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Floating Along In Uncertainty With Vijay Iyer

Vijay Iyer.
Ebru Yildiz
Courtesy of the artist
Vijay Iyer.

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."

Floating Along In Uncertainty With Vijay Iyer

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."

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Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
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