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Ingenious: Vijay Iyer

On the science and talent of music.

The scientific debate over genius usually boils down to the question, “Does brilliance spring from lucky genes or 10,000 hours of…By Kevin Berger

The scientific debate over genius usually boils down to the question, “Does brilliance spring from lucky genes or 10,000 hours of gritty study?” To judge from a relatively recent batch of books like Outliers, The Genius In All of Us, and Talent Is Overrated, nurture has won the upper hand on nature and a new truth has been ordained: Practice hard, kids, and you will be the next Mozart.

But what does the artist say? Better yet, the artist with a scientific background? Vijay Iyer seemed ideal to ask. A 2013 recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant, the musician is versed in seeing the world through the lens of science. Iyer’s Yale undergraduate degree in math and physics paved the way to his Ph.D. in technology and the arts at the University of California, Berkeley. The jazz pianist has recorded over 15 albums and in 2012 was voted Jazz Artist of the Year in the DownBeat International Critics Poll.

This video interview is a companion to “Rhythm’s the Thing,” our story last week, in which Iyer gave us a guided tour, at the piano, of the singular musical elements that define the brilliance of artists, including Thelonious Monk and Michael Jackson.

Each video question plays at the top of the screen.


Ingenious: Jonathan Berger

I was electrified by Jonathan Berger’s music before I knew he wrote about music. His chamber works arise out of a lightning storm of modernist angles, dramatic and startling, though anchored to melodies that sail like a swallow, as one...READ MORE

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How would you define “genius?”

You don’t buy the idea of the lone genius?

Brilliant artists upset expectations. Is that the essence of their talent?

Is rhythm the science of jazz?

What’s the name of your Ph.D. dissertation?

Does your science background give you a special analytical perspective on music?

Speaking to your Harvard students, how would you define what makes a work of music great?

If you weren’t a musician, what would you do? Ever consider the road not taken?


Interview Transcript

How would you define “genius?”

I tend to resist any use of what we’ll call the “G” word today, partly because when it gets used, it’s often used in a sort of imposing way to almost shut down conversation or inquiry into a particular artist or his or her milieu or community or sense of connectedness to other artists, you know. It’s usually… when that word is used, it’s usually to single an individual out of a community.

But no music happens in a vacuum—now that’s my experience anyway, and that’s my perspective on it, is that anybody who’s able to make music, anyone who has the privilege of getting to do it for others, they got there somehow through the help of others. And, you know, even in the case of real singular talents—and I’ve known many—they’re also nurtured and they were brought into a community, you know. So I always try to understand the term—when it is used, I try to understand it more relationally, to understand an artist in the context that that person was living and working. And that’s not just historical, it’s also social and political. 

You don’t buy the idea of the lone genius?

Well, the thing is that you don’t hear about such work unless somebody has brought it to your attention so… I guess my experience is that there are a lot of people like that, actually—many of whom you never hear about. And that also my experience was that because of how cultural capital works and because of the sorts of divisions we set up around genre, community, and ethnicity, and so forth, certain people have access to that kind of identity and others don’t. Like I said, I’ve known a lot of people who are off in some obscure corner creating that something that should be understood as revolutionary, as really radical and potentially transformative for whatever field that person is working in. But those people don’t always have the kind of access to an audience or to individuals who might advocate on their behalf.

So I guess I always take these terms with a grain of salt because I think that actually, creativity is everywhere, and I’m waiting to be proven wrong. But you know, everywhere I go I find myself meeting somebody or hearing somebody who blows my mind. And so I really think that you know, these terms like genius, they’re used to privilege certain individuals over others, certain ways of thinking over others, and I don’t find that to be useful from the perspective of an artist or even in the sense of trying to be among people, you know?

Brilliant artists upset expectations. Is that the essence of their talent?

I think when we talk about expectation in music or how good music is the kind that challenges our expectations or surprises us—and it’s partly about setting up a sort of potential pattern and then strategically breaking that pattern, and how we as perceivers code for invariance and for variance and with respect to invariance—that’s sort of J.J. Gibson’s model, the ecological view of perception that we listen for things that are unchanging and then against that background of what’s not changing, we hear change, all right? We hear some sort of disruption of a pattern as… that becomes a feature in the field of perception. So I guess, you know, when you think about perception of harmony, that’s so culturally specific. So we have to understand perception as culturally embedded to and as particularly about expectancy in the realm of music as something that’s very culturally specific and culturally conditioned.

Or another way to put it is the way Lester Bowie famously recorded a solo trumpet piece. It starts with him saying, “What is jazz?” He plays something—a solo piece. At the end he says, “That depends on what you know.” That’s maybe the best way to put it; that it might have been surprising to some and less surprising to others, you know? Or another way to put it is that Monk came from somewhere, right? But I think still even these kinds of (plays piano). All right? There is sort of like an insistent wielding of dissonance to kind of startle the ear. Like it literally is the use of roughness, or of auditory experience of dissonance, to stand out you know, to like kind of draw the ear to that moment as if to say this is me, right here. So I think it can work that way. 

Is rhythm the science of jazz?

