Striking a Chord with Technology, Interview with Vijay Iyer

Source: The New Yorker.

Two weeks ago, I had the privilege of interviewing the esteemed artist Vijay Iyer, a grammy-award winning jazz pianist, composer, electronic musician, scholar, and Harvard music faculty member. In many ways, the experience was surreal. The two of us sat face-to-face over Zoom, confined within our own respective homes. It didn’t matter that he was a world-renowned musician and I was a washed-up orchestra kid. There are certain universal experiences that transcend all identities and ground us in our humanity. Right now, it feels like the pandemic is that experience, but there is something more timeless. Something that has brought people together for centuries. Music.

I approached Professor Iyer because I wanted to explore the intersection of music and technology. While music has always connected humans and allowed them to tune in with one another, the way we produce, write, compose, and consume music has evolved alongside technology. How then do we preserve the vulnerability and the raw emotion communicated through music in spite of these technological advances? How does the spontaneity of improv and jazz, where so much of the experience is contingent on audience interaction, translate over recordings? Where is the humanity in electronic music, where the physical embodiment of the musician never was? More broadly, how do we reconcile music as this creative, soulful art with the more scientific and calculated aspects of technology?

Professor Iyer opens the conversation with a sentence that will completely change the course of the interview: “music is itself a technology.” He explains that music expands our communicative toolbox and allows us to reach outside the immediate confines of our bodies and social environment, thereby augmenting reality like any other technology. Instruments too are technologies in their own right, transducing human actions into sound. A breath swirls through a brass tube, charged with a particular pressure and velocity that produces a round textured tone; a mallet strikes a marimba and the carefully carved maplewood resonates from end to end; the bow’s delicate horse hair presses firmly against the string, fingers maintaining a vibrato. The violin sings. Perhaps it cries. And yet, these very magical contraptions that tell stories of love and despair are also scientific and calculated tools, mastered by the scientists that are musicians.

Nowadays, music is far more explicitly reliant on digital technology. Recording, distributing, streaming, mixing, writing — technology is essential to the way we interact with music in the modern age. But this is nothing new. Music has always been intertwined with technology, evolving and adapting in conjunction with technological advances. Back in 1877 when records were first invented, there was a radical shift in the way people experienced music, an early experiment in social distancing as Professor Iyer calls it. Before, if you were listening to music, you were either playing it yourself or you were attending a musical gathering. It used to be unimaginable that you could listen to music without anybody else there. But suddenly, with the advent of new technologies, we could capture emotion and vulnerability on a disk and freeze art in time. Centuries earlier, the invention of the score had a similar effect. The idea that one could translate their musical ideas onto paper and mail it to Paris, where a musician could play the music just as they intended, was quite a radical idea that revolutionized music.

Technology not only altered the sociology of music in how we interact with invisible artists, but it also influenced the composition and production of music. Specifically, the standard 10-inch 78 RPM could only hold 3 minutes of music on each side when records were first introduced in the late 1800’s. As a result, popular musicians began crafting their music around that restriction, composing pieces that could fit within the physical dimensions of the record. And now, more than a century later, we have the notion of a “single” born out of the constraints of technology, just as we have albums and streams. Thus, Iyer insists that “we shouldn’t fixate on technology as the other. It has been a defining characteristic of being human for the last thousand centuries.”

While the idea that technology shapes the way humans interact with music may be intuitive, it’s less obvious how technologies like the record are able to capture the essence of the music as an emotional and vulnerable art performed by a human being. As Professor Iyer puts it: “What is soul in music, if not a powerfully embodied human presence? But how can a record capture the physical embodiment of a musician when the musician isn’t actually there? 

Professor Iyer argues that recorded music captures the physical embodiment of the musician implicitly, through notions of rhythm, melody, and phrasing. He says that “when we think of embodiment, we immediately start thinking of visuals. I can see somebody moving, therefore I know they are moving.” But you don’t need to see someone to know they are there. In music, rhythm is the trace of the body in motion; melody a product of the voice and the lungs; phrasing connected to breath and speech. The sound that we hear is the embodiment of the musician. 

