Vijay Iyer Reflects on Music, Ownership, and Improvisation

In the second installment of the Freedom Talks speaker series, Grammy-award winning musician and professor Vijay Iyer spoke about the Western conception of music as something that can be owned and argued for the need to historicize concepts like improvisation and freedom.

Vijay Iyer Reflects on Music, Ownership, and Improvisation
Professor of music Darryl Harper asked Iyer about his recent album with vocalist Arooj Aftab and musician Shahzad Ismaily. Photo courtesy of Noor Rahman ’25.

Musician, MacArthur Fellow, and Grammy nominee Vijay Iyer was the second speaker in the college’s “Freedom Talks” series. Iyer engaged in a conversation titled “Improvisation as Freedom” hosted by Darryl Harper, chair of the music department, on Oct. 24 in the Lyceum’s Center for Humanistic Inquiry.

The conversation centered around Iyer’s work as a musician, professor of music at Harvard, and a scholar of music theory. Iyer interrogated the notion of improvisation, locating the term as part of a Western framework that understands music as property. He noted the need to historicize the idea of improvisation as well as freedom itself. He critiqued conventional approaches to studying the evolution of music, discussed his work to diversify and decentralize Harvard’s music major, and showed the audience a video of a piece he performed with two other musicians.

The notion of improvisation was introduced as an alternative to music that is owned, which is a concept invented by Western musicians, said Iyer.

The West views music “as an object, as this thing that is owned by the composer, or by the record label, or by some capitalist entity,” he said.

Improvisation, then, is “what escapes” from this framework of ownership, Iyer explained, expressing his frustration with the terminology musicians are given to describe their work.

“It’s a bit of a trap,” he said.

In an interview with The Student, Carl Clements, a saxophone instructor in the music department, was fascinated by this idea of improvisation, wondering what it meant for musicians playing music from cultures other than their own.

“There's also ownership that tends to be less literalistic and more cultural. So as a performer of jazz music, am I infringing upon African-American ownership of participating in an invalid way? Or as somebody who also plays North Indian classical music?” Clements said. “I deal with some of the same questions, and it's a huge ongoing topic.”

Just as improvisation exists as the antithesis of the notion of music as property, Iyer highlighted the need to historicize the concept of freedom in a similar manner. Freedom was made politically relevant by the founding of Western nations such as the United States and France. Of course, many of the key figures in these political events were themselves slaveholders.

“Enslavement is the context of the birth of the idea of freedom,” Iyer said.

Iyer also touched on the danger of applying scientific ideologies to music history without considering the ways that power inflects both the production and study of music. Often, he noted, conversations focus on the universal qualities that unite the human species, without acknowledging the reality of violence across ethnic and racial lines.

“Scientific homilies about the universal qualities of man leave out this very essential fact about us that we are violent to each other, unless we figure out how not to be,” Iyer said.

During the question and answer session that followed the conversation, Iyer addressed a question about challenging typical methods of teaching music. He discussed his experience as the only non-white faculty member during his first year of teaching at Harvard. At the time, the major required several courses about eurocentric music theory and history  — and no courses that gave students the chance to make their own music. Most music majors at the time were white men, Iyer said.

Over time, Iyer helped to decentralize the major, allowing for multiple pathways that allowed for more student creativity and more exposure to professors’ areas of expertise.

Music major Ian Behrstock ’26 was interested in how the changes that Iyer helped make at Harvard can be applied to Amherst.

“Most of the music majors, especially people in the jazz performance program, are white men,” he said. “I think that a lot of those questions that he was asking at Harvard need to be asked here.”

Near the end of his talk, Iyer showed the audience a clip from a performance he participated in alongside vocalist Arooj Aftab and musician Shahzad Ismaily, with whom he recently released an album called “Love in Exile.” As was the case with all collaborations by the trio, it was not rehearsed.

“He’s one of the most legendary musicians and composers and thinkers in the world of music right now, and I was definitely very inspired by the way that he relates to his music,” Behrstock reflected.