This year, Jeremy Denk, a renowned classical concert pianist with a really killer blog (seriously, read it — his writing is incredibly resonant and funny), and Vijay Iyer, an experimental composer and pianist who works predominantly on collaborations with other artists and poets, were both awarded the MacArthur Genius Grant for their innovative, nuanced approaches to music. They spoke separately with BuzzFeed over the phone this week after the list of winners was announced, giving a clearer picture of their creative processes, the beginnings of their love of music, and what qualities they prize most in their work.
When did you begin playing music and why?
Jeremy Denk: I was obsessed with my parents’ classic recordings when I was a little kid. I used to listen to them obsessively, and I asked for piano lessons when I was 5. I just started fooling around with the piano and it became something that I wanted to pursue.
So music was something you were innately passionate about right away?
JD: I guess so. I used to go nuts over the Hallelujah chorus, and “Air on the G String,” and that music hit me from a really early age.
How might you describe your creative process or routine?
JD: I perform and write about music a great deal, and both of those feed off of each other. I sit there and kind of imagine how a piece might go, then play it, love the harmonies, and see how it works, what my favorite parts are, then play it again, and it’s not as good. That’s the more difficult part of it, what Nabokov called “the rapture and the recapture.” You try to reproduce your initial excitement as most perfectly as you can, and that’s a much longer process. It’s more difficult. I started writing about music because practicing piano is so solitary and obsessive, and I would have all these thoughts about the work while practicing. I started a blog so I had an outlet for that.
The blog is either satirical or pointing out hopefully unexpected and irreverent moments in great music. For me, humor is very important. All of the music of Beethoven is very dependent on humor and surprise, and this is something we sort of forget and lose in the stuffy classical music hall. A lot of the ways people write about classical music tends to be academic and stuffy as well, so my blog is kind of a revolt against that element.
You know when you have to write about something and your thoughts don’t really crystallize until you’re finished writing about it? The blog has that kind of effect on my practicing. In a recent article, I kept talking about all the ways Beethoven does common timing with three iterations — two that are normal and a third that’s sort of slapstick, mashing up really profound and really silly thoughts with each other. I thought that I should play like that — what’s at the core of that piece. The piece is funny, the structure of it is humor, like a great comedy. Its base is in common misunderstandings, like Seinfeld. Some great Beethoven pieces are based on those misunderstandings, misperceptions, or reinterpretations.
What do you think musicians can do to imbue a piece with humor?
JD: It’s there; they don’t have to imbue it. It’s a question of your willingness to discover what section of the piece it’s in. The problem is that we play these pieces hundreds of times. We’re so used to hearing them as the classics, so we sort of know how they go. It’s so important to not, in a way, know how they go. At every moment, the music might go differently to capture that humor and imagination. The imagination of the composer brought to the composing, that same imagination should be brought to the art of interpretation.
What are your strategies for making your outer work match what’s going on inside your head? What helps you to get that out?
JD: The boring part of playing the piano is a lot of muscular work and training — translating the ideas in your brain down your arm, to your fingers, making as close a connection as possible. That work has elements of drudgery or repetition that have to be mixed with imagination, to being able to wipe the whiteboard clean.
How does the idea of analyzing a piece emotionally affect the way you approach it?
JD: It’s interesting. Sometimes it’s just the way your muscles will be. You’ll play a phrase and say, “That was beautiful and I want the rest of it to be a little bit more like that.” And sometimes, it can just be an accident. There’s such a beautiful connection between the musical gesture and the whole language of the emotion, the whole world of human experience, the way things move, the rhythm. Manipulating these things evokes all the possibilities; I think the word “gesture” is really important there. It’s sort of a language of gestures that you use. It’s an important word for me, in terms of what makes music worthwhile. Depending on where you are in your own life, emotionally, if you’re particularly happy or neurotic, that will have a sort of baseline effect on how you work.
Can you explain the physicality of your work a bit more? How do you think with your hands?
JD: I think of them all the time. In terms of the keyboard, if I move one hand down a key, I consider how that affects the sound quality, how it affects the overall feeling of the phrase, in terms of weight or weightlessness. It can have a really balletic quality to it. That’s the kind of piano playing I like. It has that dancing in or around the keys. It makes you think very much about physicality and keeping in shape, because a lot of pianists aren’t as buff as dancers or athletes, but we have our own muscularity. It’s about smaller muscles, but it’s still about muscles that carry those gestures with us.
What aspects of your profession do you find most fulfilling? How do you know inside yourself when you’re doing good work?
JD: The most fulfilling times are often the private times that I have working on a piece by myself, when I know that something is being discovered about the way a piece works and I’m sort of finding the balance of forces that will make the piece speak the most beautifully. It’s amazing when you play something and you are, in fact, surprising yourself with how beautiful it is. It’s rare, but it happens, and that’s a real pleasure. You’re engaging with this music by sitting all day with something, and it’s like reading the greatest Shakespeare or gazing at some big painting all day. You get to spend days bathing in this idea, and they’re spent in many different ways. Some days it’s fulfilling, some days it’s an ordeal.
How does bringing music in front of an audience affect the way you think about and play a piece?
JD: There are a lot of factors. There’s the basic, boring one of nerves, adrenaline, your muscles, and the way you’re breathing and thinking. Obviously, an audience can be a great inspiration for something you never thought you would do, or a sense of the mood. There are so many parts to each piece, and each time you do it, the audience has a different vibe — they cough at a different place. You need to create an experience for them. I feel very strongly that I need to create a spell. It’s my way of communicating with the world with things that I value.
What is the best advice you’ve received as a musician?
A great piece of advice that I got was to take the risk of devoting myself to practicing, which meant that I was making very little money. When I opened that space and time in my life, it gave me the space to grow.