We can also think of embodiment in the way that music engages the bodies of the listeners. Listeners connect to music through dance and then they experience emotions and those emotions don’t live anywhere else except in the body. “Music makes you move and it makes you feel and that’s what a body does.” And that is quite beautiful, isn’t it? The fact that in spite of the musicians’ physical absence, recorded music is still able to tell a story that moves the listener to tears or to their feet. 

Though I am compelled to believe that recorded music can preserve the integrity and intimacy of art in a setting where the artists’ set has been prepared, how does this extend to improv? How can records capture the playful spontaneity of jazz? Iyer concedes that a recorded improv can be listened to a million times and is in a way frozen. However, he argues that the humanity of the record comes from the awareness that “every sound we are hearing is a choice made in that instant. It says something about how to be alive in a particular moment.” Iyer points out that Kind of Blue, the iconic jazz album featuring a sextet led by the legend Miles Davis, was intentionally crafted with a level of underspecification to leave room for innovation. Every step of the way, the artists made musical decisions and filled in the gaps that would later become the structure of the piece. “You can hear a certain vulnerability in that music even now, 62 years later.  You feel people on the cusp of discovery. It’s not that they’re making mistakes, but you can hear them listening to each other.” Thus, Iyer argues that records don’t take away from the authenticity of improvisation. If you listen carefully enough, you can hear the musicians listening, too. 

Thus far, we have explored records in their ability to capture the physical embodiment of the musician, improv or not. But how do we reconcile this with electronic music, where there is no trace of the musician, no physical embodiment at all? Iyer returns to the idea of choice. Artists make choices every day. If it doesn’t make you dance and it doesn’t make you groove and it doesn’t make you cry, you don’t allow it to become music. That artistic freedom and intentionality is part of how electronic music retains its humanity and status as a form of creative expression.  

For an electronic musician, a lot of that intention and creativity goes into maintaining the irregularities within music that communicate something meaningful about humanity. Often, electronic musicians create music via the grid, a system that ensures perfect mathematical precision. “When we make electronic music born of a grid where everything is some sort of ideal multiplication of milliseconds, there is a kind of inflexibility.” Advocates for the grid claim that it removes human imperfections, but Iyer argues that the linguistic frame of imperfection is the wrong mindset. Human irregularities labeled as “imperfect” are not inherently bad because “music is made by and for human beings.” Those imperfections are how artists communicate their vulnerability, how they concede to their emotions and relate with their listeners. 

Thus, while technology and music in theory consist of mathematical regularities, the beauty of music ultimately comes from the irregularities of human error. “When we project music onto some kind of grid, that has a kind of Euclidean regularity to it with Platonic shapes. What the body does in relation to regularity is that it makes it more interesting.” Take the piano, for example. The keys are perfect shapes and the sizes recur over octaves, but the hands are a kind of an imperfect fit. While there are twelve notes per octave, there are only ten fingers and thus certain keys are easier to play than others. Thus, the instrument imposes a kind of artificial regularity on the hand which leads to error. But that error is expressive, it means something. When you have two people doing something together, it’s not together.  It’s almost together. You can hear that it’s not synchronous exactly. You can hear the millisecond between when you and I clap, the multiplicity which reflects that there are many of us.” Similarly, when an ensemble plays together, it may drift, or it may not, it may get faster or get sharper if the musicians are nervous, but these irregularities reflect something meaningful about the human experience, which is what music is ultimately about.

Thus, the question is no longer about music and technology. It’s music as technology — the technology that allows us to communicate our feelings and our stories with people around the world, even in quarantine. As for how we capture music and retain its authenticity through technology, Iyer asks us to return to what it is that music actually does. If you’re bopping your head or tapping your feet, it’s music. If you’re crying or laughing or dancing, it’s music. Technology will continue to advance and music will continue to adapt but at the end of the day, music is made by and for people and thus, we get to decide what is and what isn’t music.

About The Author

Writer for the Harvard Technology Review.

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