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Floating Along In Uncertainty With Vijay Iyer

Jun 9, 2021
Originally published on June 9, 2021 9:07 am

At this time last year, Morning Edition was looking for ways to chronicle, and through that make sense of a moment as dramatic as anything in recent memory. We turned to music almost immediately, and specifically our Song Project — asking musicians to write an original song about their experience of the tumult.

Ketch Secor of Old Crow Medicine Show contributed the first song of the series, and gave us something of a thesis statement for the project to boot. "We as songwriters," he said, "we gotta keep adding to the canon of songs about America, because we need to update it — these are troubling times, and we need new songs about our country, to inspire unity."

Now, after 25 entries, we've arrived at our last, from the celebrated composer and pianist Vijay Iyer.

"Certainly," Iyer says of his experience over the past year, "there's the many waves of anxiety and concern, not just about any one person getting sick but about the indifference to it, from the most powerful people on the planet. Communities of color being disproportionately impacted, the incarcerated... that was infuriating to me. Carrying all of this confusion and loss and anxiety and rage, all at the same time, does a number on your body. You're carrying that feeling for months and months."


Rachel Martin: When you say it takes a toll on your body, what did that mean for you?

Vijay Iyer: Wrinkles on my face, [Laughs], crow's feet – that's where I see it, but I also feel it in my neck, my shoulders. As something you're carrying, basically.

I have to acknowledge the fact that it is strange to ask you, a jazz composer who does not work with the spoken word, to assign words to discuss your piece... [Laughs]

What it really is, is just unconscious things, that happen beneath the surface. When I'm making anything, I just have to let that happen and try to tap into it, open up and listen to what's coming through me. I don't necessarily judge it, or try to frontload it with conceptual baggage or anything like that. I just let it emerge, and then I decide whether I want to work with it or not.

You say your piece, "Supernatant," sounds different to you each time you hear it – how did it feel today?

It made me smile a few times, because it begins in what I thought at the time was this tender, simple way – but hearing it today, it felt unstable and almost lurching. It was supposed to be... gentle. But it kinda felt like, "Whoa, what is going on here?" [Laughs]

I think what it finally embodies – to get to your question about what it's about or what it's doing — if the first couple of minutes are internal, or inward, what happens is that it breaks open to what feels to me like a multitude, a sense of us. What it feels like to be among others again.


What's perhaps most appropriate for this, our closing entry in the Song Project series, is that Iyer's piece never fully resolves — this dynamic, slightly contentious musical conversation just keeps going, never quite leaving you at ease.

"To let it ride out that way," Iyer explains, "not in the sense that 'Okay, we're done, pandemic's over' – it isn't, at all. But knowing that we're still in it, there's a sense that we can, in measured ways, gather again. And explore what that means, in an unresolved way... which is the way forward."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Remember back to last June - the rising death toll, the collapsing economy, the protests. It was a moment as dramatic as anything in recent memory, and we were looking for ways to make sense of it and to mark it. We thought music might help, so we started asking musicians to write an original song about the pandemic and then come on our show and talk about it. We called the series the MORNING EDITION Song Project.

KETCH SECOR: What I really wanted to do was to write a song that felt like "God Bless America," but I also wanted to have a little "This Land Is Your Land," too.

MARTIN: Ketch Secor of the Old Crow Medicine Show was our first guest, and he gave us kind of a thesis statement for the entire project.

SECOR: We as songwriters, we got to keep adding to the canon of songs about America because we need to update it. These are troubling times, and we need new songs about our country to inspire unity.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PRAY FOR AMERICA")

OLD CROW MEDICINE SHOW: (Singing) When sorrows are befallen and shadows darken her door...

MARTIN: Over the last 12 months, we interviewed 25 different artists from all over the country. Their songs captured a lot of different aspects of the pandemic. We had songs about isolation, about grief, songs about racism and inequality - and hope and resilience, songs about highly specific events like the murder conviction of a former police officer in the George Floyd case.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ONE STEP FORWARD")

NUR-D: (Singing) This is only one, only one step forward.

MARTIN: There are still so many things to say about what we endured and how we've changed, but today for our final episode in the series, we're trying something different. We invited a jazz musician to write a piece without words.

