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Philip Roth: On Writing, Aging And 'Nemesis.'

Roth, who has been writing novels for more than a half-century, explains how he comes up with his ideas — and why he continues to write every day. In his latest work, Nemesis, he imagines a fictional polio outbreak set in his hometown of Newark, N.J., during the 1940s.

21:19

Other segments from the episode on October 14, 2010

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, October 14, 2010: Interview with Philip Roth; Interview with Vijay Iyer.

Transcript

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Philip Roth: On Writing, Aging And 'Nemesis'

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest, Philip Roth, first became known in the late 1950s and in the '60s for
writing a new kind of story about Jewish identity. In books like "Portnoy's
Complaint" and "Goodbye, Columbus," he wrote comically about Jewish young men
who were alienated from their culture and families.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, at a stage later in life when many writers' best
works are behind them, he wrote an amazing trilogy connected to historical
events - blacklisting, the Vietnam War and World War II. Recently, he's written
several short novels about the physical indignities of aging.

I think he's won every literary award, with the exception of the Nobel. His new
novel, "Nemesis," is set during the polio epidemic in 1940s Newark, New Jersey,
where Roth grew up. The main character, Bucky Cantor, is a 23-year-old
playground director who is revered by the kids for keeping bullies at bay, but
the bigger danger is the spread of polio, which begins taking the lives of some
of the children. This is something Bucky has no power to stop. In fact, he
fears getting the disease.

Since no one knows how the disease is spread, people grow suspicious of
everything, including mosquitoes, swimming pools, hot dog stands, and people
from other neighborhoods. Here's a short reading.

Mr. PHILIP ROTH (Novelist): We were warned not to use public toilets or public
drinking fountains or to swig a drink out of someone else's soda pop bottle or
to get a chill or to play with strangers or to borrow books from the public
library or to talk on a public pay phone or to buy food from a street vendor or
to eat until we had cleaned our hands thoroughly with soap and water.

We were to wash all fruit and vegetables before we ate them, and we were to
keep our distance from anyone who looked sick or complained of any of polio's
telltale symptoms.

GROSS: That's Philip Roth, reading from his new novel, "Nemesis." Welcome back,
Philip Roth. It's a pleasure to talk with you again. Did you grow up with these
kinds of precautions? Because I think you were probably born about the same
time as the children in your novel were, the children who are in this
playground.

Mr. ROTH: Yes, I was born in 1933, and polio became a menace in America really
in the 20th century, strangely, and then it seemed to grow decade by decade. So
by the time I was a kid, it was in full swing.

And yes, we were prohibited from doing lots of things, and the parents,
generally speaking, were more frightened of the disease than we kids were. I
mean we'd hear all that, we'd get frightened momentarily, and then we'd go out
and play ball and forget about it.

But most of us abided by the prohibitions, more than we abided by the kosher
laws, you see.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Did you grow up with a fear of infection? It sounds like you didn't.

Mr. ROTH: Once again, we all did, but we would forget about it once we were out
of the house and playing, until somebody got polio. When that happened, then
the fear flared up in the children as well.

In fact, in all my childhood, only one of my friends and only one person I knew
got polio, a boy around the corner from me. And we all went around saying to
each other: Jerry got it, Jerry got it, Jerry got it, you know. Luckily, Jerry
got better and had no bad effects.

But you'd read in the newspaper every night - it would be, say, 15 new cases of
polio, 20 new cases of polio. And this is without even an epidemic. These were
just the facts of the summer.

GROSS: In several of your recent novels you've written about the assault
against the body that aging brings, just like how the process of aging breaks
down the body, the diseases and dysfunctions that come with aging.

But this new novel, "Nemesis," is about polio, which is killing children. And
I'm wondering why you wanted to write about a disease that's killing children
after writing, you know, so much in the past few years about aging.

