In What Language? A Song Cycle of Lives in Transit

Vijay Iyer and Mike Ladd on their collaboration

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

NEW YORK, April 24, 2003 — Asia Society presents the premiere of In What Language? A Song Cycle of Lives in Transit, a poignant and moving work of music and poetry by composer Vijay Iyer and librettist Michael Ladd. This is the first creative collaboration between these two leading contemporary performing artists.

In What Language? A Song Cycle of Lives in Transit explores expressions of cultural identity and persistent stereotypes in an age of expansive global diaspora through a series of interior monologues by fictional passengers in transit at an international airport. The airport, which is literally a point of entry and departure, acts as a setting as well as a metaphor for the larger social milieu of which it is an extension.

Vijay Iyer is a pianist and composer based in New York City. The son of Indian immigrants, Iyer draws from African, Asian, and European musical lineages. He has released several critically acclaimed CDs including Memorophilia (Asian Improv), Architextures (Asian Improv/Red Giant), Panoptic Modes (Red Giant), and Your Life Flashes (as the collaborative trio Fieldwork, on Pi Recordings).

Michael C. Ladd received his BA from Hampshire college and an MA in poetry from Boston University. He has published in several literary magazines including Long Shot Review and Bostonia. His work is also featured in the book Swing Low, Black Men Writing and the anthologies, Aloud: Voices from the Nuyorican Poets Cafe and In Defense of Mumia.

What was the inspiration for In What Language?

Vijay Iyer: The most concrete answer is that it had to do with something that happened to the Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi, when he was passing through the United States. He directed the highly acclaimed Iranian film The Circle (among others) and was traveling with the film, showing it at major film festivals. He showed it in Hong Kong and was on his way to South America when he was in transit at JFK, where he was wrongfully detained by the INS and prevented from taking his connecting flight. Instead he was kept in chains for 10 hours in an enclosed room for refusing to have himself photographed or fingerprinted. Eventually he was sent back to Hong Kong.

He later sent out an email to his friends that was widely circulated in which he told this story. He was talking about the experience of sitting on this airplane going back to Hong Kong with people staring at him. He wanted to explain to them that he was a normal person just like them but he couldn't find a way to do it. He said at one point, "How could I tell them my story? In what language?"

There was just something really powerful about that story . So much of being Asian American for me has been about the experience of being brown and what it means in the West to wear this badge. This has also been my point of entry into African-American music. Finding my place in African-American music was about identifying with people who had a revolutionary, confrontational, and deeply politicized worldview that was articulated through their music. This was part of the reason I wanted to work with Mike because he also clearly shared this sensibility.

Mike Ladd: Vijay wrote the proposal and contacted me after it was knocked out. It made sense in terms of what I had been doing; his approach was in fact quite similar to my own, in trying to acknowledge the space that African Americans have in the context of the rest of the world, which is something that is not looked at that often.

The black American experience is often only understood within the confines of the United States. But black Americans have a rich history of travel outside the U.S. and a rich history of writing and thinking about the impact of those travels on ourselves and the world. In the 19th century, for instance, they included prominent figures such as William Wells Brown, Paul Cuffie and Frederick Douglass (to name only a few who traveled extensively in Europe and parts of Africa: Douglass in Egypt, and Cuffie in Liberia and beyond). Lesser-known writers like Amanda Smith made it as far as Burma. Everyone went for a variety of reasons. Douglass left to escape slave hunters and to propagate the abolition of slavery, as did Brown. Cuffie began one of the first Back-to-Africa movements. Smith was a Methodist missionary.

What is interesting is reading how these black American writers grappled with their Western, or more specifically, Christian identification and the non-Christian peoples they encountered. What happens when the American 'other' meets the other "other?" When Smith is in Liberia she understands the Africans there as kindred but (similar to her perceptions of the Burmese) she is often appalled and condescending about their non-Christian lifestyles. Similarly, Douglass writes about feeling a deep pride for Egyptian oarsmen he sees on the Nile but his gaze is undoubtedly Western and he feels as much apart from these Egyptians as he wants to feel akin to them.

This issue still exists. The Black American experience within America is still essentially an experience as "the other" or a "third world" experience. However, once an African American sets foot in a considerably poorer country, he or she is automatically part of an imperialist experience because we are unavoidably American. I think the primary reason this is not extensively explored is because there have always been far more pressing issues for African Americans within the US. But with a shrinking world and the abundance of immigrants of color sharing space with Black Americans and with the expansive role of the U.S. military throughout the brown world, I think the history and dynamics of these relationships should be looked at more closely. The poems in this project barely begin to graze the surface but I hope they add to what should be a growing dialogue. I really like what Vijay Prashad has written on the subject.

I have spent a lot of time studying black expatriates in the 19th century. In my music also, I always use Western music that non-Western cultures have come up with, to create a kind of cultural ping-pong. Music by Fela or Bappi Lahiri or whomever which is heavily influenced by the West — in fact almost an imitation of a Western genre — that is sent back here, I think I can do something with it and send it over there one more time to see what happens.

