successful than others. Some pieces were maybe more redundant. After having one you don't really need the other one, things like that. I think that's true with the process of making any album. You make choices like that.

I guess in a lot of ways the albums come from a similar perspective or sensibility, and the only real difference is what happened to us in between and how that's reflected in how we sound.

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Jon Solomon writes about music and nightlife for Westword, where he's been the Clubs Editor since 2006.
Contact: Jon Solomon