Mr. ROTH: Whenever I began this book, two years ago, let's say - I finished it
about a year ago - I began it as I sometimes do with a book, which is on a
yellow legal pad. I began to write down all the subjects or historical events
that I've lived through that I've not dealt with in fiction.

And there's some I can write down, and they're just not my subjects, no matter
what I do with them. But when I came to polio, it was a great revelation to me,
that polio was even on the list. I never thought of it before as a subject. And
then I remembered how frightening it was and how deadly it was, and I thought,
okay, try to write a book about polio. So I had to figure out who was the
central character and what happened to him.

GROSS: So it strikes me that in some ways writing "Nemesis" was an exercise in
recovering childhood memories, because you're remembering the neighborhood you
grew up in. You're remembering a certain smell of like - I assume that you
smelled this, the stench of a pig farm from a nearby neighborhood.

Mr. ROTH: In Secaucus, New Jersey they had pig farms, yeah.

GROSS: The memories of how polio hung over the neighborhood. So did you try to
transport yourself back in time, to get into the mood to write this book?

Mr. ROTH: It wasn't hard. The war years, as a boy, are very vivid and sharp in
my memory. I was born in '33. The war started in '41. I was eight. It ended in
'45. I was 12.

Well, a child is really alive to the outside world between eight and 12, and we
had this big thing to be alive to, which was the war. The battles didn't take
place in the U.S., but we had everything else. We had a mobilized country, et
cetera.

So I do know that period very well, and I didn't have to think too much about
the neighborhood because I went to that playground every day of my life and
remembered it all. So what I wanted to see is - what would it have been like,
could I imagine what it would have been like had the thing we all feared
happened?

It isn't the first time I've done that, I realize. I did something like that on
a more ambitious scale in "The Plot Against America," where Lindbergh, Charles
Lindbergh, the great aviator, becomes president of the United States, and he's
a fascist sympathizer, and the people in my neighborhood, which was all Jews,
are terrified about what's going to happen to the Jews.

So there too I realized imaginatively something that had not happened but that
was feared, which is what would happen if such people came to power in America,
what would happen to us. So I tried to imagine what would happen to us.

The us I imagined was my own family. I wondered: How would we behave? How would
my mother behave? How would my father behave? So - and this book, it's similar.

GROSS: So in remembering your childhood, I'm wondering if you remembered
somebody like the character of Horace. And I'll read a line that describes
Horace in the novel.

Horace was the neighborhood's moron, a skinny man in his 30s or 40s whose
mental development had stopped at around six, whom a psychologist would likely
have categorized as an imbecile or even an idiot.

And then on a hot day you describe him as walking the streets by himself
beneath the ferocity of that sun, isolated and brainless in a blazing world.
That's one of my favorite sentences in the novel, but...

Mr. ROTH: Yeah. I'm glad you pointed him out. You know, before the polio
epidemic, the greatest menace in the neighborhood was Horace.

GROSS: Menace, did you say?

Mr. ROTH: Menace, yeah. Kids were - the kids were both friendly to him and
frightened of him. Yes, we did have such fellows, they happened to be two men,
in my neighborhood when I was a kid. I modeled Horace after a poor guy who was
probably in his late 20s or early 30s who wandered around the neighborhood all
day, up and down the streets.

He had a kind of goofy air about him. He was not very attractive. He had a
funny walk, kind of loped, and he had - his posture wasn't great and so on.

And he wandered from one block to the other, and the only people he came in
contact with were not our parents, who were all – all the men were off working,
the women were keeping house and shopping and whatever - but the kids.

And so there – his community - and our fellow was named Leroy - Leroy's
community was the kids. And when we were playing ball up at the playground,
he'd come and sit there.

I don't remember his being taunted very much, but he was taunted. There were
kids who taunted him. And the other kids often said knock it off, you know. And
so his life was not terrible, being with the kids.

He didn't befriend us. He just hung around the edge. He was an extremely
pathetic figure.

GROSS: Now, in your novel there's a narrator telling the story. It's not first
person. And the narrator is a character, but, you know, we find out who the
narrator is but not till close to the end of the novel.

