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Vijay Iyer talks about seeking out the music all around us at Eastman Centennial

Man sitting at piano
Lynne Harty
Vijay Iyer at the piano.

The language of classical music can get a little wonky for the average, lunch-pail citizen. A New York Times review of a 1977 concert featuring the violinist Oliver Steiner suggested that his renditions of Bach and Mozart “had architectural strength derived from cogent phrasing and dynamics adjusted at all times to highlight structural organization.”

Steiner was also an Eastman School of Music professor. And among his pupils was Vijay Iyer. As a young lad growing up in Fairport, Iyer remembers taking violin lessons in cogent phrasing and structural organization at Steiner’s home.

“He had this huge rubber plant in the corner of the room,” Iyer says. “And every now and then he would, like, take his bow and push in one of the leaves, so that it would sway a little bit. And he did that to demonstrate a bowing technique. There was something he wanted me to see about the way a branch would kind of recoil and then bounce back and then sway a little bit. That kind of natural, wave-like motion.”

Steiner wanted his young pupil to incorporate that movement into his playing.

“It was the example of what he would give that was outside the domain of what we would call music,” Iyer says.

It was also an example of “Musicality,” the subject of Iyer’s talk Thursday at Eastman’s Hatch Recital Hall. As the Glenn E. Watkins Lecture Series guest speaker, Iyer is part of the Eastman Centennial celebration. Iyer’s 3 p.m. talk is free and open to the public.

Iyer has gone a long way since his rubber-plant days. Now living in New York City, he has returned to his hometown from time to time, playing both solo and with his trio at the 2014 Rochester International Jazz Festival. And he quietly spent much of last summer here as well, attending to his father, who had fallen ill before passing away.

Today, Iyer is considered one of the most innovative pianists, composers, and socially conscious musicians in jazz. Of Indian descent, his music often addresses race through its diverse sound palette. In recent years, Black Lives Matter has been a particular influence.

And this idea of what is musicality, he says, is “a concept I’ve been thinking about for some years.”

“I posed this question once on social media: ‘What’s not music, but feels like music to you?’

“I’m not drawing a line. I’m trying to lift the line, I’m trying to erase the line.”

So musicality reflects the sounds of nature. Ocean waves, leaves rustling. The voices of loved ones, children snoring, dishwashers. These are merely inspiration;, kitchen appliances have yet to make it onto an Iyer album, but electronic instruments have. He is also known for designing music software.

Iyer hears, in all sound, a “vestige of life in the most unlikely place.”

And yet, as always, “When you’re listening to music, you’re listening to people.”

“It’s relational,” he says. “Which means that it’s not, it doesn’t exist, in an object. It doesn’t exist in a thing. It exists in your relationship to it, to one another.

“It’s how we sonically matter to each other. It’s in the way we hear each other, and the way we relate to each other.”

Iyer speaks of being mentored by Black musicians “on the edges of their categories, their musical categories. Elder African-American revolutionary musician artists.

“Almost everyone who helped me become who I am were constantly pushing themselves to hear something that they haven’t, that hadn’t been heard before. And to work it into their musical languages.”

Seeking musicality in all things opens doors.

“Notice how previously unimaginable things become real,” he says. “How previously un-hearable things become hearable, become audible, become musical. Become singable, even. Whether it’s Wayne Shorter or MF Doom.”

Shorter was an acclaimed jazz saxophonist. MF Doom was a British hip-hop artist who performed in a metal mask. Such is the range of Iyer’s music explorations.

Musicality, Iyer says, “is not some esoteric kick I’m on. I want us to be able to speak and think more clearly about what it is we are experiencing about music.

“And to be attuned to not just music as we know it, but to unmusical things becoming musical.”

He recalls playing a recent show at Jazz at Lincoln Center with Oliver Lake, Reggie Workman, and Andrew Cyrille. Real jazz guys. And yes, it was jazz. But there were also moments of “collective improvisation of mostly silence.”

“People eating and drinking, they became involved in the listening process,” Iyer says. “I was just truly astonished at how silent they were. You could hear them breathing, you know, through their masks.”

He defines what he heard — or maybe didn’t hear — that night as “textured silence.” As he said to Cyrille afterward, “Music is something else.”

“It can bring you to that place of complete communion, complete attunement and connection, even where there is no clear form or rhythm or melody, that kind of thing.”

“I knew we were going to push the envelope a little bit with this performance. But I did not realize the audience would be completely with us.”

Jeff Spevak has been a Rochester arts reporter for nearly three decades, with seven first-place finishes in the Associated Press New York State Features Writing Awards while working for the Democrat and Chronicle.