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

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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.

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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