And I was expecting the narrator to turn out to be one of your regular
narrators, and it wasn't.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: But I guess I was interested structurally in why you decided to do that,
why you decided to have the story told by a narrator. We assume it's one of the
children in the playground who's telling the story, but we don't know who that
person is.

Mr. ROTH: Yeah, yeah. I liked the we and the our and the us in the telling. The
whole community of boys is being represented rather than if I'd told the story
from Bucky's point of view alone or even from Bucky's point of view mainly.

And on the other hand, I didn't want to identify the kid because I would then
have to give you his story, which I didn't want to give. I wanted to give the
kids' stories only in terms of polio (unintelligible) their families and so on.

So I had the we and the our and the us until about the last third of the book,
when it emerges who this fellow is. Also, I have a sentimental attachment to
the opening pages of "Madame Bovary."

In the beginning of "Madame Bovary," when they're writing about Charles Bovary,
Madame Bovary's husband, writing about him as a schoolboy, the book begins with
we, meaning all us schoolboys. This we describes Charles Bovary as a kid.

And then on page eight the we disappears forever. It doesn't, like, come back
at the end. It disappears forever. I've always liked the audacity of that and
wanted to do it, and so I kind of did it here.

GROSS: My guest is Philip Roth. His new novel is called "Nemesis." We'll talk
more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Philip Roth. His new novel, "Nemesis," is set in Newark, New
Jersey in the 1940s during the polio epidemic.

If you don't mind my saying your age, you're 77 now, I believe?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ROTH: I don't mind.

GROSS: Okay. So how has what you want out of writing changed with age in terms
of subject matter, form, length?

Mr. ROTH: Hmm. That's a good question, which I've never thought of. I don't
think it changes much, Terry, if at all. You want to be able to make the same
effort you've always made. You want to be as alert and energetic at the
keyboard as you always were. You want to be taken seriously, and you want to
make a work of art. You want to make a work of art out of the subject of polio.

How can I make it into a story? How could I give it excitement and coherence,
et cetera, et cetera? So I haven't changed what I want from writing. I think
I'm more skilled than I was in the early years, but it pretty much seems to me
it's all the same.

It's the same struggle, I'll tell you that much. It hasn't gotten any easier,
and it hasn't gotten any harder. It's just as hard as it always was.

GROSS: But you know, if it's so hard, why do it? Because you don't have to
anymore. I mean, you've gotten the recognition. I assume you have, you know,
enough money to live on. Might be a false assumption, but for argument's sake,
I'll make the assumption.

Mr. ROTH: (Unintelligible)

GROSS: Okay, so safe assumption. So if it's so hard, why do it?

Mr. ROTH: Well, that's a question I ask myself too. I've been doing it since
1955. So that's 55 years. It's hard to give up something you've been doing for
55 years, which has been at the center of your life, where you spend six,
eight, sometimes 10 hours a day. And I always have worked every day, and I'm
kind of a maniac, you know. How could a maniac give up what he does? Tell me.

GROSS: Is that seven days a week, like Saturday and Sunday?

Mr. ROTH: Yeah, yeah, I usually do, yeah.

GROSS: That is obsessive.

Mr. ROTH: Maniacal.

GROSS: Maniacal?

Mr. ROTH: Give it its right name. It's maniacal.

GROSS: Why do you prefer maniacal to obsessive?

Mr. ROTH: Oh, obsessive is a word everybody uses, but maniacal?

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Maniacal has a very kind of demonic downside to it. Do you mean to give
it that?

Mr. ROTH: There's a demonic downside to this thing. You sit alone, decade after
decade, and you try to imagine something out of nothing, and not just imagine
it, but again, make a work of art out of it. And you do it so long that you in
a certain way you can't do anything else.

