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New trio Love In Exile is a manifestation of musical telepathy

Love In Exile is (from left) Arooj Aftab, Vijay Iyer and Shahzad Ismaily. The Trio just released its self-titled debut album.
Ebru Yildiz
Courtesy of the artist
Love In Exile is (from left) Arooj Aftab, Vijay Iyer and Shahzad Ismaily. The Trio just released its self-titled debut album.

This piece is adapted from a longer interview that was published in the All Songs Considered podcast. Click here to listen to the full conversation.

What does listening sound like? Pianist and composer Vijay Iyer often poses this question to his students, at Harvard and the New England Conservatory.

"It's almost like a Zen koan or something," he said one recent morning, in a basement lair at Figure 8 Recording in Brooklyn. But, he added, the answer manifests clearly in the moment-to-moment interplay of Love in Exile, his nearly telepathic collective trio with singer Arooj Aftab and bassist Shahzad Ismaily. "When Arooj isn't singing, she's listening," Iyer pointed out. "What makes it work is the quality of listening, and that's basically what we're hearing."

Aftab, seated next to him, chimed in: "When I'm not singing, I'm usually also drinking wine ... " All three artists burst out laughing, as if a pressure valve had been released.

They had gathered at Figure 8 Recording, which Ismaily owns and operates, to talk about the trio's entrancing self-titled debut album, which was just released on Verve. (A concert tour kicks off this weekend at the Big Ears Festival.) Seated in a semicircle in the smaller of Figure 8's two studios, surrounded by analog synthesizers and vintage drum machines, the three musicians often picked up on and extended each other's observations; their dialogue presented an opportunity to explore the same ideal of listening and responding, in words as in music.

The interview touched on the origins of the trio, which felt instantly charged with spiritual energies; the implications of the name "Love in Exile," with its play of diaspora and longing; the mysterious way that a song form can emerge out of group improv and "ritual time" as an expression of tempo ungoverned by genre or market concerns.

Aftab, whose 2021 album Vulture Prince was a critical and cultural breakthrough, also pointedly pushed back against any privileging of voice or lyrics within the music. "I'm saying lots of random fragments of things, because I'm trying to use them as vowels to really just sing," she said. "I never get to do that. So this project is especially interesting for me, because I get to flex a little bit. I'm not a very showcase-y singer in my other projects, but in this one, I get to go to spaces very freely without responsibility, because the responsibility of the music is shared."

Love in Exile is a chronicle of that shared experience, suffused with unfolding mystery and deep human connection. It's also an invitation — a reminder that the art of listening is an open system, by no means restricted to the musicians on the stage.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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