Considering the Approach before the Aesthetics: Vijay Iyer’s Research and Writings on Jazz

As a recently announced recipient of both the MacArthur Foundation’s “Genius Grant” and a professorship at Harvard University, pianist Vijay Iyer is commanding a level of public attention seldom witnessed among those in the jazz world. The attention has drawn praise and ire, with opinions ranging from extolling his virtues to questioning not just his deservedness of these accolades but his validity as an artist. This variance seems to hinge in part on whether the opinionated party sees enough of her/himself in Iyer’s artistic choices and personal history. As a pianist, I can say that some of Iyer’s music has moved me deeply as a listener, some inspires me as a performer constantly striving for refinement, and some frustrates me knowing that my fingers can’t quite pull it off (yet)…or maybe shouldn’t, since we come from different musical backgrounds and we’re on different artistic paths. As an ethnomusicologist, especially one who performs and works with improvising musicians, though, I can say that all of this is moot. Concerning these awards, my aesthetic judgments of Iyer’s music are unimportant and immaterial. My aesthetic choices/tastes, personal background, aspirations as a musician, and altruistic hopes for “the jazz world” might line up with his…or might not. One thing’s for sure: none of those were the criteria by which either the MacArthur Foundation or Harvard University judged him worthy of their recognition. The context of Iyer’s work, though, is as essential as the content; and, in this case, I’d suggest it’s even more pertinent to the discussion. Whether anyone agrees or disagrees with whether the content of Iyer’s career thus far deserves such merit, we should be attuned to the contexts in which he’s worked: on and off the bandstand, he’s demonstrated a commitment to political activism; transcultural, multimedia, and cross-disciplinary collaborations; and a dedication to public and higher education, academic training, and the possibility of interdisciplinary theory & practice in jazz. I would suggest that most people would judge that kind of work deserving of recognition, regardless of the agent who accomplishes it. Why not apply some of his contextual approaches to our individual contents governed by our own artistic goals? Hagglings over Iyer’s artistic aesthetics as if they were the sole criterion for his selection for these honors completely miss the point. Those who feel compelled to do so would be better served adapting some of his processes to their own work: I presume it would be a much more rewarding endeavor, and the jazz world and the greater public would be better served for it than some sort of divisive and protracted cyberspace in-fighting.

In the spirit of moving the dialogue forward from these subjective contestations of musical aesthetics and re-introducing an important element of Iyer’s career, I’m including here a brief (and cursory) synopsis of some of his research and scholarly writings on jazz. I’ll admit, that his methods and conclusions are not 100% in line with my approaches as a researcher or scholar in terms of either content or context; but, again, this is irrelevant…still. As someone who also shuttles between the keyboards of the piano and computer, I’ve always aspired to the high level of informed scholarship and inspired art Iyer pursues. We may not all be awarded MacArthur grants and Ivy-League professorships for that pursuit, but it doesn’t mean the path or the process are worth abandoning:

Microstructures of feel, macrostructures in sound: embodied cognition in West African and African-American musics. Diss. University of California, Berkeley, 1998. Iyer’s PhD dissertation in the “Technology and the Arts” program at Berkeley, this study outlines an interdisciplinary approach to the study of music cognition and perception, drawing on examples from West African and African American music. Among others, Iyer’s dissertation committee included Olly Wilson and George Lewis. This document forms the basis for most of Iyer’s research, suggesting that studying music performance necessitates attention to the bodies of the performers and listeners. In as much as quantitative studies and the hard sciences help to theorize universal aspects of human perception, Iyer argues that equal attention must be given to the cultural contexts in which music making and listening is situated.

