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A Performance by the Vijay Iyer Trio: Making Place Where You Don’t Have Space

Adrian Wong (PhD Student in the Institute of Communications Research)

The trio ebb and flow through timbral scenes as if incessantly daydreaming across an eternal triptych, each panel briefly made visible by rumbling left-hand (LH) piano texturing arpeggios beneath transparent open fourths, fifths, and octaves in nightingales. Contrabass bowed tremolo glissandi converge with metal brushes on drum in a white noise of resonance. But these are not just any scenes. They make a place where there is no space, where there is no room for you. And maybe by making place, they also produce “being-with.” Their sounds are less music making than world-making, hybrid worlds where ever-hopeful, ever-escaping right-hand (RH) piano melodies break free from and reject the domineering of LH piano and contrabass. LH piano and contrabass grasp their chaconne of three-note, four-note refrains insistently, but RH piano yearns for the spectral timbres of the drum set, rising up in whole tones, re-establishing its life, refusing to yield. Energy without satisfaction. You know where you are because you are not there.

Saturday’s performance was a psalm of hope, an absconding prayer waiting to be whispered, or as Dr. Maryam Kashani ventured, quoting June Jordan,

“These poems
they are

things that I do in the dark
reaching for you
whoever you are

are you ready?”

But the trio didn’t ask if we were ready, there was nothing to be ready for. There was no invitation. No need for one. The trio sweep the worn earth, echo the infinite ripples of colonialism and structural violence (LH piano, Contrabass), and yet promise that other worlds are not only possible but here already (RH piano, drum brushes), always over and beneath the histories we must grapple with every day.  6/8 polyrhythm with 4/4 drum set evacuating the world of piano and bass as it reproduces another percussive imaginary. Forced modulations producing multiple tonal centers without pretext, preparation, or apology.

As bandleader Vijay Iyer remarked during the conversation with Dr. Kashani, the trio produces a new sense of how to be and to be among people, to create for, with, and among others. This music unfolds as if from a multiplicity of places, where performing sounds like listening, listening sounds like being-with, and being-with is anything but a convergence of world-making projects. Can being-with be harmonious, contrapuntal; fugal, polyrhythmic? Neither nor; both and? For the trio, being-with makes space for alterity by refusing convergence. Any hint of convergence yields new timbral imaginations across drums, contrabass, or the multiple personalities of two simple piano hands. This was not listening to images; it was painting sound as a hermeneutic for creating types of worlds where being-with is still possible.

While W.E.B. Du Bois asks us “How does it feel to be a problem?” the trio asks us how does it feel when nobody wants you here? How does it feel for there to be no place for you? Not because there is no place. The snap of a drum kick. The slap of a contrabass pizzicato. The rumble of that low LH piano: that’s your place! Be there. Like it. Accept it. But the trio always refuses. RH piano escapes, metal brushes on crash cymbals cry otherwise, contrabass glissandi just say no. One bar harmonic cycles replace chaconnes, timeless, static, atemporal worlds emerge through folds of worldly tonal structure. Piano and contrabass hidden away in their celestial spheres, refusing to forget the eternal qualities of life and death, while the drums require us to move onward. Do not rest, we must continue. But piano does not yield its eternity to the drums. Multiple timbres juxtapose until they bifurcate, revealing contours of unfinished imaginations that never rest because they are never finished.

But then the piano got hungry. Only salted peanuts would do, and only the sort that make you feel dizzy after finding a ground that you once thought you knew quite well. Deconstructed chords and compressed harmonies signal farewell to histories that cannot be forgotten, a bebop that will never leave even tired contrabass hands. “It’s a position of privilege and abuse. Mobility grudgingly afforded you, like being surveilled,” Iyer notes afterwards.

How do you end a musical performance, such as this, that is always emergent, always unfinalizable? Reminding us of what was already there: a psalm of hope, an absconding prayer waiting to be whispered. The trio offers a musical psalm, leaving us with a hint of the possibilities that were always there. After rumbling, climaxing, lifting-off into an ecstatic grand pause finale, the trio pulls the veil from the 1-trillion-megawatt lightbulb that was always already shining in this room with us, buried underneath the histories of our making. Here, the psalm invokes spirit, which can never be drowned, and like the instantaneous crystallization of a supersaturated solution, appears suddenly and remarkably. As if our material history could sublimate, the echoing, incessant, pedal point of piano and contrabass violence dissolves. Here, only spirit remains.


As if ending with an imperfect cadence, a conversation between Dr. Kashani and Dr. Iyer followed the performance, picking up where the last lingering resonances of sound had left us. “How one listens? How you’ve learned to listen?” Dr. Kashani asks. Remembering Amiri Baraka, “[to] hear the person you were in the sounds you made. That’s the tradition he comes from and the tradition I’m fortunate to be a part of…your personal sound is a carrier of your being, your spirit,” Dr. Iyer provocatively asks, “what does listening sound like?” Learning to listen then, is a process of being with others through sound, to feel them as persons, to “hear the person” you are through transmitting feelings from body to body.

Centering listening and the musical experience as an interpersonal project starkly departs from Western canonical traditions of musical listening, where audiences are trained to listen for structure and form. Step into any music theory classroom across the United States, and most likely you will learn to listen for contrapuntal motion, to recognize parts of a fugue, or to listen for the tonal coherence of the musical work a la Heinrich Schenker. Persons? Feelings? Bodies? This tradition that Dr. Iyer invokes through music and in conversation with Dr. Kashani reminds us that the hegemonic modes of listening that the Western canonical tradition reinforces through practices and institutions can be disrupted.

But, what does the trio do when they’re “not in the pocket together?” an audience member asks. Paraphrasing bassist Esperanza Spalding, who borrowed the concept from the jazz legend Charlie Parker, “music [is] the art of recovery… how do you recover from crisis in the context of this ritual? You had plans but they went another way. That’s why we don’t come onto stage with a plan because a plan is not what’s happening,” Dr. Iyer confides. Sitting there in the audience, I can’t help wondering, what does it mean to have a plan (to “cruise through the archives,” as Dr. Iyer noted at the beginning of the performance) and also to not have a plan, to only have “ingredients, and to build together from those ingredients”? Maybe it sounds like listening. Or maybe it is just the transmission of feeling from body to body.