Before I used maniacal. Now I'd say imprisoned. You're imprisoned by this
thing. You can stop, and people do stop, needless to say, especially around my
age, even a little younger and certainly older, because of deficiencies,
because your memory is bad, not the memory of the past - that stays pretty
whole for a long time, but the short-term memory, the word retrieval, all those
things begin to become problems. And the more severe they become, then
eventually you have no choice. You have to give it up.

So it comes inevitably. How pleasantly or unpleasantly or horribly, I don't
know.

GROSS: So we were talking a little earlier about how this novel in part
required a trip back to your childhood, a mental trip back to your childhood to
remember the sights, smells and sounds of the neighborhood, the fears in the
neighborhood.

Your main character, the playground director, his grandfather was an immigrant
from Poland. And I wonder what you know about how your family came to the U.S.
and where they came from.

Mr. ROTH: Hmm. I know a little. I know some, I should say. You know, the Jews
of that gen - of the next generation, not the immigrants but their children,
and the immigrants themselves even, didn't want – Jewish immigrants – didn't
want to talk about where they were from.

Most of them didn't feel they belonged where they came from, in the larger
country or society they came from, and were quite content to forget the whole
thing. And forgetting the whole thing, they didn't bother to tell anybody where
they came from.

And I think that that cultural amnesia was not just peculiar to Jews but mostly
to Jews, because the Irish could go back to Ireland, the Italians could go back
to Italy, but these Jews weren't going back anywhere. They left places where
they weren't welcome.

And so they were here to stay, so when the kids asked questions about where we
come from, they say forget about it, you know. So I know some but not much, and
what I know is largely from ships' manifests at Ellis Island, who came and
went. But...

GROSS: You mean you know it from research, as opposed to family stories?

Mr. ROTH: Yeah, right.

GROSS: So it meant enough to you to do the research? You cared enough about
family history?

Mr. ROTH: I was terrifically curious, you know.

GROSS: Tell me why, because I wouldn't take for granted that you would be.

Mr. ROTH: Why?

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. ROTH: Well, I'm curious about the people I'm with, generally speaking, I
think, and particularly curious about my - the grandparents I loved, the
parents I loved, but particularly the grandparents, who I loved but I couldn't
talk to.

They spoke Yiddish, all my grandparents, and as a little tiny kid of course I
loved them, and visiting them and so on. But we couldn't have a conversation.

All that was exchanged between us was emotion, which is both wonderful and not
so wonderful, but it was wonderful because they're streaming emotion, but you
don't know anything.

And besides, most kids, people don't ask their grandparents where they come
from anyway, of any immigrant group. And when they die, people will say I
should've asked the question, you know.

So I didn't know where they were from, but I know now that my father's family
came from a little town called Kozlov in Galicia. He - which is about 60 or 70
miles, I think, I may be wrong, from what was then Lemberg, it is now Lviv.

My mother's parents came from somewhere in the Kiev region of Russia, but I
don't know any more than that. I have cousins around New Jersey on my mother's
side. Maybe they know more than I do.

GROSS: You know what you were saying about how Jewish immigrants of that era,
because they came from a place that they could never return to and wouldn't
want to return to, didn't talk about the past - I often wonder if they also
didn't talk about the past because in part it was just too hard to explain, you
know, to a modern American child.

Mr. ROTH: Hmm. I think there's another reason why they didn't talk about it,
which is a painful reason, and that is in many instances people like my
grandmother on my father's side, who was about 20 when she came here, left her
mother and her sisters there.

And it was very painful, and they didn't talk about it. And imagine, many, many
of those immigrants left behind their mothers, their fathers, their brothers
and their sisters. So there was that, which they lived with, I suspect, all
their lives.

I'm sure that they talked about it among themselves in Yiddish, but I didn't
know it. I didn't know how many brothers or sisters my grandparents had.

GROSS: Philip Roth, a pleasure to talk with you again. Thank you so much.

Mr. ROTH: Thank you.

