Music

Vijay Iyer takes career moment to moment

Bart Babinski

Vijay Iyer leans against a wall in Harvard’s Music Building as sound fills the classroom. He’s listening to a recording of one of his students, a freshman, in a high school group. The playing is assured; a small smile on Iyer’s face shows he’s impressed.

The student, a drummer, isn’t happy. The transitions within the piece feel rigid. “It’s really up to everyone to move between the sections,” he says.

Iyer latches on. “It’s a little safe,” he says. “You want more danger.”

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For the next 15 minutes, Iyer, 42, the jazz pianist whose resumé last fall added a MacArthur fellowship and a tenured post at Harvard, offers a mini lecture that reframes the problem, which he describes as how to “step through a series of harmonic fields.”

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On his laptop he pulls up a 1963 Herbie Hancock album, “Inventions & Dimensions,” and a 2002 track by the trio Fieldwork — one of Iyer’s many projects — to show songs that have minimal structure and almost no pre-set instructions, yet unfold with coherence and fluidity.

“There is no piece, only options,” he says. “You’re creating a sense of progression without having a progression. There’s no planned progression, but a plan to progress.”

That could be Iyer’s motto.

It expresses an approach to music that is fascinated with the constant flow of micro-decisions that make each performance, even of scored music, unique. It also makes sense of a career and discography that the confining lens of genre captures inadequately.

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Consider Iyer’s two latest albums: “Holding It Down” (2013), a jazz-meets-electronica-meets-spoken-word project with poet Mike Ladd, features US military veterans of color who share dreams from their missions in Iraq or at drone command stations.

“Mutations,” released last week, Iyer’s debut with the highbrow ECM label, centers on a 10-part suite Iyer composed for piano and string quartet, enhanced with electronics, kin to the new-music oeuvre of a György Ligeti or Steve Reich.

Friday’s Sanders Theatre concert features a piano-and-words duet with poet Robert Pinsky, followed by the flagship Vijay Iyer Trio, whose albums “Historicity” (2009) and “Accelerando” (2012) earned many critics’ honors.

Iyer is now famous, loaded with grants, recognized from hip-hop to chamber music. He’s covered M.I.A. and Flying Lotus. A recent New York concert with the Brentano String Quartet featured his composition on a Beethoven program.

It’s a path that reflects a highly creative mind and driven personality, not to mention talent, but no great master plan.

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“His ambition moves moment to moment,” says Ladd, Iyer’s collaborator since 1997 on multimedia, socially conscious projects. “Vijay’s just trying to be Vijay.”

These days, being Vijay involves a weekly commute between Cambridge and New York, where he lives in a Harlem brownstone with his wife and daughter. His Harvard position, titled Professor of the Arts, is in the music department but offers room to roam.

“It’s a little Hogwarts-esque,” he says with a chuckle in his apartment near Harvard Square, sparsely furnished save for a Steinway grand. “It’s suitably broad not to pin me down as the jazz guy.”

With an undergraduate degree in physics from Yale and a doctorate from the University of California Berkeley (his thesis examined rhythm and cognition in West African and African-American music), Iyer fits easily in the Cambridge milieu but doesn’t want to develop a split identity.

“I have to connect who I am as an artist in New York and who I am here,” he says. “I want it to be unified. Which means being more of an artist here, I think.”

Guiding Iyer is a tradition of elders — almost all African-American — who since the 1960s have integrated musical, spiritual, and political life, often wielding the term “creative music” to describe the process and results.

Artists in this lineage took Iyer, who is Indian-American, under their wing, beginning with his Bay Area mentor, Steve Coleman, in the mid-1990s. Later, he worked with Roscoe Mitchell, Muhal Richard Abrams, George Lewis, and Wadada Leo Smith — core members of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) — and poet Amiri Baraka.

“Vijay may be young, but he has a wing out of that older tradition that we don’t like to call old, because we’re still so much in front of the stuff,” says Smith, the AACM doyen. “I don’t see a generation gap.”

“We sometimes feel paralyzed in a world where interaction is based on deception and denial. Vijay’s stuff involves trying to show people that they have choices.”

In work with chamber musicians (which he has done for 10 years but the new album is only now making prominent), Iyer, whose childhood instrument was the violin, writes pieces with spare notation that challenge classical virtuosos to work without a script — and himself, the composer, to surrender authority.

“It becomes, how do you implement ideas in a way that players have agency,” Iyer says. “How do you implement choice, decisions, interactivity, and sociality in the structure of the music? I’m not the first person to ask this question. But relating it to the aesthetics I bring to the table may be different than what you are used to.”

Bassist Stephan Crump, a member of the trio who has appeared on seven Iyer projects since 2001, says too much is made of Iyer’s cerebral side instead of the work’s real meaning.

“The technique, the thoughtful questioning and mathematical underpinnings, are really in service of his humanity,” Crump says. “It’s a warm and broad humanity that’s considerate of the entire world. Vijay and all of his long-term collaborators have the goal and sensibility that it’s a spiritual journey.”

Siddhartha Mitter can be reached at
siddharthamitter@gmail.com.