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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

NEW YORK, April 24, 2003 — Asia Society presents the premiere of In What Language? A Song Cycle of Lives in Transit, a poignant and moving work of music and poetry by composer Vijay Iyer and librettist Michael Ladd. This is the first creative collaboration between these two leading contemporary performing artists.

In What Language? A Song Cycle of Lives in Transit explores expressions of cultural identity and persistent stereotypes in an age of expansive global diaspora through a series of interior monologues by fictional passengers in transit at an international airport. The airport, which is literally a point of entry and departure, acts as a setting as well as a metaphor for the larger social milieu of which it is an extension.

Vijay Iyer is a pianist and composer based in New York City. The son of Indian immigrants, Iyer draws from African, Asian, and European musical lineages. He has released several critically acclaimed CDs including Memorophilia (Asian Improv), Architextures (Asian Improv/Red Giant), Panoptic Modes (Red Giant), and Your Life Flashes (as the collaborative trio Fieldwork, on Pi Recordings).

Michael C. Ladd received his BA from Hampshire college and an MA in poetry from Boston University. He has published in several literary magazines including Long Shot Review and Bostonia. His work is also featured in the book Swing Low, Black Men Writing and the anthologies, Aloud: Voices from the Nuyorican Poets Cafe and In Defense of Mumia.

What was the inspiration for In What Language?

Vijay Iyer: The most concrete answer is that it had to do with something that happened to the Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi, when he was passing through the United States. He directed the highly acclaimed Iranian film The Circle (among others) and was traveling with the film, showing it at major film festivals. He showed it in Hong Kong and was on his way to South America when he was in transit at JFK, where he was wrongfully detained by the INS and prevented from taking his connecting flight. Instead he was kept in chains for 10 hours in an enclosed room for refusing to have himself photographed or fingerprinted. Eventually he was sent back to Hong Kong.

He later sent out an email to his friends that was widely circulated in which he told this story. He was talking about the experience of sitting on this airplane going back to Hong Kong with people staring at him. He wanted to explain to them that he was a normal person just like them but he couldn't find a way to do it. He said at one point, "How could I tell them my story? In what language?"

There was just something really powerful about that story . So much of being Asian American for me has been about the experience of being brown and what it means in the West to wear this badge. This has also been my point of entry into African-American music. Finding my place in African-American music was about identifying with people who had a revolutionary, confrontational, and deeply politicized worldview that was articulated through their music. This was part of the reason I wanted to work with Mike because he also clearly shared this sensibility.

Mike Ladd: Vijay wrote the proposal and contacted me after it was knocked out. It made sense in terms of what I had been doing; his approach was in fact quite similar to my own, in trying to acknowledge the space that African Americans have in the context of the rest of the world, which is something that is not looked at that often.

The black American experience is often only understood within the confines of the United States. But black Americans have a rich history of travel outside the U.S. and a rich history of writing and thinking about the impact of those travels on ourselves and the world. In the 19th century, for instance, they included prominent figures such as William Wells Brown, Paul Cuffie and Frederick Douglass (to name only a few who traveled extensively in Europe and parts of Africa: Douglass in Egypt, and Cuffie in Liberia and beyond). Lesser-known writers like Amanda Smith made it as far as Burma. Everyone went for a variety of reasons. Douglass left to escape slave hunters and to propagate the abolition of slavery, as did Brown. Cuffie began one of the first Back-to-Africa movements. Smith was a Methodist missionary.

What is interesting is reading how these black American writers grappled with their Western, or more specifically, Christian identification and the non-Christian peoples they encountered. What happens when the American 'other' meets the other "other?" When Smith is in Liberia she understands the Africans there as kindred but (similar to her perceptions of the Burmese) she is often appalled and condescending about their non-Christian lifestyles. Similarly, Douglass writes about feeling a deep pride for Egyptian oarsmen he sees on the Nile but his gaze is undoubtedly Western and he feels as much apart from these Egyptians as he wants to feel akin to them.