GROSS: Philip Roth's new novel is called "Nemesis." You can read an excerpt on
our website, freshair.npr.org. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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Vijay Iyer: Self-Taught Jazz Pianist Goes 'Solo'

(Soundbite of music)

TERRY GROSS, host:

As the son of immigrants - well, I should start by saying this is FRESH AIR and
I’m Terry Gross.

As the son of immigrants from India, pianist and composer Vijay Iyer didn't
originally see a place for himself and jazz but he found one. Last year, his
album "Historicity" topped many critics best of the year lists, including Ben
Ratliff of The New York Times. It was the album of the year on the Village
Voice Critics' Poll. Iyer's new album, "Solo," shows his wide range of musical
influences and his versatility. It includes re-workings of a Michael Jackson
song, and a song from "West Side Story," a tribute to Sun Ra, music inspired by
physics - he has a masters degree in physics - and this version of Duke
Ellington's "Black and Tan Fantasy."

(Soundbite of song, "Black and Tan Fantasy")

GROSS: That's Vijay Iyer from his new album "Solo."

Vijay, welcome to FRESH AIR. Why did you want to cover the Ellington song
"Black and Tan Fantasy?"

Mr. VIJAY IYER (Musician): Well, you know that song's been kind of haunting me
for about 20 years, at least. I think I first found it in a piano book that
belonged to my sister that was sort of an anthology of blues, boogie-woogie and
stride piano. You know, my sister was the one who actually had formal piano
lessons and so I used to kind of raid her piano bench for whatever I could find
there.

GROSS: "Black and Tan Fantasy" always sounds like a funeral march to me and I
really like the marchiness...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...that you get from it.

Mr. IYER: Well, you know, I really went into the Harlem stride tradition and
I'm very influenced by Monk in that regard. He is somebody who pushed the
envelope with that language, you know, in terms really straddling this divide
between on the one hand keeping this very buoyant pulse, and on the other hand
being very expressive and free and somehow embodying all of that in one person.
And that, you know, the stride tradition where you’re really doing one thing
with your left hand and the other thing with your right and they're very
independent, you know.

GROSS: You're such a good pianist, it kind of amazes me that you didn't set out
to be a professional musician. And correct me if I have any of this wrong, you
got your undergraduate degree in math and physics at Yale, then you went to the
University of California at Berkeley and got your masters in physics?

Mr. IYER: That's correct.

GROSS: And your PhD in...

Mr. IYER: It was called technology in the arts.

GROSS: So what were you expecting to do with those degrees?

Mr. IYER: During my undergraduate years, I was really interested in literature
and in philosophy and in psychology and history. But I was also very much
groomed for the sciences, as were many - I'd say many people from my community.
You know, I am the son of immigrants from India. My father was a scientist. He
came here in the mid-'60s, along with a whole new wave of immigrants from India
who had a certain technical training that was sort of - they were sort of
selected for that. You know, there was a change in immigration law in the mid-
'60s that kind of opened the doors to people like my parents.

So I was, you know, I grew up with my parents and a lot of their friends being
scientists and engineers and doctors. So that was in a way just what I fell
into and also it seemed like a stable thing to do. It seemed like a wise and
prudent thing to do. And you know with immigrant cultures, stability is really
the first priority and you can't blame them for that.

GROSS: I'm wondering if what you learned in math and physics applies at all to
your music. And I'm thinking, I guess, specifically of a piece of yours that
I'm about to play called "Patterns," which is it's pattern music. It's not
really about melody. It's about, you know, repeating and slightly shifting
patterns.

Mr. IYER: Hmm.

GROSS: And that it seems like there are or may be connections to math in that.

Mr. IYER: Well, you know, I'd say the connection to mathematics is through
musical traditions. You know, I'm very influenced by the music of my heritage.
You know, as I said, my parents are from India and I've spent a good deal of
time studying on my own terms and sort of coming to terms with especially
Carnatic music, the South Indian classical music. You know and, particularly,
I'm interested in rhythmic concepts from South Indian music, and so, I work
with a lot of these elements in my music.

