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In What Language? A Song Cycle of Lives in Transit

Vijay Iyer and Mike Ladd on their collaboration

Mike Ladd (L) and Vijay Iyer. (Pi Recordings)

Mike Ladd (L) and Vijay Iyer. (Pi Recordings)

Vijay Iyer and Mike Ladd on their collaboration

Vijay Iyer: Mike is being really modest about his musical abilities because the stuff he puts together, the musical collage work, using samples and electronic sounds, I think is completely brilliant. Something that I was drawn to immediately when I heard it was just a sense of how to be with music in a way that you don't often hear from poets or hip-hop artists. Even when he recites his poetry, I hear his belief in the power of music. He really hears the space between the words as music.

Both of us have this strong urge to articulate hybridity through our music and writing; it seems to work in a very complementary way. All our influences are hybrid, all the way down.

It is not about taking some stable classical form and merging it with some other stable form. All these forms are dynamic and changing all the time. When we talk about "Indian" music, what is that exactly? Music that a billion people listen to? I have no idea what that is, it could be anything really.

At some point for this project, we were putting together an electronic track for one of the pieces and we thought we should sample some Bollywood music because the character is talking about the beauty of Bollywood film. Mike has a fairly large collection of Bollywood music and we tried to delve through it to find something that would be iconically Bollywood-sounding, but we couldn't because it is so hybrid to begin with. They have been sampling the rest of the world longer than anyone has been sampling them.

I think it is important to tell this story — and tell it in a way that is not necessarily linear. It can be told just in the details of how we put music together: the form itself can reveal something about this hybrid space that we live in.

Both of you have been quite prolific and successful in your respective fields. Would you say that your previous work has generally been overtly political in the way that this piece is?

Mike Ladd: Yes, certainly. This piece is actually toned down a bit from what I normally do, so it has been a bit of an evolution for me. My first work was pretty much just rhetorical.

This work is political as much as everything I am ever going to do is political even if it is just an album of whistling. This is just my understanding of politics. I am continuously asked whether I consider myself a political artist, and in fact I don't think of it in those terms. I consider myself someone who is always expressing my life in its entirety. A great deal of my life was spent sitting around my mother's dining-room table with her friends who, for the most part, were writers or musicians or professors, and listening to political discussions. Or at my aunt's house, where I also grew up a lot of the time when my aunt was cleaning houses, and my uncle worked in the post office, there would also be political discussions. Or when I was hanging out with my cousin Dean, there would be a political discussion; a lot of what he was doing was also political.

I don't think it is possible to extract politics from any one of these realms. And that is just how I approach everything.

Vijay Iyer: I have always seen my work as politicized in a certain way. It is also very much about my life experiences transduced into this other medium. Not only are they representing my life experiences, they are literally my life experiences: the act of making music is my life experience. Within that is my perspective as a person of color in this country and that is utterly fundamental to everything I do and to every human interaction that I have in this culture. I think just being aware of that casts a different light on the work I do from my own perspective. What I mean is that I always see what I am doing as somehow the outcome of this path that I have been on, and so much of that has been about negotiating this identity and figuring out who I am, and trying to express that.