The Constant Creativity of Vijay Iyer


By John Black

There are two ways to experience Vijay Iyer’s music. You can sit at home and listen to one of his many CDs or you can go out and see him live in concert. The difference?

“When I’m recording, I’m basically making music for an audience of one,” the Grammy-nominated pianist and composer explained, referring to himself as the ultimate judge of the sounds in the studio. “Playing live is more of a communal experience. Much of our music is improvisation and that sound can depend a lot on the energy we’re getting from the people listening.”

For those who prefer staying at home, the musician was asked which of his CDs would be a good starting place to get to know the man and his music. Iyer didn’t know how to answer. “As an artist, I’m always looking forward to the next composition. To me, all the music I’ve made has been one long arc to get me where I am now, so my honest answer would be the next one,” he said. “It’s also difficult to point to a CD I made several years ago, and say, that’s the one to begin with because it implies it’s the ‘best’ and I’m not the one to judge my past that way.”

“Maybe they should just pick alphabetically,” he added with a laugh.



Iyer admits that he isn’t always sure what he and his fellow musicians will create on a given night, which is one of the most exciting things about playing live. “I asked a friend of mine who is a classical violinist how she can bare playing the same piece of music over and over each night and I think she explained it perfectly,’ he said. “A musician, particularly a classical musician who could be playing a piece that the audience knows by heart, has to have a ritual of forgetfulness, meaning she needs to approach each piece of music as if the audience is hearing it for the first time.”

When Iyer is on stage, he too, is often hearing the music being played for the first time, listening to what the others on the stage are playing and creating new music from what he hears. It’s a challenge, he admits, particularly because the other two members of the Vijay Iyer Trio – drummer Marcus Gilmore, bassist Stephan Crump – are extremely adept at improvising, too. In a video on his website, Iyer talks about times when Gilmore, for example, will retune his drum kit in the middle of a song to get a new sound which he and Crump then follow. “I usually play with my eyes closed, so it’s all about listening to what they are playing, not looking at them to see what they will do next,” Iyer said. “If I wait to open my eyes, it will probably be too late.”

For his upcoming show at Sanders University, Iyer will be adding three more musicians into the mix — alto-saxophonist Steve Lehman, tenor-saxophonist Mark Shim, and cornet and flugelhorn player Graham Haynes – to form The Vijay Iyer Sextet. “We’ve played together on and off for about six years and done some live shows in New York City and in Europe,” Iyer said. “People may not know about us because we haven’t put anything down on record yet, but that will change this spring.”

So, fans can wait for The Vijay Iyer Sextet CD to drop so they can sit at home and listen to it, or they can go hear them live and experience the music being made live on stage.

The Vijay Iyer Sextet plays Sanders Theatre at Harvard University on March 9th. Showtime is 8PM. For tickets and information, click HERE.