And you know, that, the structures of that tradition are very mathematical, but
it's in a way that is - it's an aesthetic, you know? It's not just about
calculation for its own sake or something. It's actually something that
pervades not just the music but the visual art and the culture of South India.

GROSS: Well, let's hear "Patterns" and then we'll talk more about the Indian
traditional music that has influenced you. And this is Vijay Iyer from his new
album "Solo." It's his composition called "Patterns."

(Soundbite of song, "Patterns")

GROSS: That's an excerpt of the Vijay Iyer's composition "Patterns" from his
new album "Solo." How did you first hear jazz because, you know, growing up in
the '80s or - '80s?

Mr. IYER: Yeah, '70s and '80s.

GROSS: Seventies and '80s, yeah, I mean jazz was no longer like a popular music
that was all over the radio unless you sought it out. You weren't going to
likely hear it on jukeboxes or, you know, so how did you hear it?

Mr. IYER: That's true. You know, it was hard to come by and it's even harder
still to come by nowadays than it was then. There were instances of it on TV. I
remember Charles Kuralt used to have Billy Taylor kind of...

GROSS: Right.

Mr. IYER: ...post a segment on "Sunday Morning."

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. IYER: And I remember seeing the Modern Jazz Quartet on there. And I also
remember seeing Dizzy Gillespie on "Sesame Street" when I was really little. I
remember seeing John Blake, the violinist, on "Mr. Rogers" when I was a kid.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Well, and that made an impression on you? That made you think about -
this is interesting?

Mr. IYER: I think, you know, it was, and especially because I remember seeing
John Blake playing violin and I was playing violin and so I remember thinking
wow, you can do that on violin too? And, of course, the whole soundtrack to a
lot of those shows like you know, Toots Thielemans played the theme to "Sesame
Street" and, you know, Roger Callaway was the pianist on "Mr. Rogers." So like
there were gigs for pretty serious jazz artists on TV.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IYER: But then also, I have to say that when I was in junior high and high
school, that was around the time of Herbie Hancock's "Rockit." Okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IYER: So that's hit, you know, when I was probably in eighth grade or
something and, you know, that was like the kind of bizarre intervention from a
jazz musician into popular culture that that had implications, you know, so
that was my first exposure to Herbie Hancock.

GROSS: My guest is pianist and composer Vijay Iyer. His new album is called
"Solo." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is pianist and composer Vijay Iyer
and he has a new album called "Solo."

So if your parents were part of the first sizable wave of people from India to
emigrate to the United States, that makes you part of the first sizable group
of Indian-Americans born here. So, as somebody who is Indian-American in a
relatively small community, did you pick up that people were thinking well,
like, who are you to be playing this music? Like, what's your connection to it?

Mr. IYER: Well, you know, I think it's a process that reveals more and more
about the listener. And, you know, we're in a very strange period,
particularly, in terms of how we deal with what it means to be American. And in
a way, it's sort of like we're hitting this identity crisis or something. And I
say we because I feel 100 percent American. I was born and raised here. I grew
up completely immersed in American culture, you know? The music, the junk food,
the movies and so on. I mean I grew up with "Star Wars" and, you know, Michael
Jackson, of course, and all this kind of stuff that's part of our generation.

But, you know, I think at the same time America has been changing and it's very
much because of the immigration law change that I mentioned earlier that gave
birth to my community and many other communities, that helped suddenly, you
know, subtly shift the overall demographics in a way that America started to
look a little different.

But in a way, making an album like this gives me a chance to state a case, to
say well, actually, this is who I am. You know, like I said, I'm influenced by
Michael Jackson and by Thelonious Monk and Duke Ellington and by Andrew Hill
and by my heritage as an Indian-American and by a lot of things.

