July 3, 2017
Asked what he will perform at his July 9 Gretna Music concert with cellist Matt Haimovitz, pianist Vijay Iyer chuckles a bit.
“I will have to make something up. We are still figuring it out,” he says.
That shouldn’t come as a surprise to Iyer’s fans. He calls himself “primarily an improviser” and says Haimovitz is open to other ways of making music apart from the typical classical mode.
“He’s a great improviser (and) a great duo partner,” Iyer says. “He’s a sonic explorer.”
Several years ago, Haimovitz commissioned a piece from Iyer, who is an in-demand composer.
“I wrote a piece that is a prelude to the C major Bach cello suite,” Iyer says. “In the course of working together, he became interested in collaborating further. He has been a leader in transcription of improvised music.”
Both Haimovitz and Iyer are superstars in their musical worlds.
Haimovitz is known for taking his cello into unusual locations, such as nightclubs and restaurants.
When he was 12, Itzak Perlman heard him play and suggested he study with Leonard Rose at Juilliard.
Rose, a legendary teacher, said Haimovitz is “probably the greatest talent I ever taught.”
Iyer is no slouch himself.
He was voted DownBeat Magazine’s Artist of the Year in 2012, 2015 and 2016. In 2014 he was named Downbeat’s Pianist of the Year. And in 2014 he was named the Franklin D. and Florence Rosenblatt Professor of the Arts in Harvard University’s music department.
In a 2016 New Yorker profile, Alec Wilkinson noted that Iyer has been the most-lauded piano player in jazz and pointed to a review of his album “Break Stuff,” in which critic Steven Greenlee wrote “he may be the most celebrated musician in jazz.”
In 2013, he earned a MacArthur “genius grant” for “forging a new conception of the practice of American music in compositions for his ensembles, cross-disciplinary collaborations and scholarly work.”
Science and music
Iyer mostly played violin growing up, though he started playing piano at 3.
“I wasn’t really good at (the violin). I did it for 15 years, so I wasn’t completely terrible, “ he says. “But I also knew I wasn’t going to get much better because it wasn’t my focus.”
Science and math were.
Iyer earned his undergraduate degree at Yale in mathematics and physics and went to Berkeley to earn a doctorate in physics.
But he was drawn more and more to jazz piano and eventually shifted gears and to earn a doctorate in technology and the arts. He was playing in a number of ensembles during school.
“Being a scientist and being an artist, at a certain level, are not that different,” Iyer says. “Usually, when people think of science, they think of technical knowledge. They think of it as sterile and rational. It does have those qualities sometimes, but there is beauty and a lot of chaos in the process.
Iyer works with a number of ensembles and believes that the most important thing about collaboration is making space for each other in the music.
“Playing each other’s licks — I view that as shallow,” he says. “The quality of listening, especially at a chamber level with a handful of people, is that they hear each other and give way to each other. You can hear it when musicians are not listening to each other and, conversely, you can hear when they are, (and) that is very special.”
Improvisation he says, is something musicians do naturally when they are young.
“I first walked up to a piano when I was 3, and that was what I was doing. It’s not an unnatural state of being,” he says. “It’s the natural thing to do. But when you study Western classical music, we are told not to do it.
“I have found, after collaborating with great classical musicians and seeing them in action, it’s a similar feeling. Being in the moment with the sound. Great performers get past what is on the stage to an authentic moment of presence.”
Haimovitz and Iyer have never performed in concert, though they have played together a few times in preparation for the Gretna date.
“Our first attempt was very fruitful and beautiful,” Iyer says. “He is a master at his instrument.”
By: Jane Holahan
Read at: Lancaster Online