In the introduction to his 2007 book This is Your Brain on Music, Daniel J. Levitin discusses the ubiquity of music and its function as a social connector: “No known human culture now or anytime in the recorded past lacked music…. Whenever humans come together for any reason, music is there: weddings, funerals, graduation from college, men marching off to war, stadium sporting events, a night on the town, prayer, a romantic dinner, mothers rocking their infants to sleep, and college students studying with music as a background. Even more so in nonindustrialized cultures than in modern Western societies, music is and was part of the fabric of everyday life.”

But what happens when “everyday life” as we know it — with its ubiquitous opportunities for social interaction — ceases to exist? This year’s pandemic has begged that question in some of the most difficult ways, as millions of people worldwide struggle to maintain mental health while living in varying degrees of isolation. A practical answer may come in music itself — because while music may be famously present in all forms of human interaction, in times of isolation music may transcend its form to become that human interaction, even when recorded, replayed, broadcast, or played in relative isolation.   

We asked Steinway Artist Vijay Iyer for his thoughts on music-making in the pandemic-induced quarantine. His commentary ranges from insights on music cognition to theories on how music might help cultures heal from the devastating effects of contemporary social unrest.

Vijay Iyer at the Village Vanguard
photo: Stacy Kimball
photo: Jimmy Katz

Your doctoral work at the University of California, Berkeley, focused on the cognitive science of music. Can you talk about “your brain on music,” to borrow a phrase from Daniel Levitin’s book? 

I did do studies in music cognition back in the Nineties, but my whole approach was to talk about not just brains, but bodies. My work was intended as a bit of a corrective to the way people had talked about music cognition. Even using the term “cognition” lodges the whole experience in the brain. Cognition suggests that’s all that music is, some type of thought process, rather than a full-body experience, which is really what it is, as everybody knows who listens to it. Both listeners and players have an embodied relationship to music. That was the real thrust of what I was interested in — shifting the emphasis away from so-called intelligence.

In the twenty-first century, we have seen something of an explosion of conversation about music and the brain, as if the brain is separable from human activity or human life, as if we could talk about the brain as something that is “influenced by” something outside. The fact is that everything that we ever do involves the brain. It’s not like it’s a kidney, as if I could take one out and still be functioning. It’s too integral to be discussed in those separate terms.

“Music is always the sound of us.
Of each other.”

So what I tried to do when I was doing that thesis work was to bring in some relatively new perspectives on cognition as embodied. What we think of as “thought” is actually embedded in bodily and sensory experience. Music is the sound of human bodies in action. It’s never not that. We trick ourselves into believing that it is something other than ourselves because we’re so used to listening to recorded music, which is disembodied or acousmatic, but the fact is that music is always the sound of us. Of each other.

Music is a reminder of how we are social beings. It’s a reminder of how we are among each other, how we listen to each other, how we empathize with one another through sound. It’s a reminder of our mutual embodiment.

Linday Man Oh, Vijay Iyer and Tyshawn Sorey
photo: Craig Marsden
Jennifer Koh and Shai Wosner
photo: Juergen Frank

How do we now share that mutual embodiment of music when we’re physically distant from each other? The pandemic affords so few performance opportunities, so few moments of shared listening and music-making.

I was thinking about this lot early on in the pandemic, as we were all existing in relative isolation, when “social distancing” was a new phrase, and it’s hard to remember back that far — six months ago! I’m someone who has listened to a lot of albums, recorded a lot of albums, purchased a lot of albums. I listen to a lot of music that was made by people in another place and time. So it’s kind of like we have to remind ourselves that recorded music is the original socially distant music making. It’s how we listen to each other without being in the same room.

“Recorded music is the original socially-distant music making. It’s how we listen to each other without being in the same room.”

If you think about it, we already have more than a hundred years’ worth of people sending music to each other over time and distance. We are “tele-present” for each other through recorded music. The pandemic isolation has offered me the time and presence to revisit recordings that were meaningful to me and to remind myself of how alive they feel to me, and how it’s not just a mind at work. It’s a body in motion. Music is bodies moving together in ensemble — and that’s true in recorded music as well as live music.


How has your life — specifically your music-making — been affected by the pandemic?

I think the primary impact has been being home so much. I’m someone who was used to constantly travelling, year-round, often finding myself in three or four cities a week. I’m always among new people, feeling somewhat itinerant, which means I also have a huge carbon footprint on the planet. And there’s a toll taken on the body to drag yourself around like that, being on the road constantly, carrying your stuff everywhere you go. So taking a break, a pause, a forced stoppage from all that helped me think about both what I’m missing but also what the cost of it has been.

“What if we could actually be creative musical ambassadors right now and just be in the world doing what we’ve always done, would that calm people down?”

I’ve certainly profoundly missed being among people — sharing and making music together and being with audiences. That’s what’s kept me in it all this time, the experience of sharing music. That experience binds us and creates occasion for intimacy, for really being close to each other in a way that you wouldn’t even have expected. When you share music, you find yourself experiencing each other’s mutual humanity in a way that could never be taken for granted. When I’m performing, for example, I may be in room with a thousand other people, and we’re having something happen to all of us together at the same time. These are people I’ll never speak to or who might not have even fully accepted me as a human being because I’m a different color than they are, or something like that, you know? Music gives us the occasion to break all that up. It gives us the primal method of communing that’s so important. It’s a way of reminding us of who and what we are. So I certainly miss all that. I miss it to death.

But I also think about the price of not having this experience right now. You see people pushing into deeper and deeper levels of hatred and intolerance and violence, so it certainly seems like these issues might be part of the price. What if we could actually be creative musical ambassadors right now and just be in the world doing what we’ve always done, would that calm people down? I have to wonder. People are tearing each other apart. Is there something about our cultural ill health that is connected to the fact that we can no longer gather peacefully and make music? I don’t know. I speculate about these things.

Music really is a healing force. We know this about it. It’s partly why it’s so valuable.


What are you working on now? Do you have any “pandemic projects?”

What I’m doing as an artist is I’m sitting alone in a room. I guess that’s what we’re all doing, right? But that’s given me occasion to reflect on what it is that we do, and what it’s for. I also have been taking on small projects. I think right now we’re all sort of shattered by unarticulated or unexpressed grief and anxiety and loss and fear. So it’s hard to really do anything huge. But I can say that I’ve made a few small things.

The violinist Jennifer Koh had a series of very short commissions, and she posted them online in the first couple months of the pandemic. I wrote a short piece for her. I also wrote a solo piano piece for the pianist Shai Wosner, which is dedicated to Kwame Ture, and I believe that will premiere sometime this fall.

Also during this time, I sometimes just record myself playing very unstructured impromptus, sort of like automatic writing. I just record myself doing something spontaneous, and I’ve accumulated a series of these videos. They’ve become an unfiltered musical diary of these months, just to remind myself that there’s something within that I’m not sure how to talk about yet. It’s kind of like internal work that I’m doing, and sometimes letting the outside world experience it, too.

I recorded a trio album last December with Linda May Han Oh and Tyshawn Sorey. It had to be mixed during the pandemic using very strange remote techniques. But it’s done — and I’m really excited about it. It will be out in March or April 2021. I’m happy about it. I feel like whatever destruction this year has wrought, I can say that we still made something. I feel good about it.

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