GROSS: Your previous album, "Historicity," did so well critically. It was album
of the year in Village Voice Critics' Poll, and the Jazz Times Critics' Poll.
New Times music critic Ben Ratliff named it his album of the year. And I want
play something from that album and I'm going to play the - your version of the
Leonard Bernstein song "Somewhere," with the lyric that we won't hear by
Stephen Sondheim.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And this is, of course, from "West Side Story." And you - this is like
this love song sung between Tony and Maria and they're...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...like Romeo and Juliet types who aren't supposed to be together but
they want to be together and they're singing that like somewhere there's a
place for us, and you just, your version just kind of erupts in the middle and
in these like pounding descending phrases that are - they're great. But I mean
they're almost violent.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I mean it's just so not in keeping with this like romantic, oh someday
we'll find that place for us. So talk little bit about like reinterpreting this
song.

Mr. IYER: Well, you know I kind of was interested in almost intervening on that
song and creating a sort of alternate reading of it that presents some reality
that's different from its original context, which, of course, is really part of
the jazz tradition. I mean the towering example being Coltrane playing "My
Favorite Things" or...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. IYER: ...you know, or Monk playing "I Should Care" or Ahmad Jamal playing
"But Not For Me" or all these, you know, where the sort of classic approaches
to a pre-existing song where you somehow transform it into something that's
more about you and less about the song...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IYER: ...while still somehow retaining elements of the song. So that was
basically my approach.

GROSS: So here's Vijay Iyer from his album "Historicity," which was released
last year. And this is Bernstein's "Somewhere."

(Soundbite of song, "Somewhere")

GROSS: That's an excerpt of Vijay Iyer's reinterpretation of "Somewhere" from
"West Side Story." That's really great. I love those percussive descending
lines that you do on that.

Mr. IYER: Thank you.

GROSS: Now your first instrument was violin. You started taking violin lessons
when you were six, is it?

Mr. IYER: Three actually.

GROSS: Three? Yikes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IYER: Yes.

GROSS: That's really Suzuki method, isn't it?

Mr. IYER: That what is was, indeed.

GROSS: Oh was it really?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IYER: Yeah. And so I mean the benefit of that was that my ear was trained
first and from very early.

GROSS: Is that the method where they train your ear before they give you the
instrument?

Mr. IYER: Well, before they give you notation they train you by ear, you know.

GROSS: I see.

Mr. IYER: So you kind of learn more by imitating the teacher. And...

GROSS: You have these little toy violins or something if you're three?

Mr. IYER: Oh yeah, you have a - I think I started on a 1/16th size or
something. You know my daughter is going through the same exact thing right
now, which has been interesting. And so I'm kind of reliving a lot of those
things.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IYER: So it's hilarious and charming.

GROSS: What did you get her, a violin too?

Mr. IYER: Oh yeah. She's - it was her choice, in fact, so there must be
something about it that appeals to little ones. So...

GROSS: So what point did you realize that violin wasn’t your love and your true
love was piano?

Mr. IYER: Well, you know, they kind of proceeded - they happened at the same
time. I took violin lessons until I was 18. And so it wasn't like I ever said
oh, you know, violin is not my true love or is my true love.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IYER: It was actually just something that I stuck with for quite a while
until I was into college - in my sophomore year, I think, was the last year of
my violin lessons. And the only reason I stopped was because I couldn't keep it
up to the level that I wanted to and continue with my studies in physics at the
same time.

So, but piano - so the way it worked was because I had this early training by
ear it meant that I could actually kind of transfer that skill in some, you
know, limited way to another instrument. And piano was around because my sister
was taking lessons and so I just started messing around on it and exploring and
figuring things out little by little.

