A Composer and Scholar’s Discoveries: Vijay Iyer’s Mutations and Break Stuff

By Daniel Garrett

Vijay Iyer, Mutations (ECM, 2014) and Break Stuff (ECM, 2015)

and the film Radhe Radhe: Rites of Holi (ECM/Universal, 2013-2014)

One of the most gifted and celebrated musicians of his generation, Vijay Iyer, a born New Yorker of Asian descent, an Indian-American, is a composer, musician, scholar, and communicator who has explored different musical sources—classical, popular, and folk—and varied subjects, including war.  Vijay Iyer has worked with Steve Coleman, Karsh Kale, Butch Morris, Amina Claudine Myers, Robert Pinsky, Charles Simic, and Talvin Singh, among other artists.  Some of Vijay Iyer’s recent works are the music albums Mutations (2014) and Break Stuff (2015) and the film Radhe Radhe: Rites of Holi (2014), a cinematic collaboration with filmmaker Prashant Bhargava; and they cannot help but enlarge the esteem in which Iyer is held.

Mutations, produced by Manfred Eicher, is a documentation of the work Vijay Iyer has done for and with chamber music ensembles, and features a composition, a suite for string quartet and piano with electronics, full of changes, with aspects of both classical composition and improvisation: the center of the recording is “Mutations I—X,” but the album contains as well “Spellbound and Sacrosanct, Cowrie Shells and the Shimmering Sea” and “Vuln, Part 2” and “When We’re Gone.”  Iyer works with Miranda Cuckson, Michi Wiancko, Kivie Cahn-Lipman, and Kyle Armbrust on Mutations, musicians very familiar with modern composed music.  “Spellbound and Sacrosanct” is delicate and rich, with the improvisational freshness of jazz and the firm form of classical music—followed by “Vuln, Part 2.”  “Mutations” sounds modern, even futuristic, but resorts to something else, something deeper and older; and towards the end a sharpness enters the music, something piercing and disruptive (the kind of thing perceived as modern though it may be a break in time and thought).  “When We’re Gone” is a short quiet delicate piece.  Break Stuff, featuring Iyer with double bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Marcus Gilmore, was actually inspired by those moments when movements and sound know intermission, pause, and it reimagines—or reconstructs—other works that Iyer has done, including collaborations with or informed by artists such as Teju Cole, John Coltrane, Robert Hood, and Billy Strayhorn.  Break Stuff has elegance and energy; and it is full of small expanses of sound—abstract, beautiful, effervescent.  The songs have titles such as “Starlings” and “Taking Flight” and “Mystery Woman” and “Geese” and “Wrens.”  There are compositions by Thelonious Monk (“Work”), Billy Strayhorn (“Blood Count”) and John Coltrane (“Countdown”).  Vijay Iyer’s mastery is both embarrassment and encouragement for the rest of us—may we be as well chasers of excellence.

Radhe Radhe: Rites of Holi, a film in two parts (“Adoration” and “Transcendence”), filmed mostly in Mathura in north India, is in commemoration of an eight-day Indian celebration of spring and of love (specifically the love between the god Krishna and the woman Radha, played in the film by Anna George)—a celebration of freedom, love, pleasure, and seasonal change called Holi.  “Adoration” is about the preparation for and celebration of the festival; and “Transcendence” gives more attention to the relationship between the god Krishna and his earthly lover Radha, although it too shows aspects of the communal celebration.  Radhe Radhe: Rites of Holi is a multimedia work with filmmaker Prashant Bhargava, a graffiti artist, computer science maven, and theater director, whose short film on immigration, Sangam, appeared in 2004 and whose feature film The Kite, organized around an Indian kite festival, appeared in 2012.  In the film Radhe Radhe: Rites of Holi, for “Adoration” we see landscapes in the early morning hours and how people begin their day—with bathing and food preparation and the gathering of flowers.  The procession of people through the streets seems joyous at first.  There is flirting and taunting between men and women.  Dancing.  Colors—dry powders and wet liquids—are thrown on those who parade and there seems both joy and aggression in how this is done.  The mood is sensual and spiritual—ecstatic, but not usually sexual (some of the gestures among some participants is sexual).  In “Transcendence” the woman Radha and the blue-skinned god Krishna caress each other in joy and pleasure; and we see also late night communal gatherings, ritual ceremonies—women in a circle beat sticks at a small round thing that a man holds above his head as he stoops, and, elsewhere, there is a large fire burning.  Vijay Iyer was inspired by the Indian festival images of Prashant Bhargava in Radhe Radhe: Rites of Holi, incorporating the country’s rhythms in his musical score.  The music, performed by the International Contemporary Ensemble, has diverse aspects—natural sounds, native Indian music, composed work, and jazz.  The film, commissioned by Carolina Performing Arts, premiered at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, and has screened in Los Angeles, Nashville, New York, and Washington, the District of Columbia.

Purchasing link: http://www.amoeba.com/break-stuff-cd-vijay-iyer/albums/3430653/

Daniel Garrett has written about art, books, business, film, and politics, and his work has appeared in The African, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Cinetext, Film International, Offscreen, Rain Taxi, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, andWorld Literature Today, as well as The Compulsive Reader. Author contact: dgarrett31@hotmail.com or d.garrett.writer@gmail.com