Building perspective

Vijay Iyer’s music seminar encourages creativity and community.

By Ian Askew ‘19

            During the fall semester, more than a dozen students enrolled in Music 266R: Creative Music Seminar taught by Vijay Iyer, professor of the arts in the Department of Music. They wrote compositions and formed ensembles stretching outside of Harvard’s campus to include students from the New England Conservatory of Music and Berklee College of Music. As the semester wraps up, the ensembles are heading into “finals”: performing live for the Harvard community. The first round of performances took place on November 30 at Holden Chapel. Before their last rehearsal, I sat down with Tree Palmedo ‘16, Phillip Golub ‘16 and Alex Graff ‘17 of the Harvard/NEC Mixed Ensemble, a six-piece jazz ensemble that also includes Music 266R classmates Max Lesser ’19 and the NEC’s Simón Willson and Russell Holzman.

Members of the Harvard/NEC Mixed Ensemble practice in Vijay Iyer's office: [left to right] Alex Graff '17, Tree Palmedo '16, Simón Willson of NEC and Max Lesser '19. PHOTO: Ian AskewPalmedo, Golub and Graff had been talking about starting a small jazz ensemble for a while, but the daily rhythm of Harvard and recent transitions in the jazz program made it hard to organize. Vijay Iyer’s arrival on campus provided an opportunity.

“When Vijay came two years ago, everything sort of changed here,” said Palmedo.

Building on a 40-year history marked by the work of Tom Everett, Don Braden '85, Ingrid Monson, a slew of visiting jazz masters and the faculty addition this year of Yosvany Terry, Iyer brought with him not only a host of awards and accolades, but a new perspective on music.

“Vijay recontextualized the way I thought about music entirely,” said Graff. “I think he did that for a lot of people at Harvard because he’s so antithetical to the jazz institution.”

Iyer encouraged ensembles in the course to consider their music from the audience's perspective and to talk in terms of “shapes” and “colors” rather than focus on theory. “We really spent a lot of time thinking about music being about people and music being about relationships between people,” Graff said. He also believes the approach has helped expand the jazz community at Harvard.Jump Phonics PHOTO: Sonia Espinoza

“It’s interesting to see a microcosm of the Boston college music scene come together in the basement of the Harvard music building, sitting with Vijay Iyer and just playing original music,” Graff added. His hope is that it’s a model for something bigger “where the improvised music community of Boston could come together.”

The ensembles from the course have already brought their compositions out of the classroom, with a performance by the Harvard/NEC Mixed Ensemble at NEC and another by the Jump Phonics, a group also working with Iyer, at Harvard.

As for the future of the Harvard/NEC Mixed Ensemble – and even for the near future – Palmedo and Golub are hopeful. “We don’t really know what next semester holds,” Golub said. “It’ll be something, but it won’t be the same something.” Palmedo thought for a moment, then said, “There’s a chance it will transform in a big way.”

The next round of performances, featuring the Jump Phonics, Jacob & Kyle, and Sitcom, will be at 7 p.m. Thursday, December 10 at Holden Chapel.