Vijay Iyer is the type of artist that can speak equally eloquently and intelligently on a musical and academic level about the work he is doing and the goals he sets for both himself and his projects. We sat down with Iyer at a very interesting time for the pianist and composer in that he has the rare opportunity to look into the future and already see the tangible success he will be achieving in the next few years. Read on as we discuss the recent past in ‘Holding It Down: The Veterans’ Dreams Project,’ his coming weekend’s Open City Big Band performance, and his future teaching with tenure at Harvard as well as receiving a MacArthur Genius Grant.

Holding It Down: Veteran Dreams Project

Photo by Jimmy Katz

The Veteran’ Dreams Project is very narrative based. What were your initial thoughts in creating a project like this and how did you actually go about finding veterans for the project?

I think when it was time to think about what to do next after What Language? and Still Life With Commentator, which was four or five years ago really, Mike Ladd and I started contemplating whether to do anything again and if so what it would be. We had been kind of dancing around the subject of war or creating in the shadows of these wars and it was reflected in everything we did, but we hadn’t really faced it exactly in the way that people in the military go there and face it. So we realized that the only place to go was directly to that place where we deal with the lived experience of war.

Both Mike and I are total civilians, though his father was in the military. In a lot of ways, it’s easier for veterans to keep to themselves because they understand each other in a way that others don’t understand them, so to get to a point where we could win somebody’s trust and get them to open up to a crazy idea like this took a little time. In late 2008 I saw this portrait of this guy named Maurice Decaul in the New York Times—it was almost like a gift [laughs]. He was in a M.F.A. program for creative writing at Columbia, a veteran, a New Yorker, and a person of color. So I just sort of looked for him online and found him through a website called Warrior Writers. I reached out to him and he came on board immediately and started creating with us. He’s such a prolific guy; he just keeps cranking out pieces. He’s getting shit done, like “I wrote my 55-page memoir last week.” I’m like, “Well what have I done?” But it was great working with him and through him we started to connect with other people in that community. He’s also the one that found Lynn Hill who was a pivotal member. We later got hooked up with a VA Center at Brooklyn College and the interviews we did there are the source material for everything that was not Maurice or Lynn.

Was the source material molded to fit the songs or was it directly transcribed?

It was a variety of things. The piece called “Walking with the Duppy” was this Jamaican kid who Mike had this amazing interview with. He gave me the audio of that interview and the song is almost verbatim what he said. What seems like a poem on a page is actually how this dude talks. He has a dream about Tupac showing up when he’s dying on the front lawn. He has almost like three separate dreams, but they all deal with this fantasy of he and Tupac being these two co-messiahs saving the world from evil. The other songs are just mined from many hours worth of interviews. With the story of the ex-ranger, it was just about distilling it in a way so that we could get it right. Part of that one is real and then the ending is his dream.

All of the stories are very powerful; did any in particular impact you personally?

It’s all hard stuff to face. Part of the reason that this project took so long is that you kind of have to gather up the courage to face this stuff. But with Lynn’s piece, “Capacity,” it is like a real-time documentary of her telling us something that she hadn’t told us before. It starts with her poem, then it becomes an interview and that was when she told us she had suicidal dreams. That take that you hear was when that happened. When it ended, we asked her if she was sure she wanted it on the record. She said, “Yes, people need to hear this.” That brought it to the brink of the fact that this wasn’t just fun or art; this was something else.

Is the goal of the record to spread this message of what war has done to our generation?

Well that would be nice. But my immediate hope is that it can actually be of service to veterans. One thing that Lynn told us was that after doing this project, she stopped having nightmares and was able to leave therapy. She has since gotten married and had a baby. In telling her story in a way that would be heard, she was able to get to another place in her life. The healing potential of this project is far beyond what we had ever anticipated or even set out to do. We never imagined it could be that for somebody. Now in knowing that is possible, we want to make sure the opportunity is available to others.

So yes, we’re spreading that message, but what we hope to do with this project is to demonstrate how it’s possible to listen. It’s creating this sense of community with veterans that we’re all somehow in this together. That to me is a crucial part of this project. It’s not about me, it’s not about us, and it’s not about them. It’s by them and for them. It’s also about how it is possible for people like us to listen.

From a musical standpoint, was there any precedence for you in composing this music? Or were you deriving what you were doing from what they were saying?

It was all really intuitive. Mike and I have been doing stuff like this for a while now, so there is not like a right way to do anything. You just take the time to experiment and listen and try things without being afraid of failing. Sometimes we’d come in with a sort of arsenal. Mike and Maurice would bring in a bunch of poems and I’d bring in a bunch of things I was working on whether it was written out on the piano, improvised, or some electronic as well. It was all inspired by the world of this project. Then we’d see which poems matched with which songs and see if we could find a way for them to live together. Sometimes Mike would pair two pieces that seemed to be opposite, but that worked. We’re dealing with dreams that contain contradictions and a lot of surreal juxtapositions. It might be like the tone of a piece of music is very sweet, but the character is a sniper talking about watching his target’s head explode. But when you listen to how those work together, maybe it’s a very dark juxtaposition, but maybe it’s also more real because of it. So I guess the music was just everything I could think of. I wasn’t trying to think of style—I mean I never do; it’s not useful to me.

As an artist working with someone else’s story and considering that element of therapy, is there any pressure to make it digestible for an audience to listen to?

That’s always true. You always have to consider the audience. What are we doing? Aren’t we making stuff to be heard by others? If so, what’s the best way to have something heard by your audience? I realized way back in 2003 when we were making What Language? that all of our virtuosic tendencies and desires had to take a backseat to the storytelling. That first album has Ambrose [Akinmusire], Rudresh [Mahanthappa], Dana Leong, and everybody had to listen differently. It’s like, “I could play anything I want right now, but why?” We’re trying to tell a story here and it’s not about me playing whatever I want. It’s actually about me honoring this person who went through this harrowing experience. What can I do as an improviser to contribute to that story? That’s basically what it was about. It’s not like your hands are tied, it’s just that you need to listen. If you can’t hear them, how is anyone else going to hear them? I’m not interested in hearing a display of my own piano playing; that’s not the point here. We’re trying to do something a little bit different.

Read Part 2

Interview by Eric Sandler (@ericsandler)

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Download Holding It Down: The Veterans’ Dreams Project

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