VIJAY IYER: Hi. I'm Vijay Iyer. I'm a composer and pianist. I live on Munsee, Lenape, Wappinger lands on the island of Manahatta and glad to be here.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIJAY IYER'S "SUPERNATANT")

MARTIN: Iyer's 49. He's a huge star in modern music and performs all over the world - or at least he did before the pandemic. Since then, he's been holed up in his apartment in New York. Vijay knows he's lucky. It hasn't been easy, though. In fact, he put out a record this year called "Uneasy." And you hear that quality in the song that he wrote for us, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIJAY IYER'S "SUPERNATANT")

IYER: You know, certainly there's the many waves of anxiety and concern, not just about any one person getting sick, but about, like, the indifference to it from the most powerful people on the planet. That was infuriating to me. So I guess, like, carrying all this confusion and loss and anxiety and rage all at the same time, that does a number on your body. You know?

(SOUNDBITE OF VIJAY IYER'S "SUPERNATANT")

MARTIN: When you say it takes a toll on your body, what did that mean?

IYER: Oh, I mean, wrinkles on my face.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Yeah.

IYER: And - you know, and crow's feet. But then I also feel it in my neck and my shoulders. It's kind of like when you're in a car accident or something and your whole body kind of jerks into, like, a protective position, you know, for over a year.

MARTIN: So we came to you and asked if you would compose a piece for our series. And I will acknowledge the fact that it is sort of strange to ask you, a jazz composer who does not work with the spoken word, to assign words to discuss your piece. But nevertheless, that's sort of the medium that we're working in.

IYER: Actually, what it really is, is just unconscious kind of, like, things that happen beneath the surface.

MARTIN: Yeah.

IYER: And so basically, when I'm making anything, I have to just sort of let that happen, and I just try to tap into it. I try to just open up and listen to what's coming through me and just sort of let it emerge. And then I decide whether I want to work with it or not.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIJAY IYER'S "SUPERNATANT")

MARTIN: He calls the piece "Supernatant," which is a scientific word that evokes a kind of floating up above. He says every time he listens to it, he hears something a little bit different. What he heard yesterday is not what he hears today.

How did it sound to you today?

IYER: It made me smile a few times 'cause it begins in this sort of what I thought at the time was this tender and simple way. But actually hearing it today, it felt kind of, like, unstable and almost lurching. You know? It feels like, whoa, what's this? What's going on here? (Laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF VIJAY IYER'S "SUPERNATANT")

MARTIN: Part of what's going on is an intricate musical dialogue between Vijay and a longtime collaborator, the drummer Marcus Gilmore.

IYER: He's one of the greatest (laughter) of his generation, really incredible drummer. So I hit him up kind of late in the game like, hey, if I can make this with you, then I can imagine it in a different way, which meant that it could have a certain backbone to it, a certain amount of rhythmic polyphony. And I don't know, I guess I'd call it a certain swagger. (Laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF VIJAY IYER'S "SUPERNATANT")

IYER: I think what it finally embodies to get to - what is this song about, to what is it doing? - if the first couple minutes of it are a little bit internal or inward (laughter), what happens is that it breaks open into what feels to me like a multitude, like a sense of us, like what it feels like to be among others again.

MARTIN: We're all trying to figure out how to be in the world again. And it's liberating and exhilarating and unsettling all at once. And that's what you absorb from this piece. You have to sit with these emotions at the same time. There is no tidy resolution.

IYER: To let it ride out in that way, not with a sense of, like, OK, we're done; pandemic's over - 'cause it isn't.

MARTIN: Right.

IYER: It isn't over at all, not at all. You know, it's still raging all over the planet. Knowing that - knowing that we're still in it, but there is a sense that we can, in measured ways, gather again and explore what that means in an unresolved way. And that's the way forward, it feels, right now.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIJAY IYER'S "SUPERNATANT")

MARTIN: Vijay Iyer - his song is called Supernatant. You can find the whole song at npr.org.

Vijay, thank you so much for talking with us and for making this song for us.

IYER: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIJAY IYER'S "SUPERNATANT")

MARTIN: The MORNING EDITION Song Project was edited and produced by Vince Pearson with help from Taylor Haney. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.