I would say that rhythm is the seat of music. It is the first thing that hits us about music, is its rhythmic character or profile. Before we even notice that it’s music, something about its rhythmic character gets inside of us, attacks you in some part of your body that’s below the shoulders, to put it politely! So, you know, that to me is the beginning of it; that’s where music starts—is with the sense of another body doing something and then it’s sort of like maybe some sense of regularity emerging from that, like a sense of pulse that might map on to our own sense of pulse, which might come from our own embodied experience of walking or of breathing or of a heartbeat or something else. So things like that are kind of… To me, where this experience we call music comes from is from the sound of another body moving in time, that reminds us of the way that we move in time.

What’s the name of your Ph.D. dissertation?

You know, whenever people bring up the title of my dissertation it’s used as an object of scorn or ridicule…

Q: I only mean it in the best way.

VI: …because it has a lot of words in it. Excuse me! For having a lot of words in the title. There’s a phrase that’s before the calling, which is, “Macrostructures of feel”…no, “Macrostructures of sound, and microstructures of feel,” and the idea there is that for example, a player like Monk has something you would call his “sound” and when you say that, what do you actually mean? You mean a lot of things, kind of a lot of things adding up together to create this identifiable sound, you know, just a lot of things. It’s his approach to rhythm; it’s his approach to the instrument itself—how he hits it; it’s his way of interacting with other musicians; it’s the particular language of his playing, like the intervallic choices, the way you hear the trace of his hands in a song like this (plays the piano). All right, you hear kind of, the hands at work. It’s not really about transcending the relationship between the hands and the instrument; it’s actually about featuring that process, that interaction with the instrument as a body, and then it’s this like real visionary sense of harmony, and there’s playfulness and spontaneity and groove, sense of timing. It’s a lot of things, all right? We call that “Monk’s sound,” but it’s what I called a macrostructure because it has all these different facets, you know. 

Then the second part of it is “microstructures of feel” and that was about…  Part of the dissertation is about looking as closely as we can to how people relate to a pulse. You know, often… I see this often, you know, when people analyze rhythmic expression in the context of groove-based music like pop music, like the way Stevie Wonder plays the back beats on the drums, because he does, especially on a lot of those early albums from the 1970s, he was playing drums on those records and he had his own particular way of establishing a pulse, you know; and it had a kind of edge to it that is very hard to describe and often when people just talk about it they’ll talk about it being wrong like what’s wrong with it, how it’s not metric and the errors. They’ll call them errors, which to me is sort of like well, which came first? Stevie Wonder? Or your theory of rhythm, you know? So who’s right in other words? You’re calling these errors but that worked before you even thought of it, so like it’s not an error. It’s actually a feature. It’s not a bug it’s a feature. 

Does your science background give you a special analytical perspective on music?

My experience with people in the jazz community is that everybody who’s serious about the music has a deep analytical perspective on the music. They’ve really researched it; they’ve spent a lot of time with the recordings. You know, analyzing a particular player for months and months, devouring everything that person ever did, and transcribing, and trying to understand where all this stuff is coming from—that’s kind of the norm. That’s how we figure out… that’s how we learn how to play, actually. It’s not by someone teaching us formulas. It’s by us working together, and individually, to try to understand what’s come before and letting that inspire us to create on our own terms. That’s how it works. 

Speaking to your Harvard students, how would you define what makes a work of music great?

I will never say anything like that. I would never say, “This is what makes something great.” Because greatness is relative, and it’s subjective and it has to do with one’s own standard of greatness. And when you tell someone, especially in a pedagogical situation, that this is what makes something great, they don’t have a chance to really explore that for themselves. They just feel like, ‘oh, I guess that’s what I’m supposed to write down and that’s what I’m supposed to know for the exam’ and stuff like that. It’s not real. There’s nothing real about it, so notions of greatness and genius, excellence, whatever—I feel that it’s best to understand how artists get to a particular moment, all the forces—musical and extra-musical—that bring them to that place.

And also understand that an artist’s life is long and some things might resound more than other things in the world or even might connect more for that artist than other things and so you have to allow for the possibility of variation and in particular for artists to transform. And that to me is one of the key facets of this music that is so often overlooked, especially when it’s talked about from the outside—is that artists are seeking to transform themselves, not just to be themselves, but to actually become something. When you hear Coltrane on Giant Steps, from 1958 and then you hear him again on A Love Supreme from ’64, you hear that something has transformed in him. He’s become something new. And actually both of those moments are landmarks for him, you know, in terms of the kinds of ideas [that] were set forth and how they kind of represented a break from what had come before, even for that particular person, you know.

If you weren’t a musician, what would you do? Ever consider the road not taken?

I’m taking lots of paths at the same time. I mean I didn’t see myself becoming a Harvard professor and that is itself a kind of a path not taken that I’m taking now, so I find myself… And also, as a musician, I find myself having this huge diversity of experience.

So I find myself slipping in and out of these different disciplines. So in other words, you know, to answer your question if there was something… if I weren’t doing what I am doing, what would I do? I’ll probably be doing that tomorrow.

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