Does music make you empathise with the person making it?

In Conversation with Vijay Iyer

“The artist is the consciousness of society… but musicians' role is very special. It's a way of making an example of the perfect state of being for the observer, causing, if it's successful, the observer to forget just for a moment that there is anywhere else existing except that moment that they're engaged in, and to eclipse everything that was happening to them before they began that process of being the observer, or being involved in/engaged between art and music and listening… and to transform that life in just an instant, so that when they go back to the routine part of living, they carry with them a little bit of something else.” — Ishmael Wadada Leo Smith

My first
experience with pianist-composer Vijay Iyer’s music was in 2011 through his
then newly released album Tirtha, which also featured guitarist R.
Prasanna and tabla artist Nitin Mitta. Listening to Tirtha struck a
chord within me as something truly unique and revolutionary, amidst the host of
shotgun attempts at fusing elements of Indian music with the vocabulary of
jazz.  As a young Indian-American
scrambling to figure out what it meant to be a professional musician in the
U.S., I was immediately hooked and wanted to hear more. As I continued
listening, I found that Vijay’s music boldly defied genre and resonated with me
in profound ways, creating continuities within my consciousness where there had
only been contradictions before. Sounds and sensibilities that I never believed
could coexist were interwoven seamlessly in his music.

Since 2011, I
have had the honor and joy of working with Vijay in various musical situations
in New York City and learning a great deal about improvisation, rhythmic
modulation and composition. Through him, I met a whole network of his
collaborators — brilliant musicians and community-oriented artists — further
illustrating to me the compassion, expansiveness, and spiritual rigor at the
core of Vijay’s music. In 2015, I joined the new cross-disciplinary doctoral
program in music at Harvard University, which Vijay initiated as part of his
new appointment there as Franklin D. and Florence Rosenblatt Professor of the
Arts. As his PhD student, I have gotten to know the academic roots of his
artistic philosophy. Vijay continually pushes his students to reflect on the
improvisational potential of social movements and the radical magic involved in
communities coexisting through sound. Below are excerpts from a conversation I
recently had with him on March 14, 2016.

In your life,
you have cultivated a delicate balance between your performance career,
academic research, and community activism. This strikes me as an incredibly
difficult nexus to occupy, rife with contradictions and conflicts of interest.
How do you envision the dialogue among these worlds and your role as a
facilitator in that conversation?

People often
pin the tag “activist” on me, and I am honored, but I know political activists,
and I know I’m not one of them because they work really hard, tirelessly and
thanklessly, and really put their lives on the line… I think that there’s a
certain consciousness that underlies the work I do that is in line with some
core activist principles or ideals, but for me to call myself one is a little
bit false, so I’m careful about that. All these sensibilities that you’re
talking about come from being a person of color here in the United States. In
our case, we’re what are called “non-Black people of color” (NBPOC), which
means that we have a particular and complicated vantage, because we come with a
set of privileges that often get swept under the rug when we frame ourselves in
political terms. It has become hugely important to me, especially in recent
years, to be a little bit more honest about where we stand and what “coalition”
means, for example.

In my life, it
kind of all fell together, especially the period in the 1990s when I was living
in the Oakland/San Francisco Bay Area, and in graduate school at UC Berkeley. I
just fell in with all these different communities… different crowds that I
found myself running with: African American activists and also young African
American artists in the Bay Area, you know, poet-activist-artists, performers,
MCs, music makers, DJs… I connected with Steve Coleman, George Lewis, Asian
Improv, and Amiri Baraka. So the academic path I found myself on was informed
by all of that, in the sense that I was basically finding my way into this area
of research — music perception and cognition research — but I found that it
didn’t represent the music that my life was increasingly centered around. It
didn’t really honor Black perspectives in music. What I found myself doing
academically was just trying to redress that in some small way by offering some
other supplemental theoretical framing through which we could understand music
perception and cognition that wasn’t predicated on all these Eurocentric
assumptions about what music is, how music works, and what’s important in

Coming to New
York in the late 1990s… A few of us tried several times and failed to start
this organization called Creative Music Convergences. We wanted to form an
organization to present experimental work by people of color. Because that
wasn’t something that was being valued in the scene here. We wanted to feature
intelligent discourse about music, and very strongly curated music, too. I’m
not sure I would call it activism… Artists have a slightly different function.
You take action in public, and it can become a sort of moment of focus, of
public focus — it can concentrate a lot of energy in one place because people
gather around it, but it’s not the same as doing activist work. It is just
compatible with activism, or it can be a precondition for activism.