GROSS: I tell you, I took piano lessons as a kid through at least junior high,
maybe some of high school, and I, at some point, I seemed really talented for a
few months, like as a child who could like play simple tunes by ear, and then
it just got so hard.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: You know, it got so incredibly hard like reading all this like
complicated music and trying to figure out like the fingerings and how to play
it without hitting the wrong notes and coordinating like two hands and pedals
and all of that. And so it's - and learning like complicated chords. And it's
incomprehensible to me that you can learn piano without taking lessons.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Not that the lessons helped me get very far. Nevertheless, a piano is
such a complicated instrument. And even just like learning chord formations on
the piano it's just, I just think it's so hard and yet so many people seem
capable of learning by ear, yourself included, and you are such an excellent
player, I just like - I don't understand it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IYER: Well, thank you for that. But what I'd say is it took a long time and
it's still ongoing. You know, I still have plenty to learn on the instrument.
It's something that never ends. And particularly in dealing with a lot of the
things you just named, especially with intricate, notated, gnarly music, you
know, it's pretty, it's pretty hard.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IYER: I won't deny it and, you know, it depends on where your emphasis is
and my emphasis has been about being a pianist and composer. And so, I compose
things for myself to play, which means that they might be within the realm of
what I can already do or they might be just outside of it and then I have to
kind of stretch to meet it.

GROSS: My guest is pianist and composer Vijay Iyer. His new album is called
"Solo." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is pianist and composer Vijay Iyer. His new album is called
"Solo."

So not to pry into your personal finances, but...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...since "Historicity," your album from last year was - it topped so
many critics' polls and individual top 10 list, you know, by any critical
standard it was like a great album. Did it make any money for you? I mean like
what's - you don't have to give me figures or anything, but I'm just wondering
like what's it like in the jazz world now to have even something that
acclaimed. Does it pay?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IYER: Well, you know, what it really translates into immediately is more
performing opportunities.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. IYER: And that's sort of - in a way, it's sort of intangible, or it's hard
to measure like oh, well, I got paid this much for making this album because
really, the album brought all these opportunities to me that might not have
come my way otherwise.

But, you know, it doesn't cost a lot to make a jazz record nowadays, you know,
so the fact that domestically it sold something like 7,000 copies, I think, I'm
not sure actually. And also that it sold quite a number in Europe because of
the attention it got, that, you know, that starts to pay for itself and I start
to see something coming back.

GROSS: Well, I've chosen the music that we have heard so far and sometimes to
prove what a generous person I am, at the end of an interview I'll let the
performer choose a record.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So, is there a track you'd like to end with?

Mr. IYER: Hmm, well, you know, I had fun making the last track on the album,
which is...

GROSS: That's the one dedicated to Sun Ra.

Mr. IYER: That's right. It's basically a blues that's in his honor. You know, a
lot of people think about Sun Ra as this theatrical and very...

GROSS: Kind of crazy? Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IYER: ...elusive, kind of playful, I'd say, imaginative space cadet,
literally...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IYER: ...in the sense, you know, because all this stuff - he kind of
conjured his own mythology about being from Saturn and so forth, and I love
that side of him. But, at the same time, I feel like sometimes people forget
that he could play some piano. And some of the most influential albums for me
are the solo piano albums that he made. There's one called "Monorails and
Satellites" and there are a couple from the '70s that were on Paul Bley's
label. And, you know, I think it's amazing.

And in a way I think it's so mysterious and so profound that people haven't
really dealt with it yet. He was so far ahead of his time that we are still
catching up. So this is kind of my homage to Sun Ra, the pianist.

GROSS: And it's called "One For Blount" because his birth name is Sunny Blount.

Mr. IYER: Yes.

GROSS: Well, Vijay Iyer, thank you so much. A pleasure to talk with you.

Mr. IYER: Thank you. It's been an honor to be on the show.

GROSS: Thank you. And so, this is "One For Blount," from Vijay Iyer's new album
"Solo."

(Soundbite of song, "One For Blount")

GROSS: Music from Vijay Iyer's new album "Solo." You can hear three tracks from
it - Ellington's "Black and Tan Fantasy," Michael Jackson's "Human Nature" and
Vijay Iyer's original "Patterns" - on our website, freshair.npr.org, where you
can also download podcasts of our show.

I'm Terry Gross.
..COST:
$00.00
..INDX:
130543663

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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