Exploring the "Irrepressibly Subjective" with Teju Cole / by Liquid Music

by Liquid Music Blog Contributor Patrick Marschke

"Zürich , 2014" by Teju Cole from   Blind Spot

"Zürich, 2014" by Teju Cole from Blind Spot

The idea of “multimedia” existed before the technology that it is usually associated with came into existence. Google defines its adjective form as: “using more than one medium of expression or communication.” If you dig down deep enough, it can be hard to think of an art form that doesn’t fall within this definition: a painting doesn’t exist without architecture and light, music doesn’t exist without performance and time, film/video never pretended to be anything other than an assemblage of mediums. In a way, multimedia work is the most intuitive and fulfilling things one can make — the medium serves as a conduit to an idea, a tool rather than a bin.

At the same time, words like these exist: 
Art Critic

But these concepts also came after. On the most neutral level they make things easier. Easier to talk about, easier to be excited about, and, of course, easier to sell. 

And yet artists have perpetually pursued a genre-less, medium agnostic, non-commodifiable paths of seemingly insurmountable resistance. Why? 

Teju Cole and Vijay Iyer both have built incredible careers that undeniably answer this question, and their most recent collaboration, Blind Spot, serves as the main argument for this path of most resistance. Its vitality is rooted in its unrelenting and “irrepressibly subjective” lens of emotional and intellectual vibrancy. 

To prepare for the Midwest premiere of Blind Spot we spoke with Teju Cole about collaboration, improvisation, and his relationship with and dedication to the subjective.

[This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity]

photo via Christopher Anderson/Magnum Photos.

photo via Christopher Anderson/Magnum Photos.

How did you meet Vijay Iyer and how did this collaboration come about? 

Teju Cole: A few years ago we were both living in Manhattan near Columbia University and I used to run into him on the subway. This must have been in the early 2000s — I was in grad school at Columbia and he was already working as an artist living in that neighborhood. I think we really took note of each other when he noticed that “Oh, this guy that I keep running into on the subway is also the guy that is coming to my concerts.” I would run into him on the way to go see his show. I started out as more of a “fan.” I really appreciated his work — I got on the Vijay Iyer train very early. I liked the kind of thinking he was doing with his music. It was very visceral, incredibly intelligent but very emotionally resonant music. From there it eventually became a friendship. 

A few years later when my first book was published in Nigeria in 2007 I gave Vijay a copy of it. The book actually mentions finding his work in Lagos. I think it is always an interesting thing between artists when both parties now [are established enough to] have something to show, something to present. A few years after that when Open City was published, my first published book in the US, Vijay reached out to me about doing a collaboration around that work. And that's how we properly started collaborating. I think we recognized in each other an interest in the complexity and flow of what it meant to be in this space. For us, America is not some simple straightforward thing. It's a space in which many different energies are functioning and I think we recognized that in each other. 

So we did the Open City Suite, and we’ve done that a few times. In the past couple of years, the evolving Blind Spot project has become our most sustained collaboration. We’ve done it in a few places but what’s interesting is that it is not a written [or composed] suite. But it would also be inaccurate to call it improvised. It's a very advanced form of real-time composition — I think that’s a fair way to put it. What we are going to do in Minneapolis has never been heard before, but it couldn’t be further from what people call “free jazz,” in a sense. The text and images are kind of like the score that we are reading from.

For me, just to be working with somebody who is so advanced in his thinking, and yet also creates such beautiful work is such a thrill. I’m so happy about it. 

...and Vijay is so studied in various forms of American improvisation: being able to study and work with AACM folks like George Lewis and Wadada Leo Smith — and that they were doing similar forms of multimedia work 40+ years ago… 

Absolutely! So his profound knowledge of the American black music and improvised music traditions are definitely part of the extraordinary pleasures that one takes from his work. But I think it's also important to note that he’s never identified solely a jazz musician. He has always prioritized collaborations: he’s definitely the best band leader I’ve ever seen at work, just in the way in which he allows other player, parties, and energies to flow when they are working together. And he’s always had a very profound respect for the role of literature and the spoken word as part of the texture of acoustic experience. He’s done many projects of this kind — it's always been inherent in his work. 

Can you talk a little bit about the inception of the work? Did the text come first?