This issue still exists. The Black American experience within America is still essentially an experience as "the other" or a "third world" experience. However, once an African American sets foot in a considerably poorer country, he or she is automatically part of an imperialist experience because we are unavoidably American. I think the primary reason this is not extensively explored is because there have always been far more pressing issues for African Americans within the US. But with a shrinking world and the abundance of immigrants of color sharing space with Black Americans and with the expansive role of the U.S. military throughout the brown world, I think the history and dynamics of these relationships should be looked at more closely. The poems in this project barely begin to graze the surface but I hope they add to what should be a growing dialogue. I really like what Vijay Prashad has written on the subject.

I have spent a lot of time studying black expatriates in the 19th century. In my music also, I always use Western music that non-Western cultures have come up with, to create a kind of cultural ping-pong. Music by Fela or Bappi Lahiri or whomever which is heavily influenced by the West — in fact almost an imitation of a Western genre — that is sent back here, I think I can do something with it and send it over there one more time to see what happens.

For example, if I sample a track from Hong Kong, it would not be traditional Cantonese music I would sample but a Chinese surfer band from the sixties or something. The effort would be to diminish the exploitative nature of sampling, especially on an imperial level, and instead add to an expanding cultural dialogue by quoting and commenting on a form that had previously quoted and commented on previous forms that I am in some way connected to. Many would argue that that's what sampling does best anyway.

This work has been described as an urban song cycle. What are the distinctive features of this form?

Vijay Iyer: This is not a pre-existing form. The idea of a song cycle is pretty old and we call this a song cycle because in a sense it is answering back, in an ironic way, to the classical notion of a song cycle, which is something that you associate with composers like Schubert. When we make albums you could call them song cycles too. They are like suites of pieces that are connected in some way, put together in some sequence that makes sense. The purpose behind using this terminology is to demand that our work be considered on these terms. Even if we are associated with the so-called "jazz world" or the so-called "hip-hop world," calling it a song cycle just asserts that there is a bit more weight behind it than is usually assumed to be the case with more popular forms. There is a great deal of thought that has gone into it and it is actually telling a larger story in a way.

By designating it a song cycle, we are also expanding the idea of what a song is because there is no singing in this piece, but the poems that Mike have written are very beautiful. They have a yearning quality to them that you could hear almost as a song. The way I have set them to music has been more like creating musical environments for these texts to be delivered quasi-dramatically: read as poetry really. So we are also experimenting with the idea of what can be construed as a song cycle.

This is your first collaborative effort. How do your individual experiences and talents complement each other? What prompted you to work together on this piece in particular?

Mike Ladd: Hip-hop is often touted as some universalizing phenomena for my generation and those that succeed it. However there is something to be said for such a verbose popular art form and its impulse toward dialogue. It allows people of different cultural backgrounds to share an art form, and though it remains primarily Black American (for now), people are allowed to verbally insert their own cultural identifiers (as long as it doesn't offend the mass market). Vijay and I both grew up around this tradition. This is an anomalous example but once at a talent show in high school in Uttar Pradesh, my friend Javaid and I rhymed while playing tabla; predictably the chorus was "dah dhin dhin dah".

This project made a lot of sense to me because of the experiences that I had had — whether it was living in Boston, or going to high school in Uttar Pradesh, or living in NY for ten years, or living in Zimbabwe. It enabled me to put things together in a much clearer, more explicit, way, rather than having them as secret influences. It also allowed me to learn a lot about things I have always had an interest in: jazz, experimental music, and forward-thinking music in general.

Vijay has been able to help me get a better foothold in all this because a lot of what I do in my own work is experimental but you always need to build your base. We are in a time where, especially with electronic music, you can hack around forever and get plenty of accolades for making what is essentially bullshit. I am not a musician, but I make electronic music. So it helps me a lot to solidify where I am going musically to be better acquainted with people who treat music from every angle — from a rigorous angle, from an academic angle, and also from the same visceral angle with which I approach it.

Also, the fact that I am not actually doing any substantial music for this project is a godsend, because it has enabled me to do what I've really wanted to do for a long time, which is get back to strictly writing.