So you place a high value on woodshedding.
JD: I do, and on getting away from the grind. In the same way as when you’re playing a musical phrase or passage, the one thing you really need to do is breathe and hear what’s happening and not be hellbent on the end, the goal.
I was 31 or 32 and I had a part-time position offered to me at Carnegie Mellon, but my friend told me that it was time for me to practice and develop, and he was right. I was forgoing the salary and benefits that I had always had, but it was absolutely the right move. It’s almost still going on, in a sense. I was less busy, let’s say, from ages 32 to 37, than I am now, as far as performing. Those five years were crucial.
When did you begin playing music and why?
Vijay Iyer: My first instrument was violin and I started that when I was 3. I don’t exactly know why. My parents say that I wanted to and they, of course, helped make it happen. They are largely to blame for it. Not long after that, I started trying to play piano by ear, which happened little by little, and that’s how I learned to play piano. I never had any formal training on piano. Nobody can actually say even what year I started. When I think of that period, it’s all one thing. I don’t think of the piano experimentation as a separate experience from the time I started violin.
I didn’t identify as a piano player until much later in life, like 10 or 15 years later. Before that, I played around on the piano without any goal or intent or pretension or anything like that and, perceptively, it became a more and more important part of my life over many years very organically. When I was in high school, I joined a rock band and I played keyboards in it. That’s when I played more on piano.
What was your high school band name?
VI: I think it was called The Effect. We had some other stupid names before that, too. It was an opportunity where I was going somewhere with the specific purpose of playing the piano in that place. That’s when it became more and more a part of my identity — “I’m going there to do this, this is something I do now, it’s not something that happens unconsciously.” It became a bigger part of my life, day to day, but still sort of remained in a secondary role in my life for a while. As an undergrad, I perused other things. I was a science major. Then I had more and more opportunities to perform, collaborate with other people, and play in public, and have real life experiences around music as a piano player, composer, and band member. That just kept growing and developing, and I kept learning from it, and that’s lasted more than 20 years now.
How have your collaborations shaped the way that you approach music?
VI: My entire approach to music is indebted to my experiences making music with others and hearing music through other people’s ears. You learn how to listen by being with other people who are experienced listeners. When you get to a certain level, that person can be anybody. They don’t even have to be a musician. I’ve learned so much from just sitting with some friends of mine who are just amazing listeners, or people who are poets or filmmakers or dancers who have another way of listening to music that’s more human, at an experiential level. That’s a major part of my education — collaboration.
Trained musicians have a way of listening to music that’s more musicianly. It’s not that it’s clinical, it’s just kind of shop talk. It’s a handicap that musicians acquire through training. They think in terms of precision and excellence in almost an athletic sense, like being impressive. The fact is that most people experience music in human terms in the sense of storytelling, empathy, sensation, and emotion. Those are higher-level kind of things that don’t have much to do with technique or any of that stuff.
What were some of the most formative experiences of your early career, and what would you like to impart to younger musicians?
VI: I learned a lot by working with elders — people who’ve been in a creative frame of mind for many decades and have been listening to others for decades and who have made essential life choices around that practice. I think a lot of musicians today come at it mostly by listening to their peers and interacting with people in their own generation, and not taking advantage of the wisdom that’s around them in elder generations. Music is an oral tradition, largely, even when you’re dealing with so-called classical music and especially when you’re dealing with traditional music and African-American music, things with musical histories. You learn the most about it by being among elders. You have to place yourself in that continuum, and that’s where you learn the most.
A lot of the creators of what’s called the “jazz tradition” are still with us, all of the real pioneers and innovators. Will Shorter is 80 years old, alive and well, and still making this intense, fire-breathing, and deeply original work. Herbie Hancock, Cecil Taylor, and Randy Weston are still with us. A lot of these folks are still around and have a lot to say and a lot to impart. It’s not like they are invisible or inaccessible. You just have to reach out to them!
How does the nature of music change when you put in front of an audience?
VI: I think we have to look at it the other way. It’s actually strange to work in isolation and to try to imagine music devoid of context, because music comes from our interactions with others. That’s what it’s made of, that’s what it’s for, and that’s what it contains — the sound of people doing stuff together. To imagine it as something other than that is the first mistake that we tend to make, especially in the West, where we’re pray to these dichotomies of composer and performer, between score and music.
It’s important to remember that music was never meant to be experienced in isolation, unless we’re making it for ourselves, unless it’s literally like you’re on a desert island and trying to fill your time. Otherwise, when we make music, it has to be considering the listeners. I never really think of it outside of that.
When are you happy with a performance in terms of your listener’s response?
Every moment of that is subject to the audience. Moment to moment, you can feel when people are with you or when they start to turn against you, and the reason that I dwell more in improvised kinds of frameworks, musically speaking, is because there is more of an interdependent basis. It’s about the best thing to do based on where we’ve been and what the mood feels like in the moment. You can feel people breathing with you versus just tolerating you. The biggest responsibility of a performer is to listen to everybody in the room and make sure we can all hear each other.
Every combination of people is different. It’s so extremely contextual. I had a wonderful experience at Carnegie Hall six months ago, and I also had a wonderful experience a month and a half ago at the Stone, which is a tiny room that holds about 70 people. We were all really piled in there, sitting on the floor, under the piano. Those were two completely different kinds of experiences, one very austere and one very organic. There’s much to gain from all those kinds of experiences, but I think that basically, it’s on us as performers to find that center where we’re really aware of the energy in the room so we can all experience something together. That can sound hippie-dippie, but the thing is that it’s real. I can vouch for it after years and years of doing it. There’s no real substitute for it. There are no words.