It's actually really interesting: after we’d done Open City in 2013 he reached out to me in 2015 having been asked to curate a series of events at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He said that he wanted me to be a part of it and asked if I had any new material. I mention that I had been thinking a lot about images and text and what they do to next each other, and [thought:] “what if we added music as a third element?” At that point even I didn’t know what the project was, you know? I thought maybe it would lead to an exhibition, or a perhaps book to be published in Italy. I had no plans to publish it in the US. So really the first outing this material had was in the context of making music with Vijay. 

So we worked out some of the images and text in a very raw form and presented it at the Met. We did maybe six sets over the course of the week. It was incredibly intense, very moving, very engaged in a very compact space, and I could see that people were having a very emotional experience with it. It changed my relationship to my own work as well. As a writer, we are often at some distance from what the effect the work is having on people. It’s quite different for musicians who can see the immediate emotional impact that the work is having their audience.  

‘Brienzersee, June 2014’, Teju Cole

‘Brienzersee, June 2014’, Teju Cole

It's different every time — I change which images are in it. I never know what form of acoustic attack that Vijay or the trio is gonna have so it keeps it really fresh. We’ve done a version of this at Jazz SF, at the Institute for Contemporary Art. It's been interesting: I’m a writer and photographer, he’s a musician, but it seems like the contemporary art museum context is where this thing really takes flight. The museums are the ones that are bold enough to program this and have faith in what it can be. 

I also have to say: every time that we’ve done it not only has it been different but I think we find a deeper scene, we’ve whittled away some of the more obvious stuff and we go into a deeper place with it. The quality of listening just keeps improving.  

It is very cool to hear that even the images and text are “improvised” as well.

Absolutely. Keeping the material fresh is so vital. Not having pre-prepared answers… for example, I’m having this interview with you, I don’t have a cheat sheet, you know? I’m thinking with you in real time. This idea of doing work in real time is what keeps a performer interested, and if they're interested then the audience also has a chance to be interested.

In a way improvisation is the most natural thing in the world — it is the first thing we do. At times society can make you feel like “play” is a bad thing, but improvisers like Vijay and this project are such a tremendous example of how complex,  sophisticated, nuanced, and rich this medium can be.  

This has been the great American contribution to music over the course of the 20th century. To really bring it to the mainstream that improvised music is in no sense inferior to notated/composed music. There are all kinds of inquiries we can make about “American Classical Music” and all kinds of arguments around the word “Jazz” itself, and yet there is something there: call it improvisation, real-time-composition, or flexible modes of music making — those things are not intellectually or musically inferior to Beethoven or Mahler.

You seem to be a fairly prolific creator of Spotify playlists, what inspired you to start making them and what role do they serve for you? 

I’ve always been interested in presenting the music in my head to other people. Many years ago in college, I even dabbled in doing college radio. It was just fun: this idea of “and here is what I’m going to play you next,” you know? It’s interesting to think that you are not recommending an individual song to someone, you’re creating a listening experience, which has to do with more than one song. In the days that I was super active on Twitter, I used to make youtube playlist or just give lists of songs. 

Creating playlists is one of my great joys — it is one important aspect of my work that’s not related to compensation, I’m not paid for it, it’s not part of my job description. It just gives me a lot of joy and I think it gives other people joy as well. It also enacts, hopefully in a straightforward and unobtrusive way, my belief that there is no hierarchy among genres — [the lists include] a lot of so-called jazz, hip-hop, classical, Nigerian dance music, a lot of so-called “world music” because ALL of it is interesting. This is how I’ve always lived my life, I think that is true of many many people as well. Though when you turn on the radio the experience you get is that people only tend to like one kind of music or that they think of music in these categories rather than in these emotional experiences, which is actually what music is. 

Your work doesn’t seem to pay much attention to genre, hierarchies, or classification, a tendency that is truly at the heart of Liquid Music and Walker Performing Arts — which is certainly not the path of least resistance. How have you sustained such broad interests and output when it is so easy to be pegged solely as a critic, writer, photographer, etc.?

That categorization can be really tedious. But when you find a space that is responding to something other than the needs of the exigencies of the marketplace its a real pleasure because then some other thing can happen. 

