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Resident Artist Vijay Iyer Takes the Stage

Vijay Iyer performs in The Temple of Dendur in The Sackler Wing, March 2015. Photo by Anja Hitzenberger

Vijay Iyer performs in The Temple of Dendur in The Sackler Wing, March 7, 2015. All photos by Anja Hitzenberger

For the 2015–16 season of live arts, musician Vijay Iyer was named the resident artist—yet another daring performer in a series of resident artists that have pushed the boundaries and reveled in the unexpected here at the Met. As General Manager of Concerts and Lectures Limor Tomer commented, "He is enormously creative and collaborative, and is therefore much greater than any genre definition applied to his musical output." Featuring a number of programs that are extremely collaborative, Iyer's upcoming performances at the Met this season will be no easier to categorize.

This Thursday, November 12, Iyer performs Holding It Down: The Veterans' Dreams Project—a multimedia work by Iyer and lyricist Mike Ladd, with Maurice Decaul and Lynn Hill, and directed by Patricia McGregor. This spring, for the opening of The Met Breuer, he will collaborate with fellow top artists and innovators on a marathon performance installation that will occupy the Lobby Gallery and run continuously during Museum hours for three weeks during the month of March.

Iyer recently let me in on some season details, and shared just how creatively he plans to take on this residency.

Meryl Cates: You formally begin your residency this Thursday with Holding It Down: The Veterans' Dreams Project, but you recently performed on the Met's 1830 Thomas Appleton pipe organ during Museum hours on Friday, October 30. How did you rehearse or prepare for this performance on such a historic instrument? Is it any different than performing on a contemporary organ?

Vijay Iyer: I'd never really played a pipe organ before, at least not for an audience. One time a nice lady at Köln Philharmonie let me mess around a little on their organ late one night after our trio concert, but that's about it. I know the basic premise and have an idea what the variables are. It isn't that different in principle from, say, playing a synthesizer, which is maybe more familiar to musicians today. You have different stops that bring different sound qualities, kind of like "presets," and you can layer them to get fuller, more complex sounds. Anyway, the Department of Musical Instruments gave me about thirty minutes to learn the ropes before my first set, so there was a stunt quality to it. It was a genuinely new experience, and I really didn't know what would happen.

Meryl Cates: Is there a reason in particular that you wanted to perform on the Appleton organ?

Vijay Iyer: I was invited!

Meryl Cates: Is there a gallery at the Met that you always make a point to visit when you're here? A gallery that particularly inspires you?

Vijay Iyer: I always return to the South Asian art galleries, and to the Japanese paintings and sculptures. My daughter and I enjoy the jewelry of the Precolumbian Americas—those massive gold nose ornaments are a trip. And, of course, I love the Egyptian Wing.

Vijay Iyer performs in The Temple of Dendur in The Sackler Wing, March 2015. Photo by Anja HitzenbergerLeft: Vijay Iyer performs in The Temple of Dendur in The Sackler Wing, March 7, 2015

Meryl Cates: You are identified as so much more than a jazz musician—you are truly a dynamic performer—but how do you describe your own style and musical practice?

Vijay Iyer: First, I should say that most artists who are tagged as "jazz musicians" are actually much more interesting and complicated than that word seems to imply to people. Herbie Hancock is a good example; what would you call him? A useful phrase, originally associated with Duke Ellington but also applicable to Miles Davis, Wayne Shorter, and many others, is "beyond category."

Another important phrase, "creative music," has been in common use for at least fifty years—that is, for half of the history of this music called "jazz." This term simply highlights the fact that the music involves a creative process at the moment of performance, and doesn't specify anything about style or genre.

It's not really my place to describe my own style. I find that whatever is called style is a quality that emerges organically from that creative process. I like to challenge myself, through collaboration and through an aesthetic of transformation.

Meryl Cates: Talk to me about Holding It Down, primarily how its message evolves over time.

Vijay Iyer: Probably the best I can do is let you watch this video, since you hear from more of the people involved in the project.

As you see, it's a collaboration between post-9/11 veterans and civilians. Poet Mike Ladd, director Patricia McGregor, and I listened to them talking about their dreams, and we built these songs with them. It was important to us to have veterans involved in the project—not just as "sources," but as fellow creators and performers. We are joined onstage by Iraq veteran Maurice Decaul and former Predator drone operator Lynn Hill, and you also hear from a lot of other veterans through songs, poems, and video footage.

Unfortunately this project will never be irrelevant, as long as the United States continues to engage in armed conflict, as long as we have survivors in our midst silently carrying the memories of those conflicts, and as long as their families are still living every day alongside them.

Meryl Cates: There is so much to come in this residency, many "firsts," like your marathon performances in The Met Breuer this March. You are collaborating with several artists on that as well. What excites you most about those performances? Is it the space, the scope of the music, your fellow artists, or a mix of all of those?

Vijay Iyer: I think what will be new to all of us is the chance to interact with a very different kind of audience. Usually when people come to see us play, they've made that choice already, and they might have some idea what they're in for. But museumgoers normally haven't yet made that choice. They might not even have intended to experience live performance of any kind when they walked in the door. This sets up a different relationship with listeners, and I'm excited to discover what comes of it.

Meryl Cates: There are so many collaborations involved in this residency. Is that an important part of your creative process?

Vijay Iyer: Yes, always. When you put yourself in contact with someone or something other than yourself, you grow and evolve in ways you couldn't foresee. That's what "improvised" literally means: unforeseen.

To purchase tickets to Holding It Down: The Veterans' Dreams Project or any other Met Museum Presents event, visit; call 212-570-3949; or stop by the Great Hall Box Office, open Monday–Saturday, 11:00 a.m.–3:30 p.m.

Related Link
Met Museum Presents Blog: "Why I Hate 'Jazz'" (July 31, 2015)

Department: MetLiveArts

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