For example, if I sample a track from Hong Kong, it would not be traditional Cantonese music I would sample but a Chinese surfer band from the sixties or something. The effort would be to diminish the exploitative nature of sampling, especially on an imperial level, and instead add to an expanding cultural dialogue by quoting and commenting on a form that had previously quoted and commented on previous forms that I am in some way connected to. Many would argue that that's what sampling does best anyway.

This work has been described as an urban song cycle. What are the distinctive features of this form?

Vijay Iyer: This is not a pre-existing form. The idea of a song cycle is pretty old and we call this a song cycle because in a sense it is answering back, in an ironic way, to the classical notion of a song cycle, which is something that you associate with composers like Schubert. When we make albums you could call them song cycles too. They are like suites of pieces that are connected in some way, put together in some sequence that makes sense. The purpose behind using this terminology is to demand that our work be considered on these terms. Even if we are associated with the so-called "jazz world" or the so-called "hip-hop world," calling it a song cycle just asserts that there is a bit more weight behind it than is usually assumed to be the case with more popular forms. There is a great deal of thought that has gone into it and it is actually telling a larger story in a way.

By designating it a song cycle, we are also expanding the idea of what a song is because there is no singing in this piece, but the poems that Mike have written are very beautiful. They have a yearning quality to them that you could hear almost as a song. The way I have set them to music has been more like creating musical environments for these texts to be delivered quasi-dramatically: read as poetry really. So we are also experimenting with the idea of what can be construed as a song cycle.

This is your first collaborative effort. How do your individual experiences and talents complement each other? What prompted you to work together on this piece in particular?

Mike Ladd: Hip-hop is often touted as some universalizing phenomena for my generation and those that succeed it. However there is something to be said for such a verbose popular art form and its impulse toward dialogue. It allows people of different cultural backgrounds to share an art form, and though it remains primarily Black American (for now), people are allowed to verbally insert their own cultural identifiers (as long as it doesn't offend the mass market). Vijay and I both grew up around this tradition. This is an anomalous example but once at a talent show in high school in Uttar Pradesh, my friend Javaid and I rhymed while playing tabla; predictably the chorus was "dah dhin dhin dah".

This project made a lot of sense to me because of the experiences that I had had — whether it was living in Boston, or going to high school in Uttar Pradesh, or living in NY for ten years, or living in Zimbabwe. It enabled me to put things together in a much clearer, more explicit, way, rather than having them as secret influences. It also allowed me to learn a lot about things I have always had an interest in: jazz, experimental music, and forward-thinking music in general.

Vijay has been able to help me get a better foothold in all this because a lot of what I do in my own work is experimental but you always need to build your base. We are in a time where, especially with electronic music, you can hack around forever and get plenty of accolades for making what is essentially bullshit. I am not a musician, but I make electronic music. So it helps me a lot to solidify where I am going musically to be better acquainted with people who treat music from every angle — from a rigorous angle, from an academic angle, and also from the same visceral angle with which I approach it.

Also, the fact that I am not actually doing any substantial music for this project is a godsend, because it has enabled me to do what I've really wanted to do for a long time, which is get back to strictly writing.

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.

Mike Ladd: This is a very old point, but if you have any shade that is not white it is difficult to extract politics from what you are doing. The reality is that for anyone who is white it is also difficult to ignore politics, but there are a lot of blinders set up so it is still easier to avoid from that perspective. But these are also fragile blinders.

I think it is also important to point out that this project started before 9/11. So this piece was conceived of before the airport, as an idea, had changed shape yet again, and has since probably metamorphosed about 15 times.

When I first began to look at this stuff, when I first wrote "Airplane," the vessel was still completely passive. I talked to good friends who did not grow up here but either just went to college here and were thinking of staying, or had decided to move here. We always talked about how the airplane represented a carrier of family, and thoughts of home. It was a much softer object still.

My friend, Kanishka Raja, has an amazing painting of this airplane flying, and it is quite ambivalent whether it is flying into a classroom, or above it. He was showing it at a gallery when 9/11 happened, which completely changed the context of the airplane in the work. So politics is this as well: no matter how hard you try not to be political, some things are out of your hands. How can you possibly avoid that?

Vijay Iyer: One thing I think we are exploring in this piece is the degree to which a place like an airport which, in the past, was perceived in idealistic terms as this neutral public place, is in fact very non-neutral. It is actually shot through with all these power dynamics and contingent situations. It is a space that has so many associations now. Also of interest to us is the way the airport is represented: the more you explore, the more you realize the depth of its implication in this globalized, postcolonial world.

Is there something about the content of this piece that made you experiment with all these different musical forms (hip-hop, experimental jazz, etc.)?

Vijay Iyer: In my music I have learned from a lot of different forms. I would not say I am doing all those forms; I wouldn't even say that I am doing hip-hop. In fact it is often debatable whether I am even doing jazz!