The reason I
mention the word “activism” is because it’s radical for an artist to truly see
their work as engaging with society in a fundamental way. Art is widely seen as
transcending the social or as a way to escape the problems of society.

That’s true,
but it’s partly also about who gets to be an artist. And that’s probably really
where it started for me. I didn’t think I could be an artist. Eventually
opportunities presented themselves that led me to suspect that maybe the world
would let me be an artist. When we talk about art, we act as if it’s not in a
marketplace, for example. On the one hand, there’s the artistic impulse, which
everybody has. But on the other hand, there’s this thing that’s almost treated
like a substance. This “stuff” called art. And usually when we talk about that
substance, we’re already engaging in certain assumptions about where it comes
from, who gets to make it, and what makes it valuable. That usually has to do
with power, as distributed in culture… 
I’ve known musicians who bristle at the term “art” or “artist.” Steve
Coleman is one, he doesn’t really wear that term very well*. He’s aware of the
whiff of elitism that’s inside that word. But on the other hand is insisting on
wearing that term, especially when we do it as people of color.

Coleman is an African American saxophonist and composer, and was one of Vijay’s
mentors. I had the opportunity to study with Steve as I started working more in
the jazz scene.]

You frequently
reference your indebtedness to the African American creative music tradition in
shaping your music. What do you think world (particularly the South Asian
diaspora and India) stands to gain from engaging rigorously with the African
American experience and struggle?

We’ve been
speaking from a particular vantage of difference in the U.S., which is maybe
not so apparent or comprehensible to people in India. India is full of
divisions, and it’s extremely hierarchical, and there’s a tolerance of inequality…
not just a tolerance, but an investment, a preservation of inequality. In that
way, it’s not that different from here, actually. So that’s where there may be
some kind of link, or a way in to these concerns. It’s a historical reality
that the struggles for civil and human rights among African Americans here have
been informed by and have also informed struggles for equality among Dalits,
for example. Just as much as Gandhi informed Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X
has informed Dalit struggles, and Marcus Garvey informed Dr. Ambedkar. So
there’s been this awareness that there are lots of parallels. I find myself
constantly conscious of this, partly because I work in a musical tradition or
form that was created by African Americans… I would just hope that people hear
in African American music a certain kind of insistence on being heard — a
refusal to be silenced — and maybe imagine what might be some analogous
movements or social situations in India that you might learn about by listening
— by listening more carefully. I mean one thing music does is it dares you to
empathize with the person who’s making it…

In light of
these resonances, how do you personally connect with and define your heritage
or community?

I don’t really
find terms like heritage, or tradition, or even culture, to be very useful or
empowering, or specific enough to define the life that I live. What it amounts
to, for me, is a certain set of experiences. Heritage becomes a way of closing
the circle, or delimiting it. But when you really think about it as a set of
experiences, or movement within and across difference, we’re dealing with
diaspora basically — and particularly, having a vantage as a non-Western person
of color in a place that’s defined by these horrific histories. I’m not
descended from enslaved people. That doesn’t mean I can’t empathize with people
who are, or build community with them. But it means that I’m in a structurally
different position than they are, so building community across different
structural positions has to be part of our imagination. So my concern about
building community around nation, around ethnicity, is that it limits the

I feel at a
certain remove from communities in India, but I also know that we’re more
connected now than we ever were, so I do know that we’re all kind of at least
watching each other from afar. You know, when people see me enjoying what seem
like the trappings of success or prestige, being a professor at Harvard or
getting a MacArthur fellowship… then that’s used as some kind of validation of
“Indian pride.” And I find that to be really dangerous, because it’s about
coalition at the expense of others. What binds us is a set of experiences: it’s
not about genes or ethnicity, except insofar as those create a certain historical
circumstance for us to have a shared set of experiences. But it’s the
experiences that matter, not that other stuff… I guess I try to be aware of
similarities. And how similarities can emerge that aren’t purely ethnic, that
can lead us to find a deep common experience with someone who’s ostensibly
nothing like us…

Has music ever
helped you through potentially uncomfortable situations?

