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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

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.