“Embodied mind, situated cognition, and expressive microtiming in African-American music,” Music Perception 19.3 (2002): 387-414. Here Iyer continues his call for a collaborative approach to the study of music performance, drawing from hard science and culturally contextualized “soft” sciences (i.e., anthropology, sociology, cultural studies). He argues for an “embodied view of cognitive science [that] allows for direct cultural interaction” using his research on approaches to rhythmic phrasing and articulation in the African American performance practice. Exploring concepts like swing, backbeat, and groove, Iyer offers essential qualification to quantified approaches to jazz improvisation and music perception, adding that what might appear as aberrations, invariance, asynchronicities in rigid systems of measurement can in fact make all the difference and, as such, should be considered essential to scientific study of music cognition.

“Improvisation, Temporality, and Embodied Experience.” Journal of Consciousness Studies 11/3-4 (2004): 159-173. Iyer directly engages the ideological conflicts between humanities and the sciences in this article, calling such conflicts irreconcilable but nonetheless productive. Drawing attention to the prevalence and canonical preference for Western European art music in studies of music perception, Iyer establishes that improvisatory music can affect a more complete understanding of music perception in the sciences. Continuing his scholarly insistence on the importance of process and temporality (a phenomenon’s reliance on and placement in time), Iyer draws on the examples of James Brown, Roscoe Mitchell, and Cecil Taylor to argue that experiencing improvised music live and in time—as both a performer and listener—sheds new light on music perception as a shared, emergent activity that promises to advance previous studies that excluded improvisatory musics.

“Exploding the Narrative in Jazz Improvisation.” In R. O’Meally, B. Edwards & F. Griffin, eds., Uptown Conversation: The New Jazz Studies (Columbia University Press, 2004), 393-403. In one of the most essential readers on Jazz Studies of the first decade of the 21st century, Iyer argues that the stories jazz musicians tell through their improvisations far exceed the notes they play. And so thinking about and understanding jazz musicians involves much more than transcription of their solos. It should include not just personal histories and cultural background, but even attention to “kinesthetics, performativity, personal stories, sound, [and] temporality [which] generate, reflect, and refract stories into innumerable splinters and shards.” In the end, a musician’s story isn’t as tidily arranged as we might like, but that’s exactly Iyer’s point: if you’re only paying attention to the notes, you’re missing out.

“Sangha: Collaborative improvisations on community.” Critical Studies in Improvisation / Etudes critiques en improvisation 1/3 (2006). Iyer has been featured in CRiS, which stands at the vanguard of improvisation studies, twice. This first piece is a transcribed conversation between him and his long-time collaborator, saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa. Amid the friendly conversation that spans the history of their work together, we come to a more personal understanding of their journeys through higher education in jazz, the New York scene, and experiences in the Indian American community at large. They offer candid takes on their cultural affiliations with the South Asian cultural scene in New York City, and reflect on how they bring this and other traditions to bear on their music-making.

with Paul D. Miller, “Improvising Digital Culture.” In A. Heble and R. Wallace, eds., People Get Ready: The Future of Jazz is Now! (Duke University Press, 2013), 225-243. This piece, reprinted from a 2009 issue of the aforementioned journal, Critical Studies in Improvisation, is another transcribed conversation between Iyer and Paul Miller, aka DJ Spooky, who collaborated in Sound Unbound: Sampling Digital Music and Culture, a 2008 volume edited by Miller. Recorded during the 2008 Guelph Jazz Festival, Iyer and Miller reflect on their differing perspectives on improvisation as a musical and cultural process as it pertains to their practices of music-making and production. The online version of this conversation (available here) includes graphics, a transcription of a question-and-answer session with the audience in attendance, and an audio file of the entire exchange.

[You can find links to all of the books and articles listed here—and more—on this page of Vijay’s website.]


  1. […] Considering the Approach before the Aesthetics: Vijay Iyer’s Research and Writings on Jazz ( […]

  2. […] Considering the Approach before the Aesthetics: Vijay Iyer’s Research and Writings on Jazz ( […]

  3. […] Waterman’s focus on connecting improvised music-making with the body (as well as Iyer’s previous scholarship on embodied […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: