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Vijay Iyer makes his ECM debut

Cover of the recording being discussed
Cover of the recording being discussed
courtesy of Universal Music Group

Last week ECM released its first recording of the prodigiously inventive pianist Vijay Iyer. The title of the album is Mutations, which is also the title of a collection of ten compositions scored for string quartet, piano, and electronics, which Iyer describes as a suite in ten episodes. The members of the string quartet were assembled explicitly for recording this composition. They consist of violinists Miranda Cuckson and Michi Wiancko, violist Kyle Armbrust, and cellist Kivie Cahn-Lipman. Regular readers of this site may recall that I selected Cuckson’s recording of Luigi Nono’s “La Lontananza nostalgica utopica futura” (which also involved electronic technology) as one of the most significant recordings of 2013, although she probably was more pleased that The New York Times had named it a Best Classical Recording of 2012. Iyer himself is responsible for the electronics in addition to playing piano.

The album also includes Iyer playing an early solo composition, “Spellbound and Sacrosanct, Cowrie Shells and the Shimmering Sea,” and two recent pieces for piano and electronics, the second part of Vuln and “When We’re Gone,” both created last summer.

Note that last verb. The track listing page in the accompanying booklet concludes with the sentence:

All compositions by Vijay Iyer

However, all of my past articles about Iyer have classified his work as “jazz” and have involved either solo work or performances with a trio. This leads me to suspect that “creation” may involved some combination of improvisation and “capture” (through notation and/or recording); and, if I continue to approach jazz as “chamber music by other means,” then the Mutations suite may be a model of chamber music as “jazz by other means.”

Regardless of what games any of us choose to play with category labels, however, Iyer is one of the most cerebral of the current crop of music-makers, whatever “means” may go into his efforts to make music. I do not use that adjective frivolously, since he also holds a Ph.D. on the strength of an interdisciplinary thesis about the cognitive science of music. At the very least he is one of those rare scholars in the area of cognitive science whose theories can be said to rest on a solid foundation of practice.

Nevertheless, his practices are not always readily accessible, particularly to users encountering him for the first time. In this respect he is hardly unique. In my own student days I had one hell of a time with my initial encounters with Thelonious Monk at the Village Vanguard. It took more than a fair amount of highly attentive listening to Monk recordings before I could begin to apprehend what the man was doing. (Unfortunately, I arrived at that level of understanding after Monk died.)

In that respect I recommend Mutations as a recording that deserves multiple listening experiences. That recommendation does not necessarily place it above past recordings that Iyer has made as a soloist or with his trio. However, because this new release is such a fascinating challenge to how we think about chamber music, I find myself drawn to it more than to those earlier recordings that (for better or worse) have been classified as “jazz.”

Ultimately, I have to fall back on that noun “creation.” The listener that experiences Mutations may not come away from “first contact” with a clear sense of what has been “created;” but this is definitely music that grows on you. As it grows, you are likely to experience a parallel growth in what you take to be music and how it is made; and that is when you know that your listening skills have been suitably honed.