Vijay Iyer: Mutations (ECM 2372)


Vijay Iyer

Vijay Iyer piano, electronics
Miranda Cuckson violin
Michi Wiancko violin
Kyle Armbrust viola
Kivie Cahn-Lipman violoncello
Recorded September 2013 at Avatar Studios, New York
Engineer: James A. Farber
Assistant: Tim Marchiafava
Produced by Manfred Eicher

In a brief liner note, MacArthur-winning pianist and composer Vijay Iyer defines the title of his ECM debut as “the noise in our genes.” The eponymous decalogue for piano, string quartet and electronics puts this theory into sonic practice with such organicity that fans and newcomers alike will find this laboratory to be a fascinating place in which to marvel at every biological compound. Having studied violin for 15 years, Iyer is anything but a stranger to the sounds of the string quartet, and so inclusion of that reduced orchestra is as timely as the gestures encoded into his score. Although one might read any number of influences into the piece (Terry Riley comes immediately to mind in the introductory movement, “Air,” and in the third, “Canon”), Iyer’s sound-world is very much its own ecosystem, where the randomness of sprouting leaves is just as vital as, and exists as an expression of, the roots that feed them. Subtitles thus reflect more the physical than emotional structure of individual movements. Some are more overt. “Rise,” for instance, consists of a rising tone that falls in on itself at the insistence of sirens and has its partner in the penultimate “Descent,” while small bursts of mechanical activity throughout “Automata” identify its clockwork soul behind the tasteful electronic appliqué. This is the key tone of the emerging landscape, drawn in the hue of dusk. Other portions are less obvious, such as “Chain,” which creates a feeling of linkage by the notes not played. Three distinct forces—the click track, piano, and strings—achieve remarkable unity here. From the concentrated (“Kernel”) to the frenetic (“Clade”), and even to the docked-boat knocking of “Time,” which closes out, the feeling is always one of fractals: the closer you get, the more detail is revealed. This might very well serve to describe Iyer’s entire output so far.

At the periphery of this program the listener will find three solo piano works that are anything but peripheral. Spellbound and Sacrosanct, Cowrie Shells and the Shimmering Sea, as the initiatory phase of both the album and a hopefully longstanding relationship with ECM, speaks with Iyer’s characteristic attention to detail. Contrasting pedaled sustains and shallower drops, he displays an unusual awareness of the piano’s timbral capabilities. In other words, he infuses the piano with a deeper knowledge of itself. He achieves this with no small effort of restraint, lest his territories become too ephemeral to grasp. The final two pieces factor electronics into the equation. Vuln, Part 2 emerges from an astutely urban palette. Augmented by a muffled bass beat, like that of trunk-mounted subwoofers as heard from a neighboring street, serves not as a rhythmic guide but as a reminder of the regularity and therefore fallibility of abstraction. Iyer illustrates that even the most fleeting movements of body and mind are driven by impulses that, when seen from far enough away, become regular and may even disappear. The piano’s beauties, then, exist only to be sworn to secrecy. When We’re Gone is the coda, and as such is trained to open two doors for each one closed. In its starker expansion of time, reflections of mortality tremble like icicles desirous of melting. So do we end as we began: at that indefinable edge between formation and destruction.

(To hear samples of Mutations, you may watch the EPK above or click here.)

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