Music Review: Vijay Iyer, vamping in Technicolor in the Land of Oz

vijay2It’s hard to believe Oz Arts Nashville is not yet a year old. In short order, this adventurous, forwarding-looking venue for the contemporary arts has fundamentally changed the creative landscape of Music City. Now, anything seems possible.

On Saturday night, the renowned composer and jazz pianist Vijay Iyer was at Oz, exploring the possibilities of combining improvised jazz with notated post-minimal chamber music and electronics. Iyer’s experiments took two forms. The first was Mutations I-X, a 10-movement suite for improvised jazz piano, amplified string quartet and electronics. The second was Radhe Radhe: Rites of Holi, a film by Prashant Bhargava that was screened to live accompaniment by Iyer and the International Contemporary Ensemble. Both works received memorable performances.

In his program notes, Iyer describes the biological phenomenon of mutation as “the noise in our genes,” and evolution as a “dynamic, noisy interaction between a species and innumerable competing, fluctuating environmental factors – a situated, ecosystem-wide improvisation.” Substitute the terms mutation, evolution and environmental factors with “notated passages,” “structured improvisation” and “electronic sounds” and you end up with a pretty good understanding of Iyer’s music.

In Mutations I-X, a small event – a rhythmic pattern, a melodic motif, an electronic sample – changes slowly but dramatically over time. In the first mutation, called “Air,” a simple, unison string pulse evolves into a lively, Philip Glass-like ostinato pattern. In the fourth mutation, titled “Chain,” a coarse electronic pulse eventually gives rise to a spikey Thelonious Monk-like piano improvisation.

I didn’t hear anything especially new in Mutations I-X, save for perhaps the opening of the second mutation, “Rise”: I’ve never heard a string quartet sound like an engine revving up before. What did seem new was the way Iyer blended notation and improvisation together, using electronics as a kind of epoxy. The notated string playing always seemed spontaneous on Saturday, and the piano improvisation always seemed well-considered.

The quartet – violinists Miranda Cuckson and Michi Wiancko, violist Kylr Armbrust and cellist Kivie Cahn-Lipman – played with power and precision. Just as importantly, they really seemed to enjoy playing this music, and the feeling was contagious. Iyer was an imaginative leader and received a much deserved ovation.

Iyer and Bhargava created Radhe Radhe: Rites of Holi to commemorate last year’s centennial of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Stravinsky’s ballet dealt with a fictional event, an imagined, prehistoric ritual sacrifice to the gods of fertility. Iyer and Bhargava focused on a real event, the annual Hindu Holi festival in Mathura, located in Uttar Pradesh, India.

The beautifully colorful film features an entire day of the festival, from a sleepy dawn, which shows Radhe herself (played by Anna George) slowly rising, to a frenzied evening climax before a blazing, transcendent bonfire. Iyer’s music – shimmering, colorful and rhythmically propulsive – captures the radiant energy and joy of Bhargava’s beautiful film. The International Contemporary Ensemble, under the splendid direction of David Fulmer, gave an expressive and expertly calibrated rendition of the score.

Mutations I-X and Radhe Radhe repeat again at 2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 9 at Oz. Making a trip to the Land of Oz for this performance is a rite of passage every music and film lover should undergo. For tickets and additional information, click here.

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About John Pitcher

John Pitcher is the chief classical music, jazz and dance critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He has been a classical music critic for the Washington Post, the Rochester (NY) Democrat and Chronicle, National Public Radio’s Performance Today (NPR), and the Nashville Scene. His writings about music and the arts have also appeared in Symphony Magazine, American Record Guide and Stagebill Magazine, among other publications. Pitcher earned his master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, where he studied arts writing with Judith Crist and Phyllis Garland. His work has received the New York State Associated Press award for outstanding classical music criticism.