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The Sound of Reaching: A SpeakEasy for Vijay Iyer

“The body is in the musical space, interacting with the instrument.” – Vijay Iyer Vijay Iyer’s interest in embodied cognition makes his performance particularly appropriate for the SpeakEasy program’s first venture from dance and theatre discussions to the realm of music. Now a regular piece of the Walker’s performing arts programming, these Saturday evening post-performance […]

“The body is in the musical space, interacting with the instrument.” – Vijay Iyer

Vijay Iyer’s interest in embodied cognition makes his performance particularly appropriate for the SpeakEasy program’s first venture from dance and theatre discussions to the realm of music. Now a regular piece of the Walker’s performing arts programming, these Saturday evening post-performance discussions offer audience members the opportunity to share interpretations, questions, and responses in an informal setting, the conversation facilitated by a Walker Art Center tour guide and a member of the local performing arts community. This week’s discussion was led by musician Jeremy Walker and tour guide Mary Dew. As is customary for the program, highlights and themes from the SpeakEasy are captured in this blog and offered for continued reflection and discussion through this online format.

What role does the body play in the experience of music?

From the audience perspective, does it wash over you, allowing you to forget your own presence as you are engulfed, or does it heighten that presence, pulling your attention as the body leans forward? What is the experience for the musician whose physicality becomes channeled into a point of contact with the instrument? Wrapped into this interaction, Vijay Iyer reminds audiences that this crafting of music is not solely a mental or mathematical construction, the mind here is not an “abstract machine, but…something physical, grounded in bodily processes and experiences.” In introducing the Walker Art Center’s two-day Vijay Iyer festival, Performing Arts Senior Curator Philip Bither spoke of “reaching out,” a notion particularly apt for live music where artists reach towards and beyond frontiers and audiences members extend themselves to meet, to be absorbed, and to follow.

Play & Mastery
The physicality of a musician can be viewed as a commingling of immense control and release. Energy is focused to generate a specific desired sound while reactions flit across the face as artists react to and engage one another. As one audience member noted, the face reveals the joyful element of “play” contained in the idea of “playing music.” Behind this lightheartedness is ease, a comfort and knowledge so deep that, despite the piano’s many component parts between finger and string, music seemly flows directly from the body of the musician. This connection bespeaks an underlying intimacy with an instrument, a central element of public persona and private life, an object that a musician touches more than almost anything else. Perhaps this is one way of speaking of “mastery,” a relationship, knowledge, and command that are so finely honed as to appear effortless, like play.

To discuss Iyer in this manner is not intended to downplay the incredible difficulty involved in his work. Pamela Espeland described his music on bebopified as “cerebral, mathy, and dense, full of complex, asymmetrical time signatures and polyrhythms, unexpected harmonies, glittering cascades of notes, percussive chords, and extravagant beauty.” The music is impressive, made even more so upon learning that Iyer is self-taught. Historically a badge of honor denoting drive and persistence, what does it mean to be self-taught in an environment when many new musicians are emerging from university programs? This is an interesting question for jazz more broadly as highly-trained musicians begin to create work in established educational settings while listening to and influenced by self-trained jazz greats. Does this education teach rules and limits, does it encourage and enable? Considering this historical arc, where is jazz going?

What is jazz today?
In his essay “Uncertainty Principles,” Iyer posed the question of what jazz is today, given that “musicians associated with jazz are responsible for endless creative manifestations that defy categorization.” But jazz, while expansive, is simultaneously specific, connected to intricate histories involving musical developments, individual innovators, and the history of race politics in the United States. As Iyer noted “there is a vast legacy of knowledge associated with jazz, which we in this community understand and cherish more than anyone else.” In this context, there is a complex balance between unrestrained and specific aspects, so how does one navigate this to conceive of a working notion of what “jazz” is?

Perhaps rather than seeking a set of definable qualities, “swing” or a certain stance, one can consider jazz, as Jeremy Walker suggested, “a process of adaptation and assimilation.” In this sense, it might not be easily recognizable to a newcomer. As one participant commented, for some, “if your ear isn’t tuned to it, you can’t hear it.” The music’s expansive nature poses new challenges for audience members as well as musicians, layers of appreciation that can be delved into where the more one listens, the more one is able to hear. Regardless of the degree of background knowledge, Iyer invites the listener to an experience and as Pamela Espeland emphasized “You don’t have to ‘understand’ jazz (whatever that means) to receive that experience and enjoy it.” One only needs to come prepared to be open and ready to reach.

Join us in the Walker’s balcony bar on Saturday, March 23, for a SpeakEasy conversation for The 802 Tour!

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