Understanding how the brain responds to sound has been the fixation of scientists—and musicians, the practitioners of those sounds—for ages. As our understanding of the way the brain processes audio grows, so does our ability to manipulate sound for desired effects.
"Artists," says acclaimed pianist and bandleader Vijay Iyer, "tend to be on the frontiers of just the simple fact of perception, how the apparatus of our bodies works to take in stimuli."
Iyer is also an academic with an interdisciplinary Ph.D. in Technology and the Arts from the University of California at Berkeley. He's held faculty positions at the Manhattan School of Music, New York University and The New School. Making music is a front-line way to explore the academic realms of music cognition.
"Artists are engaged with a certain kind of research on the frontiers of perception, and whether they write it down in a dissertation doesn't matter," he says. "In a way, I'm maybe doing it more effectively because I'm test-driving ideas every night when we perform."
Iyer's research in music cognition—academically and artistically—has helped build his reputation as a vital musical innovator and an influential thinker. And it's been a profound influence on his musical output.
"My specific work has a lot to do with rhythm and the body, and also with improvisation—looking at the connection between those three things," he says. "The understanding of what we call musical rhythm is completely connected to bodily rhythm. All the rhythms of music are only meaningful because they suggest rhythms of the body—of speech, the pulse, the heartbeat. It's almost like the brain thinks its dancing when it hears rhythmic music. So in many ways there's no difference between rhythm and movement."
But the effects of music on the brain and body are only one of many wells of inspiration from which Iyer draws ideas. He integrates fascinations with numerical variation, geometric properties, symmetry and pattern from classical and folk music, plus the architecture and folk rituals of his parents' native India. He frequently collaborates with artists of varied styles, continuing to open doors for new sounds and contexts: "I don't really think about style so much. I just think about being honest and open to different situations."
Iyer's lent sounds to hip-hop acts like Dead Prez and collaborated with producer and emcee Mike Ladd on the culturally conscious and much-praised In What Language?, a 2003 album that voiced the concerns of non-white Americans in a post-9/11 airport setting. His recent output—this year's pragmatically titled Solo and the acclaimed Historicity, with the Vijay Iyer Trio—reveals additional depth. Solo's spare, winding melodies play more like internal explorations, following the patterned swing of Iyer's other work with a more contemplative bent. Historicity, on the other hand, captures Iyer's polyglot tendencies with a small-combo swing. He forces the Bernstein-Sondheim tune "Somewhere" alongside an interpretation of M.I.A.'s "Galang" and Iyer's own originals. The influences of R&B, pop, hip-hop, rock and global music are pronounced but fluidly synthesized into the whole. Perhaps that's because Iyer's music is as much about exploring its listener's reactions as it is about redefining itself—and for Iyer, himself.
"The more you put yourself in contact with things that seem to lie outside your sense of self, the more your sense of self has to grow to accommodate these things," he says. "And that's important for everybody."