Illustration by Shenuka Correa

Vijay Iyer on the Ability of Music to Bring Worlds Together

An interview with renowned musician Vijay Iyer from the live music and film collaboration, Radhe Radhe: Rites of Holi and Vijay Iyer & Tirtha.

Apr 2, 2017

Jazz pianist and renowned musician Vijay Iyer led Radhe Radhe: Rites of Holi and Vijay Iyer and Tirtha on March 30 and 31 in the Red Theater. Just over a fortnight after the Indian festival of Holi, the concert brought two different soundscapes of India to life and introduced Tamilian guitarist Prasanna, tabla player Nitin Mitta and the contemporary-classical musical ensemble ICE — the International Contemporary Ensemble.
####To begin with, could you let us in on your journey as a Carnatic jazz pianist?
I guess maybe some people think that’s what I am because of Tirtha but I didn’t study Carnatic music. So, I wouldn’t call myself a Carnatic musician. I think [classifying me that way] would be unfair to people who have put in the decades of work it takes to become one.
[I have been] playing piano by ear since I was three or four. My high school had a jazz ensemble, and when I was 14, they let me join that. Then I had to catch up on the language of that music. I had to learn about the history, I had to learn about what a pianist does and the music itself. Most of the time, with the piano it is about improvising, but ... you have to improvise in a way that makes sense in the context of the music. You have to understand the structure of the music, the harmonic elements and the rhythms.
It was [also] in my 20s that I sort of started trying to make sense of my Indian-ness in the U.S. ... trying to be an artist as a person of colour and specifically as someone from a relatively new ethnicity in the US. Prior to the mid-60s there weren’t a lot of Indians or South Asians or non-Western immigrants.
####So, keeping that in counterpoint with your performance here with Tirtha and ICE which included the rejuvenation and revitalization of music of sorts, what have you realised about the work you are trying to create even as you continue to take on new projects? Why were these two works selected, and what brings them together?
What brings them together here, this week, is just circumstance. When Bill Bragin [Executive Artistic Director of The Arts Center], whom I’ve known since the late 90s reached out, he wanted to present Radhe Radhe. Knowing particularly that there are a lot of South Asians here, I thought it would be nice to [play] something that is overtly Indian or has those elements, hoping that it might resonate with people here. But since I’d never been here, I didn’t know what would happen.
I love playing with [Tirtha]. I’ve been playing with them for 10 years, so we were ready to go. [The two works] are the two most overtly Indian things I’ve ever done or ever released, project-wise. But they’re very different from one another, so it displayed a range of possibilities that can come from the creative process and the collaborative process — and that can come through one person.
####We continue to use music and art as a means of dealing with and escaping the current political scenarios that face us all across the world. Considering the simple act of people coming together to listen to music as political act of sorts, what is your opinion about this?
There is difference even [within] Tirtha. Both Prasanna and Nitin [Mitta] have pretty different backgrounds. They’re both from India — in fact, from South India — but they have very different musical histories and vocabularies. What they both had in common was Ilayiaraaja, [the Indian film composer]. … The fact that we gather and collaborate as South Asians in the context of the West is deliberate, because we sought each other out to tell a certain kind of story [that hadn’t been] told yet — whether it’s the kind of stories that Prashant tells or the kind of stories that are revealed in our music. It’s asserting a place for ourselves in a world that wasn’t really, clearly offered to us.
####What is your take on the community we have here? What is your vision for your music from this point onwards?
It’s just a fact that anyone can make music together. You just need to take time to listen to each other and figure out what you can do together. It’s easy to fall back on what is familiar in those situations, but sometimes it is more exciting to reach out of your comfort zone and make something new.
What I’ve witnessed of this place — which is very little honestly — is that because it’s so new, it feels sterile. When I think of culture, I think of stuff that grows organically almost by accident. That’s how culture happens, in spaces that are in between the official buildings. There are all these official structures that establish that this is who we are as a nation, and then there’s all the underground stuff or the stuff that happens in the crack and that grows where no one is looking or where no expects it or even where no one wants it to be. And that needs more time to happen. Music takes time. Tirtha is now 10 years in the making, Radhe Radhe took us a year and a half to make. You have to let things grow.
Archita Arun is Creative Editor. Email her at
gazelle logo