‘Rivaz, October 2014’  by Teju Cole from Blind Spot

‘Rivaz, October 2014’ by Teju Cole from Blind Spot

For me, there is no dissonance in being a writer and photographer and anything else I am interested in pursuing at a given point in my life. It’s gonna sound weird but I know that if you are in a situation in your life where you can’t pay rent or you can’t eat enough food: that’s a desperate situation and that needs to be solved. But beyond those basic material needs of shelter, food, and clothing we actually have a lot more freedom than we think we do. Nobody owes you a huge income. You might luck out and stumble your way into a pretty decent income. But since I was quite young I told myself I would always prioritize the work I wanted to do as long as I found ways of making a basic living. It’s not a choice that everyone makes. Some people are like, “well I want to prioritize the work that interests me but I also have to make a lot of money doing it.” Hyper-Capitalist Neoliberal arrangements don’t always allow for that. A lot of it has to do with just surrendering and saying that “it is more important for me to do work that affirms my notion of what art is up to.” And if rewards come that then it's a really pleasant surprise. 

But it was never a calculated agenda, that the money would follow. I’ve never believed that. There's been some money in this for me but I’ve never counted on it, and I still don’t because who knows whether the next thing I do will be considered too free to have a place in the market. Or the countless hours I’ve spent putting together playlists: that's time I could spend getting paid for something. One can over prioritize getting paid. There is an expression people use “You left money on the table,” meaning that in every situation you should try to maximize financial gain. I think that's a death kiss for art. In every situation, you should try to maximize your creative freedom. That should be the first variable that is put up when your negotiating. It’s a variable, it doesn’t mean you always have maximum artistic freedom. But if that is not being prioritized then its just product. 

I’m not going to speak for Vijay, but I sense the same thinking is true for him. If you wanted to have the amazingly successful career he’s had, those are not the calculations you would make. That kind of music, with that kind of intensity, with that kind of focus, with that kind of moral and ethical and political commitment. Those particular sets of choices are more likely to give somebody a small but respectable reputation. Meanwhile, he’s got a huge reputation because sometimes your luck plays out in such a way that things end up being bigger than you planned them to be. But this stuff can’t be calculated so you might as well just honor your own freedom at every step of the way. 

Your writing and photography seem to simultaneously have a deeply rich emotional quality while leaving so much room for the viewer/reader to find a bit of themselves in the work(s). Can you speak to where this comes from? Should audiences expect a similar effect from Blind Spot

I think so. I think that our intellect is one of our necessary conduits to the recollection of experience — we can’t check our brains at the door. The work has to be smart. And yet it can be smart and also emotionally real. My hope is that people will have an experience where they don’t feel like they checked their brains at the door, where they feel like their intellect is being challenged. But at the same time the psyche, the soul, the human part of ourselves is moved. And not in a general way, right? But in a very specific, highly individuated way. The material is fairly wide-ranging and the hope is that everybody finds an aspect that is like: “yes, that really speaks to ME, personally, in this place at this particular time, it feels like a message to me.” If we can achieve that, that's heaven for us as performers and presenters. 

It seems like both writing and photography can easily err on the side of objectivity or documentation, while music, especially instrumental music, tends perpetually lean toward abstraction. But your work seems to find a place between those sides of the spectrum. How do all of these things coalesce in your mind and how you think about this performance?

I would never say that I’m trying to go for an abstract quality in the work. I would say that I’m trying to go for an irrepressibly subjective quality in the work. It has to be subjective because for me it is important to not be speaking from a place of authority, or from the assumed center of the discourse. I am coming to all of this as one person in my own life, speaking to you, in your own life. I’m not at the center of the discourse, I’m not a heterosexual white man who comes from a long line of artistic privilege or anything like that. I have experiences that are outsider-ish, I experience the world in a highly subjective way. 

And then to realize that that subjectivity is actually worth transmitting, that it can be a gathering point. If I’m writing for photography criticism, if I’m writing fiction, or if I’m making an image: the burden of speaking in a neutral, objective, and permanent way, like a block of granite — I don’t have that burden. I can just testify to an intense, small, highly personal experience, and trust that because we all have intense, small, highly personal experiences it’s gonna meet someone out there. 

It’s about trusting subjectivity as a mode of ethical discourse. 

Buy tickets to the midwest premiere of VIJAY IYER & TEJU COLE: BLIND SPOT copresented by LIQUID MUSIC AND WALKER ART CENTER mAY 31 & JUNE 1, and keep an eye out for Teju's interview with Krista Tippett via On Being in the coming months.

Follow Teju Cole:
Website: http://www.tejucole.com/
Publisher: https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/authors/91688/teju-cole
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Teju-Cole-200401352198/
Instagram: @_tejucole

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