Vijay Iyer Evolves With Mutations

GRAMMY-nominated jazz composer/performer discusses his new album, Mutations, and composing music post-Sept. 11
  • Photo: Jimmy Katz
    Vijay Iyer
March 04, 2014 -- 1:35 pm PST
By Bryan Reesman /

GRAMMY-nominated jazz composer and performer Vijay Iyer has experimented in many different genres throughout his lengthy career. He has collaborated with hip-hop artists, Indian musicians and electronic sound sculptors, while also leading his own bands such as Spirit Complex, the Poisonous Prophets and the Vijay Iyer Trio, with whom he earned his first GRAMMY nomination in 2010 for Best Jazz Instrumental Album, Individual Or Group for Historicity.

On March 3 Iyer released Mutations, the official recording of a 10-part suite for string quartet that he originally debuted in 2005. The multifaceted contemporary chamber work, much of which was inspired by classical composer György Ligeti (whose music was featured in the 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey), features 13 original recordings composed by Iyer for piano, string quartet and electronics. The compositions span eerie dissonance to graceful melody and invoke a wide range of emotions.

Iyer, who also teaches music at Harvard University, kicked off a brief U.S. tour for Mutations on March 1. In an exclusive interview, Iyer discussed the making of Mutations, the music listening habits of the younger generation and composing music post-Sept. 11, among other topics.

Mutations originally debuted nine years ago. How much did the music change and evolve over the years? Were there times that you let it sit for a while before performing it again?
It's been performed several times with different ensembles. It has some real time elements in it, so it's unique to the moment and to who's playing. It's basically the same piece, and I figured out some things about it over the years, about how to do it a little better each time. And I've refined certain details about the electronics part and about how the real-time elements are handled. I've been creating work like that for chamber ensembles for a while now, and this is the first time I had a chance to document it on an album. It will be new to people who mainly know me from albums, but to me it's just another ongoing direction.

You are credited as performing piano and electronics. Do you mean synthesizers or also electronic manipulation?
It's all stuff that I'm doing on the laptop involving some rhythms and textures that are derived from samples of the string quartet instruments, so a lot of nonpitched sounds made on string instruments.

Was there a storyline that you had in mind while you were composing Mutations? Or was it more of an emotional outpouring?
To me, it is ideas that manifest in feelings. I guess I was interested in themes of transformation and questions of difference and alienness and foreignness. It was written in the post-9/11 years in New York, and a lot of the work I did in that decade especially was subject to that. There was a sense of people who are foreign being treated as suspicious and quarantined and locked up. In comic books, like X-Men or Superman, mutants or aliens are metaphors for immigrants or for difference or the experience of difference. They end up asking questions about race, ethnicity, nationalism, and difference without having to be literal. So, I guess similar questions were involved in this project for me.

Considering that you're a father and now a professor, what do you think of the listening habits of younger people today?
What I find is that people don't know what to listen to. They are basically listening to what their friends are listening to. I think it's as socially determined as it ever was, but now because there's this dumbfounding abundance of music, and it is as easy as clicking something, you don't really have any kind of experience with music. It really just circulates with zero commitment. It's disorienting for people in a way that they're a little unhappy about. I think part of the reason there's a return to vinyl is that there's something grounding about the experience of using your body to take an object out, put it on, and sit down with it and turn it over in the middle. And then [there's] a big gatefold [sleeve] with liner notes and pictures and [it equals] something that's a little more experiential and helps build memories in a different way. This is me doing something, it's not just files circulating. That's basically what I've noticed, and students have said to me that they don't know what to listen to. There's too much [music]. They don't know how to choose or don't know how to cultivate any kind of sense of connection or relationship to it.

I'm trying to re-ground music as a shared, real-world and physical experience that isn't tied to the circulation of commodities or objects. It's more about people doing things together. That's what performance is. To me, an album is a document of people doing something together, and that's what you're hearing. I think we've kind of forgotten that because we've come to view music as a commodity … but it's not where music came from or why we have it in the first place. It's not about ownership or transaction, it's about communication.

What is coming up for you after Mutations?
The next thing we're releasing is actually a DVD. I did a collaboration with a filmmaker [Prashant Bhargava] last year called Radhe Radhe [: Rites Of Holi]. I was invited to create something on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of Stravinsky's "[The] Rite Of Spring." This [film] doesn't really have anything to do with Stravinsky, but it's dealing with springtime rituals in India, specifically this holiday called Holi. You've probably seen pictures of people throwing colored powder at each other; it's that holiday. My collaborator is a filmmaker who got all this amazing footage of that holiday being celebrated in northern India, and I created a live score to it working with [the] International Contemporary Ensemble.

Is there any kind of dream project collaboration that you'd like to do?
I'm already doing a lot of things that I've wanted to do, and I have a lot of pretty amazing opportunities. So I feel like it would be greedy of me to ask for more.

(Bryan Reesman is a New York-based freelance writer.)

Email Newsletter