photo credit: Lena Adasheva

Vijay Iyer is a composer-pianist who’s made a tremendous name for himself in jazz (with a MacArthur Genius Grant, a Harvard professorship, and shows at jazz bastions like the Village Vanguard), though he’s fond of a less commercial term: “creative music.” For Iyer, the history of jazz—and music in general—is a history of community organizing. Rather than being just a list of “heroic individuals,” it’s about “process, while the record industry turns it into product.” That’s why his music so frequently evades categorization, or even genre.

Vijay’s path to jazz greathood was not straightforward. After some time studying math and physics, he pivoted back to his lifelong passion for the piano and creative music, learned by ear. As the Music Director for the upcoming Ojai Music Festival, he’s bringing some distinct changes to the show, which was already known for its radical newness. I spoke with him at length about his way of seeing and his path to today.

Could you talk a little about how you arrived at the piano as your instrument of choice?

I played music my whole life, or as far back as I can remember. I started on Western classical violin lessons when I was three, and I started playing piano by ear not long after that. So, I guess the piano was always more about improvisation and creation, for me, than violin, which was more a particular approach to the Western classical musician. That approach cuts out any ability for improvisation. So piano just became this thing that violin wasn’t.

That just continued through my youth until I was in college. In my high school there was a pretty strong music program—I played violin in orchestra, but I also, as a junior, started piano in the jazz ensemble. At that point, I previously hadn’t had any lessons. I had taken some theory courses, I knew how to play, but I had to kind of catch up.

There’s a lot that’s expected of a pianist. You have to understand everything about the music. You have to understand the form, you have to express harmony in real time, you have to interact. It’s not just reading what’s on the page and interpreting it, it’s a creative discipline, a creative sensibility, that you have to be able to enact and deploy in the moment. So that took some time getting used to. I guess I’d been doing something like that, but not with any kind of knowledge or understanding of what had come before.

Harvard, where you’re a professor, is changing their music concentration requirements to reduce the amount of classical theory required, among other things. Were you involved in that decision?

Yeah, I was on the committee: really now it’s just a bit of a bigger blueprint. There are a lot of different ways to be a music major. All the old ways still exist, but there are newer ways too. There are essentially different paths through the major now to accommodate different musical perspectives and sensibilities.

New improvisers tend to just play the things they practice, like scales or basic figures. How do you get from improvising with familiar sounds, to improvising with the unfamiliar?

Learning to improvise is a lifelong practice. When I started, I was playing piano by ear, so basically I was just messing around. There are systems for improvising, and that’s what you practice. And there are methods to push what you’re able to hear, which is just as important. You can apply constraints to push yourself, exercises like: create a melody with just these two intervals, or create figures with this rhythm.

Then there’s the fact that we have 100 years of recording to study. Literally 100 years, from all over the planet! There’s a wealth of information to study, so see how people improvise. I mean, that’s what we do. There’s of course a rich tradition of African-American improvisation you can look at, and there’s improvisation in South Asia, or East Asia, or North Africa, or Sub-Saharan Africa, you know, pretty much everywhere, including Europe.

It doesn’t always show itself to you, either. Lots of music is played without anyone being told what to play, so you just have to learn to identify it.

You’re well known for your trio, but you work with a lot of different groups. Are there any instrumentations or mediums you’re looking to try out in the future?

I’m fortunate enough to have a lot of opportunities right in front of me, so that’s what I’m focusing on right now. At the Ojai festival, we’ll be doing one of my trio pieces, Emergence, which will be with my trio and a chamber orchestra. It’ll be kind of an interesting challenge, to merge those two sounds.

I’ve also heard about some film scoring.

Well, that depends on what you mean by scoring. I’ve been collaborating with a filmmaker, Prashant Bhargava, on a film that we’re showing in the Ojai Festival called Radhe Radhe: Rites of Holi. That’s not really scoring, since it’s live with the movie, but it’s something I’m really looking forward to.

You’re also the Music Director of the Ojai Festival this year. What’s it been like, working on a festival that often bills itself as classical, albeit modern?

I don’t know if it bills itself as a classical festival, I think it’s just seen that way historically. I think there are sort of implicit boundaries that are imposed by virtue of who’s been involved in the past. But that’s been changing a lot in recent years. It’s a nice challenge and a nice opportunity for me to keep pushing on what I’ve been doing, and opening a richer dialogue with the history. I guess I’ve been collaborating with & composing for people in the so-called classical realm for about 15 years. You know, my first orchestral piece premiered about ten years ago. So I guess it’s not a stretch in the sense of some unlikely prospect, or, you know, some misfit kind of situation. It’s more a chance to bring together some musical worlds that I’ve had the privilege to be connnected with. It’s kind of like I invited all my friends to this big party.

Are there any particular acts you’re excited for?

I made about half of it, so I better be. I’m also looking forward to this huge composition by Courtney Bryan. Without getting into too much detail, it’s a very powerful piece about Sandra Bland, or more precisely her spirit. It’s sort of imagining her voice from beyond. It’s harrowing but also meditative, a major work to say the least. I’m looking forward to helping it see the light of day. Well, it’s on Saturday night.