Renowned jazz composer Iyer to debut new work at Norfolk festival

In a Q&A, pianist Vijay Iyer ’92 talks about the inspiration for a new composition he’ll introduce at this month’s Yale-hosted Norfolk Chamber Music Festival.
Vijay Iyer

Vijay Iyer (Photo by Ebru Yildiz)

As a Yale College undergraduate, Vijay Iyer ’92 majored in math and physics. But unbeknownst to most of his classmates, he was also a student of music. A classically trained violinist, Iyer had by that time moved on to mastering the piano and was teaching himself how to play jazz.

There was a talent show at the end of our freshman year and I played ‘Round Midnight’ by Thelonious Monk,” he recalled recently. “It just blew them away. They had no idea that I had this whole other side of myself.”

Now the renowned composer, jazz pianist, MacArthur recipient, and three-time Grammy nominee is preparing a chamber music composition that will be performed for the first time this summer at Yale School of Music’s Norfolk Chamber Music Festival, hosted on the 70-acre Ellen Battell Stoeckel estate in the Litchfield Hills, in northwestern Connecticut.

The work was commissioned through the Norfolk festival’s Musical Bridges Project, which showcases new works that place classical chamber music within a broader music and cultural context. In past years, compositions have incorporated musical elements or instrumentalists from a non-Western classical tradition or responded to a particular issue or experience within a specific community, according to Robert Whipple, the festival’s general manager.

Iyer has chosen to write a work for a Pierrot ensemble, which is a quintet comprised of flute, clarinet, violin, cello, and piano. The piece is entitled “Variations on a Theme by Ornette Coleman,” a tribute to the late saxophonist and composer celebrated as an innovator and pioneer in the genre of free jazz. The performance takes place at 8 p.m. on Saturday, July 27.


This year’s festival begins Friday, July 5 and runs for seven consecutive weekends, ending Saturday, Aug. 17. All concerts are held in the historic Music Shed, which was recently renovated to add air conditioning and upgraded recording capabilities.

Iyer is a prolific composer for classical ensembles and soloists, including works premiered by Brentano Quartet and Imani Winds, both of which are performing at this year’s Norfolk festival. Earlier this year he released “Compassion,” his second album with trio partners bassist Linda May Han Oh and drummer Tyshawn Sorey. He is a tenured professor at Harvard University, where he holds joint appointments in the Department of Music and the Department of African and African American Studies.

Iyer sat down with Yale News to talk about the inspiration for his Norfolk composition, the jazz masters who showed him how it’s done, and the classical music scores discovered in John Coltrane’s attic.

You were a STEM student while at Yale, but did you find time for music as well?

Vijay Iyer: I did music all the time when I was there. I put together groups and produced my own concerts. I was in Saybrook College and the dining hall there had a very nice grand piano. My college roommate was Jeff Brock, who’s now the dean of engineering at Yale. He played bass and we used to play duos. The only time and place we could get together to play was in the dining hall during dinner so we sort of became the house band.

My senior year Jeff and I started playing with a couple of grad students in African American Studies. One was a drummer, and one was a trumpet player. We would play in town at a club called Malcolm’s. That was really formative for me, experiencing the music not in a collegiate or scholastic environment but actually out in the world.

Then there was [the late] Willie Ruff, who was a bassist and French horn player and a professor in the School of Music who hosted the Duke Ellington Fellowship Program, which brought major artists in jazz to play at Sprague Hall. He taught an orchestration course which I was able to cross-register for in my senior year. The way it worked was you had to arrange music for whomever was in the class to perform. You would take an existing piece of music and rewrite it for some assemblage of players. That was my first experience writing for assorted chamber ensembles. I remember I stumbled on a couple of really interesting sounds and Willie was very supportive. It was nice because every week you had to produce something and just try it. It was very much a workshop kind of environment.

How did you begin the process of composing a piece for Norfolk?

Iyer: I sort of set a challenge for myself in the sense of what the ensemble would be. I settled on the Pierrot ensemble, plus percussion. There’s a huge repertoire of music in the last 100 years or so written for that format.

You started with the ensemble type first?

Iyer: Yes, because it’s a sonic problem as much as it is a formal one. It’s kind of like, how is this going to vibrate? I guess the first questions I tend to ask myself are, how does it feel, and how does it move? Those are the things that music does and also the things that bodies do. And I wanted to access it at that level first.

I studied a lot of repertoires for that ensemble because I wanted to hear how others have solved this problem of what you do with that cluster of instruments. There were certain prevailing tendencies I noticed that I found frustrating. I was like, ‘Well, why don’t they do this instead?’ I wanted to move it to an area that hasn’t already been overly explored. Beyond that, the question remained, what is the shape of it going to be? And that question gripped me for a while. Every time I write a piece it needs to matter to me, at least in some way.

Did you have a particular inspiration for this one?

Iyer: Yes. Ornette Coleman was this legendary creative musician and composer. He wrote a composition called “War Orphans.” There are various versions of it that people have covered, but they often have a sort of solemn, pastoral, melancholy quality. When I found his version, which is kind of obscure — it’s a live recording from the early ’70s — I discovered that it didn’t sound like that at all. It sounds really active and has this intensity in it. There’s a kind of defiant exuberance or defiant joy. It’s a dark implication to name a piece “War Orphans.” And we certainly have many reasons to name a piece that today. It struck me the way others had misapprehended it or taken it in a direction that he hadn’t taken it. I wanted to study his original more. So the piece is called “Variations on a Theme by Ornette Coleman,” and the theme is “War Orphans.”

Are you trying to take it in the direction of the original?

Iyer: I guess the polyphony of it, the intensity of it, the textural variety, the drama. I don’t know if I’ll get any of these things. It’s still in process.

How will you work with the ensemble to master the piece for Norfolk?

Iyer: First, there’s what’s on the page. That needs to be assimilated. Usually, they don’t want me at their first rehearsal. They need to get it in some kind of shape. And then with a new piece it’s always a process: is there some difference between what’s on the page and what I wanted to hear? Should I tweak that? And just helping them hear what I’m hearing. I’m often making adjustments until the day of the performance. And I’ve learned from working with classical musicians that it helps to give them some emotional cues.

What do you see as the relationship between jazz and classical music?

Iyer: Well, first of all, genre is a fiction. It’s invented. It’s not real. And yet, it has lodged itself into the systems that govern how we experience music. What that means is you have different communities of music makers and listeners who start from very different assumptions about what music is, how it works and what to listen for. What tends to happen is that people in jazz pay a lot of attention to classical music, and people in classical music pay no attention to jazz. It’s kind of a one-way street. It doesn’t have to be that way.

That said, I’ve had a lot of experiences playing with classical musicians, as a pianist who is not classically trained at all. I didn’t even have piano lessons. A lot of what I do as a pianist involves real-time decisions about not just how to play something, but what to play. I learned from Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk and Sun Ra and McCoy Tyner and Alice Coltrane and Geri Allen and all these people that I listened to obsessively and studied what they were doing and assimilated it and developed my own approach. That’s the tradition in jazz — it doesn’t come from nowhere. It comes from a lot of study, including checking out Ravel and Debussy and Stravinsky and Bartok. It’s a source of inspiration for many. You know, John Coltrane collected all these scores, he had a whole bunch of them in his attic.

I’ve done a couple of projects with Brentano Quartet. They’re an incredible state-of-the-art string quartet, the best in the world at what they do. I wrote a piece for us to play together, and they were so in the moment with sound. They are alive to the moment, making choices every step of the way at a very intuitive level about how to play together, how to synchronize, how to be in tune, how to adjust timbre. Playing with them felt very similar to what I do as a pianist.

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