It's difficult when you're dealing with something that is as mass-culture and as global as hip-hop is now. Hip-hop almost refers to a generation more than it does to a style or even an aesthetic. It is so vast.

Mike Ladd: The names of all these forms are so loaded. Both jazz and hip-hop are such exploited genres. All these concepts, like jazz-dance, or hip-hop theater, you get the idea of people who couldn't come up with the thing itself, couldn't play jazz or couldn't rhyme, so they had to invent new terms!

Of course there is amazing jazz dance and great hip-hop theater but I think any fusion of genres is risky. What we are doing is risky. What makes me feel a little better is that we (especially Vijay) were fairly accomplished in our respective genres before we came together. But these combinations of amalgamations are inevitable. Many of my favorite poets were influenced by music as much as by writing and they understand the natural symbiosis; Al Young, Michael Harper and Baraka, to name only a fraction. Thomas Sayers Ellis did the same thing with Funkadelic (that got me heated because I wanted to do that!) For me, the line between good hip-hop and strong poetry can be incredibly thin.

When people ask you what you think of the state of hip-hop, which you get in a lot of music magazines, it's like asking, "What's the condition of the weather around the world? And what do you think of it?"

Vijay Iyer: It's like what I was saying before about hybridity. All these are things I listen to and love, and things that inform what I do, but I wouldn't claim to be representing any one of those genres. I would just say they are things that have inspired me; this has just been the case in all of my music before this project as well.

This project specifically is a departure for me in the sense that I am working so closely with text and trying to leave space for that. I have to think much more compositionally than I really ever have. I have always tried to have a compositional perspective on everything in my work; meaning that it is not just about showing off that I can play the piano, but about really trying to create some larger statement or larger shape. Having to do that in a way that's married to this text is kind of a different act. It just requires a bit more space. What I can say about what I've learned from these other genres or these other equally hybrid forms, is how to create space, how to work with space.

What performers and musicians are you most influenced by?

Mike Ladd: Ishmael Reed, especially in regard to this project, because he has one album called Conjure that he did with Taj Mahal, which is a wonderful fusion of poetry and music. Also for this project, I've been reading a lot of Harriet Mullen, Ai; Yousef Kominyaka, Agha Shahid Ali, Tagore, Senghor, Robert Hayden, Octavio Paz, Nathaniel Mackey, Mahmoud Darwish, and Faiz Ahmad Faiz.

Musically, John Coltrane's Infinity, Leo Jones, with a lot of hybrid type jazz from the '70s, De La Soul, and Eric B and Rakim, Def Jux emcees, Nas, Yo La Tengo, Funkadelic, Anthony Braxton, and Ornette Coleman.

Vijay Iyer: All the same people!

Braxton is a hero of mine, Mingus is a hero of mine, Ornette Coleman is a hero of mine. As a pianist, I have been mainly inspired by the pianist composers, the people who approached their music more from a compositional standpoint than from the standpoint of showing off that they could play. People like Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk and more recently, Randy Weston, Geri Allen, and Muhal Richard Abrams. These are all pianist composers who have inspired me.

Some of these people I have listened to for thousands of hours. Someone like Coltrane or Thelonious Monk, when I hear them now it's almost like hearing my uncle or my father or my teacher. It feels like they're talking to me when I listen to them because I have learned so much sitting at their feet. What I've learned specifically is how to be a musician of the world, how to really listen to everything and speak that through your music, while still being completely yourself. That is something I think has been done in African-American music to a higher degree than anywhere else, because that music has always been about reaching beyond the immediate for something else.

Mike Ladd: Reaching, and also being able to understand what is beyond the immediate because there is always this certitude in black music, like saying: "I know exactly what's beyond these four walls, I know exactly what's past this field, and here it is."

Vijay Iyer: It is almost like articulating a sense of how the world should be — which is just deeply inspirational in so many ways, not even just musical ways — or just about how to exist in the world, to live with that certitude.

Of course I am also very influenced by the music of South Asia, a good deal of which I grew up hearing. Over the last decade, I have tried to figure out what is going on in this music that is so beautiful, that would mystify me when I was a child. I remember seeing Carnatic music concerts, which were embodied by such precision, and yet such mystery as well. This music could be really playful but it also had this sense of depth, because it's devotional music.

I have studied West African drumming so a lot of the polyrhythmic ideas that I concoct are inspired by some hybridization of West African drumming and South Indian drumming.

I am also inspired by the classical tradition of Europe, particularly of 20th-century composers, like [Béla] Bartók, [Oliver] Messiaen, [Arnold] Schoenberg and people like that.

I grew up listening to pop music, and when De La Soul's Three Feet High and Rising came out in 1988, it changed my life; Public Enemy was equally important. I grew up around hip-hop too and that has been very much a part of my life. I think all these things just speak through the music that I put together. I just try to make music I like, and this is all music that I like so it just ends up sounding occasionally like elements of all of it.

Interview conducted by Nermeen Shaikh of Asia Society