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Pianist Vijay Iyer’s Insights On Getting Comfortable With Creative Improvisation

The 2013 MacArthur fellow and jazz musician’s advice for those of us who prefer to stick to a strictly written script–for everything.

Pianist Vijay Iyer’s Insights On Getting Comfortable With Creative Improvisation
[Photo: Bart Babinski]

Vijay Iyer doesn’t have a career.

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The acclaimed composer and jazz pianist received a 2013 MacArthur fellowship, is set to release his 20th album, “Break Stuff,” in February, became a professor of music at Harvard this year, and has performed thousands of concerts. But he won’t call any of that his “career.”

Break Stuff album art

“My primary orientation is as an artist and what that means is that I make things,” Iyer says. “I don’t make things in order to make money–I make things in order to communicate, reflect, meditate, and connect with people. It’s a personal practice. It’s a spiritual practice. It’s a social practice. And that’s really the foundation of everything I do.”

Despite his sweeping accomplishments, Iyer admits he hasn’t fully figured out what this non-career of his is. Quite the contrary, he finds himself returning to the very basic question of “what is music?” By challenging the very thing he produces as a musician and composer, Iyer’s logic of even the most seemingly simple concepts are never fixed, allowing him a sense of fluidity that’s been part of his success. Having an improvisational mindset, in theory and practice, pushes Iyer to new frontiers.

Vijay IyerPhoto: Jimmy Katz

Finding your “career” path

Music was a part of Iyer’s life from an early age, starting on violin and later learning piano by ear as a child. However, he chose to study mathematics and physics at Yale University and was pursuing his doctorate in physics at University of California, Berkeley. He never gave up music completely, living a sort of double life between science and art, but eventually the latter won out.

“You could say this whole thing you call a career has been a profound detour,” Iyer says. “There’s no absolute judgment of what’s right. You need to commit to something. It’s about committing to what that is and following through.”

And follow through he has. Iyer has managed to strike the balance every artist dreams of: making a living from from works uncompromised.

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“I’ve been fortunate that against all odds, I’ve been able to achieve a certain amount stability,” he says. “Being an artist in America either becomes professionalized to the point of sterility in the sense of the art not resonating. Or you find yourself marginalized. I guess I’ve been lucky to basically do what I want that feels right to me as an artist, which means that it feels right in my gut and my heart and still manage to keep it together and have what seems from the outside like a career.”

Photo: Bart Babinski

Making the Most of Collaborations

It’s one thing to know what feels right to you, but what happens when you have other “guts” and “hearts” to consider? In Iyer’s case, being the leader of his jazz trio, it’s not necessarily about making concessions to come to some creative consensus–it’s about infusing someone else’s experiences with your own to create something profound.

“I’m finding myself in this pretty extreme conjuncture where I’m meeting people who think differently from me,” he says. “I’ve found myself challenging my understanding of what music is because of this multiplicity of experiences and encounters. Making things with other people, we find ourselves coming at the same problem from very different angles with different worldviews and sensibilities of what music is and what it’s for and what it does. So very basic things kept getting rethought in this process. I keep finding myself right at the frontier of my understanding of this basic question: ‘what is music?’ The way it works for me is that it’s whatever we can do together in time. I just learn more by listening to people. One of the things that we can say all music has in common is the quality of listening to each other–not just being together but being together in a way where we’re listening to each other.”

Building New Ideas By Breaking Down Old Ones

Part of knowing what feels right is knowing what doesn’t. Trial and error is embedded in improvisation and it’s Iyer’s way of deconstructing staid ideas.

“We often start from some piece of repertoire, whether it’s a composition of mine or somebody else’s, that we figured out how to work with as a trio,” Iyer explains. “We’re treating that composition as an open form or a set of parameters that we can work with and against–we can build with it and break it apart. That’s really where a lot of the art of this music lies. It’s not in the repertoire itself, it’s more in the process of expanding some point of reference whether it’s a song or a groove, chord progression, or melody. It’s about what we bring to the table in the moment, each of us from what we know. It becomes this collaborative, conversational process. It’s very relational. It’s about coordinating our actions in time. It’s about hearing each other and building together.”