It happens
every day. It happened yesterday! That quote from Wadada, which you’ve probably
heard me mention a few times**, where he talks about how music can eclipse the
reality outside the door… That it offers a moment for people to imagine a
“perfect state of being” so that when they return to the “routine part of
living,” they take with them something else… So, the “routine part of living”
is made up of power relations and difference. In a way, it’s deceptively simple
when he puts it that way… The thing about music is that it vanishes as soon as
it’s done, it’s gone. So it’s only about how it works at the moment that it’s
happening. And then whatever mysterious residue it leaves as people scatter
afterward. It’s in those mysterious moments of gathering around this strange
ritual of making sounds together and listening to them. It’s like a ritual of
forgetting. At some level it’s not real, and at some level it’s the realest
thing there is. As a ritual, it’s staged and performative, but it’s also
working on the body in a way that’s very hard to talk about. That’s where the
work happens. It’s how we are in time together; it offers a glimpse of how we
can be in time together.

above — Ishmael Wadada Leo Smith is a trumpeter and composer, and an important
pioneer in the African American creative music tradition. Vijay and Wadada
recently released an album together on ECM, entitled A Cosmic Rhythm with
Each Stroke
(2016), inspired by the artwork of Indian artist Nasreen
Mohamedi (1937-1990).]

What do you
hope to accomplish through this new program at Harvard? What are the
ramifications for artists, for academia, and for society at large?

What I’m doing
is bringing everything I’ve been talking about to that environment. Which means
tapping into the energies that are there but also bringing in energies that
aren’t there. It’s about relation, about difference, about creating movement
within and across difference through production of knowledge, and through art
making and music making, which is a little different… They like to use the word
“research” to refer to what I do as an artist, as well as what Mahadevan does
as a physicist***. But I’m aware that what I do is a little different, because
it has to do with performance, which means it has to do with interacting with
the public and generating public perceptions. It means that it’s about
activating a certain awareness across difference. That’s what I see my role as
in a place like that, really anywhere I go. It’s just that I’m developing a
sense of how to do that at a place like Harvard. But I’m also developing a
sense of how to do that at a place like the Metropolitan Museum of Art****. Or
at a jazz festival, or an arts nonprofit. What I find myself doing at Harvard
is generating the kind of movement that feels right and that I’m able to do in
that circumstance — by cultivating certain relationships across disciplines and
inserting a certain destabilizing sensibility into the conversation, while at
the same time inviting students to respect the process of art making and really
take it seriously. Why the latter, I think it’s because what that does is it
gives more people an opportunity to do what I’m doing, which is to interact
with the public and deal with difference in those particular ways. So, working
with even a dozen or two dozen performers every semester, they will carry that
forward in a way that another kind of student wouldn’t. Because they’re going
to make it their business to carry those ideas forward in public.

Mahadevan is professor of applied mathematics, organismic and evolutionary
biology, and physics at Harvard University.]

[****Vijay has been artist-in-residence this year at the
Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and curated a series of performances in
March to open the new Met Breuer building.]

(Rajna Swaminathan is an accomplished
young mrudangam artist and disciple of maestro Umayalpuram K. Sivaraman.
She has performed with several renowned Indian classical musicians and dancers,
touring widely in North America and India. Over the past few years, she has
been collaborating and performing with distinguished artists in the New York
jazz scene, including pianist Vijay Iyer and saxophonist Steve Coleman. Rajna
holds degrees in Anthropology and French from the University of Maryland
College Park. She is currently pursuing
a PhD in music at Harvard University)