Sunday, October 04, 2009


Music critic Chris May takes a bizarre tack in reviewing the latest CD from Vijay Iyer's trio, Historicity.

Writes May: "There is much that is immensely exciting about pianist Vijay Iyer and something else that is intensely irritating. The excitement lies in the music and the irritation in the miasma of cerebralization that surrounds it."

Can anyone guess to whom Iyer is inevitably, ineluctably compared a mere 1 paragraph later? Anyone? Starts with B. And it ain't Buxtehude. Anyone, anyone? Bueller?

I am as leery of miasmas of cerebralization as the next guy. My enjoyment of art is often utterly destroyed by gasbags who insist on articulating their insights, methods, musings and reflections, especially in big fancy words of more than say, 3 syllables. Think of how the accessible folk songs of Harry Partch were completely destroyed by his ridiculous "theory." Imagine how much more enjoyable Schoenberg or Webern would be without all that annoying "Serialist" pretense.

I prefer immediacy. I like my artists utterly aphasic, in fact. Too much thinking and self-reflection, especially when it reaches MIASMIC levels of CEREBRALIZATION, and I'm outta there. I don't know much about music, but I know what I like, and it isn't musicians who are more intelligent and articulate than I. Young, dumb and full of JASS, good time music, no philosophy.

Lo and behold, in a startling new trend that I wrote about last year sometime, Mr. Iyer himself weighs in on the comment thread to May's review. I suppose this isn't strictly new. I vaguely remember musicians writing letters to the editor at Downbeat, responding to 2 star record reviews or whatever. Generally, however, for centuries, critics have written about artists at a certain insulated distance.

Anyway, in the comment thread, Iyer posts the actual miasmically cerebralized liner notes to Historicity, to wit:


"The starting-point of critical elaboration is the consciousness of what one really is, and is 'knowing thyself' as a product of the historical process to date which has deposited in you an infinity of traces, without leaving an inventory."

- Antonio Gramsci, The Prison Notebooks

There are two main meanings for "historicity":

1) the quality of being historically accurate, as opposed to ficticious or legendary
2) a condition of being placed in the stream of history; also: a result of such placement

The second sense matters here: without a doubt, it's the past that's setting us in motion. With eons of recorded music ringing in our ears, and several years of intensive collaboration behind us, we take on pre-existing works by Andrew Hill, Julius Hemphill, Ronnie Foster, Stevie Wonder, Bernstein & Sondheim, and M.I.A..

Most of these works have a disruptive quality that we aim to reproduce with the trio. (The exception is "Somewhere," which simply gets retold on our terms.) You could see our covers as tributes, but we've also tried to augment each song with a fragment of ourselves. Each cover becomes a conversation between the original work and something else entirely; the best word for it is versioning.

I also borrow from my own past: earlier prototypes of "Trident" and "Sentiment" appeared on my first few albums, over a decade ago. And all of our music draws influence from the musical traditions of South Asia, Africa, and their diasporas (the Brown and Black Atlantic); perceptual illusions, mathematical equalities, and physical resonances; and everyday life in transcultural New York City.

The coda sections of "Historicity" and "Helix" both consider our experience of time as a continuous dimension instead of a series of events. For psychologist J.J. Gibson, events are perceivable, but time is not; he contends that time's continuum is something we imagine, as our way of connecting the dots.

Music, it seems, also connects -- carrying us smoothly across the tumult of experience, like water over rocks. That would make historicity the swirl of undercurrents, the reason we brace ourselves as we step into the river.

Thanks for listening.

vijay iyer"


Not really, of course. Iyer's notes are interesting. I've been thinking a lot about the history of the music, how it relates to the repertory approach of Jazz at Lincoln Center, what the value of a retrospective "versioning" is, why people still get together all over the world and try to play Real Book tunes, how all of this history can be an inspiring force rather than a stultifying and intimidating Mt. Everest of genius, etc. One of my favorite blogs, It Is Not Mean If It Is True, was for a long time doing an "improvised music" reading of Bloom's The Anxiety of Influence. (also some fascinating reflections on Adorno's Verse une musique informelle, but I digress....)

A closer examination of May's objection suggests he may have missed some of what Iyer is communicating. According to May, Iyer's musings boil down to nine words: "we are all part of the tide of history." I think not. Perhaps if one exposed a sullen yet mysteriously literate fencepost to Iyer's liner notes, said summary would result. Those of us with the patience for MIASMIC CEREBRALIZATION garner somewhat more. Each creative act is a gesture of incorporation of all the influences, in the mysterious aggregate, that come before. Each "new" statement is an homage as well as a rejection. Each moment of an artist's life is a "version" of the past yet entirely present. Influence can be literal, entombing the past in amber, fossilizing what was once vital, or it can be metaphorical, liberating and transcendent. I have long admired artists who baldly and reverently embrace influence (The Art Ensemble of Chicago, for example) but eschew imitation.

May continues: "As Iyer and his publicists frequently remind us, before becoming a full-time musician Iyer studied mathematics and physics at Yale and UC Berkeley. The guy has smarts; can we please move on now? For if he isn't careful, Iyer is going to match reed player Anthony Braxton's bone-dry academic posturing and in doing so set himself apart from the sizable audience his music could reach."

IRRITATING. Really a sort of trifecta of gasbaggery. 1). implying that Iyer and publicists (I imagine a vast team of marketing MBA's sitting around a shiny stainless steel conference table generated high-falutin' smartypants copy, a team of buzz-building former math majors, unheard of in JASS music until now....) somehow try to sell Iyer's music by making him look "smart," 2). implying that Iyer will somehow lose listeners as a result, 3). completely mischaracterizing the philosophical background and entire career of Anthony Braxton. ding ding ding! Insufferable gasbaggery for the win!

The irritating parts of May's review read like a Daily Mail article. May's appreciation for the music doesn't actually offer much insight into the methodolgy or aesthetics of the trio and there's a kind of inarticulate critical vocabulary at work. It's more plot summary than critical assessment. The sort of "review" that's fairly easy to pound out in 20 minutes, hungover, after giving the CD one listen. Maybe this is why a greater word count is actually dedicated to lamenting Iyer's intellectualism than to the music?

Anyway, file under "anti-intellectualism in jazz criticism," along with decades of other dismissive and condescending perspectives.

Ironic that the CD is available where smart people live (Europe) but won't be released here until October 13. In the meantime, in case you were wondering, here's a photo of the irritating and dangerously inscrutable CEREBRALLY MIASMIC Iyer. Be on the lookout.


Grady said...

Cerebral musician beginning with'B'--hmm...maybe:

Grady said...

Cerebral musician, name beginning in 'B'...maybe:
this one.

Anonymous said...

That's So OUT @Grady , so anyway respectively so @Vijay your music and your knowledge are always a pleasure to hear and read about . I really enjoy the intellect , thought , and productivity you put into all of your productions . Cheers , My Best D

Anonymous said...

I love Historicity and I think it is one of his best cd.
Please forget his geeky past for a moment. Settle back and enjoy the beautiful music ( mostly recognizable standards) that this energetic trio has to offer.

peter breslin said...

Why not embrace the "geeky past" and the beautiful music?


MEM said...

This all makes me miss Richard D. Cook.

Chris Rich said...

Oh yikes,

I file under 'neo retro' a beloved sub genre in which participants give some old thing, in Vijay's case a modal rehash of Tyner with some special sauces thrown in a makeover.

This is how the vital works are condemned with faint praise by the expectation that they have the cheek to just go be striking and compelling instead of agonizing over how much to dumb it down for fading boiler plate churners.