When the opportunity to make a new album comes, Iyer doesn’t consider process as executing a preconceived idea–he’s looking at it as a collective experience. By doing so, Iyer’s music avoids sounding overthought or contrived–it’s created in the moment so it stays organic to the moment.

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“In the case of this musical area we’re in, there’s a premium placed on authenticity, which is to say it can’t be too constructed–we shouldn’t sound like we’re forcing the issue or have too much to say,” Iyer says. “Each time we play a piece from our repertoire, it has to be made new somehow. It’s not about honoring the repertoire–it’s actually about being true to the moment. What happens is that process becomes more refined and the repertoire accumulates over years. Then it’s about tapping into this existing process we have. It’s not about preparing to make a record–the record is a reflection of this process. In a way when you hear a trio record you know it’s not just itself but it’s a reflection of a larger process. You’re hearing spontaneity. You’re hearing improvisation. You’re hearing interactivity. You’re hearing real-time creation. There’s an authentic aesthetic that’s built into this. This is just a document of what we did that day in the studio. It’s not this massive construction like ‘Sgt. Pepper’s’–it’s actually just like a snapshot of a day.”

Photo: Lena Adasheva

Stumbling Toward Creativity

“Nobody told me what to do or what not to do on piano. I wouldn’t even say figured out because that implies they’re correct. I think all of what I do is jacked up, actually! The thing is it’s mine in the sense that it was this hard-won result of years and years of experimenting, searching, and finding. It wasn’t handed to me. It was just what I did,” Iyer says.

“This semester at Harvard I’ve been teaching a seminar called theorizing improvisation–I wouldn’t even say I’m teaching. It’s like we’re all trying to figure it out together. When you use that word, it’s used as the opposite of composition but that makes it seem like there’s an even dichotomy between those two things. That’s really not how life works. The fact is that most things we do are improvised until they hardened into a routine or pattern. So really composition is the oddball in this whole scheme. Improvisation is something that’s ubiquitous–it’s part of everything we do our entire lives. I think it’s always important to remind ourselves that improvisation is something we all have.”

When thinking about improvisation, the question of “How do I know when I’m done?” naturally arises (not to mention, “is it any good?”). The truth, Iyer says, is that there are no concrete answers.

You’re Never Really Done–And That’s a Good Thing

“The most I can say is that it never feels finished to me–I never think I’ve mastered anything yet. I just think of myself as a student,” he says. “I also work really hard on details and I don’t mean in an obsessive way–I mean in a patient way. You know when something is ready by not overthinking it and tapping into something that’s emotional and spiritual. You have to really wait until it hits you there and then you know you have something–you might not even know what it is. That’s part of it, patience and not over relying on some kind of intellectual understanding of something. I don’t think that sets me apart–I just think that’s what music is made of,” Iyer says.

Marking Your Measure of Success

“One thing that’s been important to me is rethinking this notion of success. What is success? When it comes to making art, I don’t know what that is,” Iyer says. “I know what’s genuine and I know what I want to hear. And sometimes other people want to hear what I want to hear, sometimes they don’t. The main thing is the value of being a performer is that I get to listen to the audience the whole time. I listen very carefully to them. It’s not about listening to them clapping–it’s about listening to them breathing. What are their bodies doing right now in relation to what I’m doing and are we connecting? It’s that kind of question that I’m always asking. If I always listen to that, then it’s not about success in terms of album sales or awards. It’s actually about meaning something to people and reaching people and making a difference.”

About the author

KC covers entertainment and pop culture for Fast Company. Previously, KC was part of the Emmy Award-winning team at "Good Morning America" where he was the social media producer.

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