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