Music Interviews
11:45 am
Thu March 15, 2012

Vijay Iyer: The Physical Experience of Rhythm

Listen to music from jazz pianist and composer Vijay Iyer, and you'll hear rhythms that pulse and shift, intricate patterns of notes, a wide range of references. There are lots of examples on his trio's new album, Accelerando.

Iyer, the son of Indian immigrants, started on violin at age three. He later taught himself how to play the piano — learning through improvisation, something he never did on the violin.

"With violin, I was basically taught how not to improvise," Iyer tells All Things Considered host Melissa Block, from his new home in Harlem. "Not just how not to improvise — how never to improvise. Meanwhile, piano was nothing but improvisation for me; it was pure discovery."

He was heading for a life in science. He studied math and physics at Yale, got a masters in physics and was working on his Ph.D. at UC Berkeley. Then he realized his real love was music, and his Ph.D. turned into the study of music perception and cognition.

"Every musician should learn [this]," Iyer says. "It's about understanding music in human terms, not in the analytical terms that we get caught up in."

It's an idea that is one of the hallmark principles of Accelerando: that music is action. Iyer has been obsessing for the past decade about listening to what his hands do with the piano — the physical actions that he sees as part of the process of making his music.

"To me, they're gestures, physical gestures," he says. "I hear the sweep of a hand in those shapes ... I'm interested in the interface between the hands and these abstract ideas."

Throughout Accelerando, Iyer approaches rhythm as both physical and collective process. "The way we perceive rhythm is by imagining ourselves moving, or another body moving in the same way," he says. "There is really a primal connection between music and the body. We tend to think of music as something we come to — I think the real insight that this concept brings to us is that music is us."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

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BLOCK: Listen to music from the acclaimed jazz pianist Vijay Iyer and you'll hear rhythms that pulse and shift, intricate patterns of notes. This is the title track of the new album "Accelerando" from the Vijay Iyer Trio.

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BLOCK: Vijay Iyer has wowed critics with the complexity of his music and his wide range of styles. He's the son of Indian immigrants, and he folds South Indian rhythms into his music with a different trio called "Tirtha."

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BLOCK: Vijay Iyer is 40. He started on violin at age 3 and is self-taught on the piano. He was heading for a life in science. He studied math and physics at Yale, got a master's in physics and was working on his Ph.D. at UC Berkeley. And then he did a U-turn, realized his real love was music. And so his Ph.D. turned into the study of music perception and cognition.

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BLOCK: I met up with Vijay Iyer at his home in Harlem. He and his wife and daughter had just moved in. And he apologized for the badly out-of-tune piano: a mahogany Steinway S - a baby grand - from the 1940s.

VIJAY IYER: Well, it's very familiar to me. You know, I've sat at this piano since the mid-'80s. So it feels like home when...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

IYER: ...I'm on these - when I'm on instruments like this. It was at this instrument that I learned - I mean, I don't even know if learning is the word, that I just found a bunch of things that I get to keep doing...

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IYER: ...especially because I wasn't the piano player in the house. I was just kind of like the irritant...

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IYER: ...the guy who would play on it.

BLOCK: Your instrument was the violin. It was your sister who was the piano player.

IYER: Right. Starting out, yeah. I mean, I took 15 years of violin lessons. But then when I was in high school, I started trying to do a bit more as a pianist, you know, and it - I didn't even really have any grand intentions with it. I wasn't a prodigy or anything. I was just somebody who was trying to have some fun and check some other stuff out. But I think also the fact that one could improvise. And that was essentially how I learned how to play piano. It was by improvising. So to get into an art form where that's the main means of expression, that was really important and really inspiring.

BLOCK: Why do you think that was so inspiring to you? What did you find in improvisation?

IYER: Well, the fact is that we're all improvisers, you know? I think with violin, because I had Western classical training, I was basically taught how not to improvise, not just how not to improvise, how never to improvise...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

IYER: ...on the violin, you know? But meanwhile, piano was nothing but improvisation for me. I mean, it was pure discovery.

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IYER: One thing that has kind of obsessed me at the piano for maybe the last decade or so is just listening to what my hands would do with the instrument. So the keys' action speak - begins with a sort of arpeggiorative(ph) figure that at least lies under my hand. It might not lie under everybody's, but it's this.

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IYER: It all lays right under the hands.

BLOCK: It feels right.

IYER: Right. More than feels right. It comes from the physical logic of the hand at the keyboard. To me, they're gestures. You know, they're physical gestures. I hear the sweep of a hand in those shapes.

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IYER: When you hear it by itself, you hear groups of three that actually set across groups of 11.

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IYER: So...

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IYER: OK. So when you progress them through, it's actually groups of six across groups of 11. You know, so partly it was this - it's this physical thing that's also something that resorts to a logic that's very nonphysical. Letting these numbers unfold through physical action is, for me, part of the process of making music.

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IYER: So I'm interested in that interface between the hands and these abstract ideas.

BLOCK: Do you think people are wrong if they hear you talk about this and listen to your playing, listen to you sort of incorporating mathematical constructs into music to say, aha, he was a math student, he was a physics student, it all ties together, that's coming to bear in his art?

IYER: Well, my 7-year-old daughter knows what six times 11 is, so I don't think that it's really advanced mathematics I'm talking about.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

IYER: You know, it's - in a way, it's something anybody can do. But what I will say is that in graduate school, the research that I did was in the study of music perception and cognition. I actually think that every musician should learn that stuff because it's about understanding music in human terms, not in the analytical terms that we got caught up in. It's an idea that's actually one of the hallmark principles of the new album. The music is action.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

IYER: Particularly, what music is for us as people is it's a sound of other people. For example, the way we perceive rhythm is by imagining ourselves moving. So there is a really primal connection between music and the body.

BLOCK: Could it be something as basic as breathing, not just dancing or moving, but the action of the lungs?

IYER: Yeah. Well, it's about the rhythms that are inherent to the body. Breathing is one of those. Heartbeat is another. Speech is another. And those are all timescales that correspond to musical activity.

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IYER: Just throughout the album, there's an approach to rhythm as a very physical process and as a collective process to give it to the listener. Somehow put it in audio to the listener, like make it a physical experience, an opportunity for a connection.

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BLOCK: That's pianist Vijay Iyer. We spoke at his home in Harlem. The Vijay Iyer Trio's new album, "Accelerando," features Stephan Crump on bass and Marcus Gilmore on drums. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

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