Vijay Iyer and Mike Ladd: Still Life with Commentator (2007)
The oratorio that we all know is Handel's Messiah. This musical form approaches that of opera. The only difference is that there is no acting and huge performance ethic. An oratorio unfolds a chain of isolated yet interrelated parts that address the overall concept of the piece.
Once again keyboardist Vijay Iyer and vocalist Mike Ladd have collaborated brilliantly to author the oratorio Still Life with Commentator. This work illuminates the perils within contemporary global society from the standpoint of the media and information blitz. The recording follows two premiere performances, one in the US and the other in Austria in 2006.
The meaning of every segment of this work is transported with a musical richness that is absolutely perfect. The music is a breathtaking mixture of an acoustic underlayment of piano, cello and percussion with electronic arrays. Every single bit of music not only translates the intended impact of the spoken or sung poetry, but also resonates with great impact of its own.
Iyer has outdone himself in this extraordinary exposition. His versatility extends within the piece from playing the piano to sculpting highly ornamental yet structurally strong, formalized and rhythmic programming and sequencing. From the heartbeat-like pulse that introduces the dramatically edgy vocalization by Ladd to the dense diversified layering that expands and contracts throughout to the very last hint of explosive sound that closes the recording, this music transcends what any other contemporary classical composer could do. Even though the music is composed and not improvised, it is free and flexible and blends inextricably with the moments.
Ladd's poetry pierces with raw pungency. He lets very little escape attention or examination. That is the beauty, intelligence and attraction of his poetry. The poetry intertwines disparate references and correlates them within numerous metaphors.
When combined with the music, the poetry unites with a tempo that renders it unforgettable and haunting. The lyrics are themselves enlivened by the diversity of singers. The vocal intonations constantly vary when they come from female, African-American, Asian and Japanese vocalists. The chorus offers a way to plug into repeated verses. And the individual singers lend an approach to the lyrics that sets up the way in which the listener will absorb them.
The words and the music cannot be separated. You can read the words in the liner notes but they seem wanting without the music, much like a libretto lies dead on a printed page without being sung. And the music is unimaginable without the words. Iyer has taken Ladd's poetry into his being and transformed starkly political and razor-sharp criticism into a stunning reflection of our jagged cultural disconnections. Ladd and Iyer have humanized our world and remind us to believe in and practice what we know instinctually to be good.
Track Listing: Infogee Rhapsody; Edward L. Bernays Flies the Hindenburg; Been There Done That; Cleaning Up the Mess; Lake Aaron; Jon Stewart on Crossfire; Shep's Brook; Riding on the Intro Graphics to Cable News; Man Channel' Fox 'n' Friends; Holocaust Blog; Cyber-Nut Bucolia; Mount Rather; Latex Thumbs-Up; Redemption Chant; Blog Mom's Anthem; The Last Atrocity.
Personnel: Mike Ladd: vocals; Pamela Z: vocals, vocal textures and live electronic processing; Palina Jonsdottir: vocals; Guillermo E. Brown: vocals, electronic percussion and percussion; Masayasu Nakanishi: vocals; Vijay Iyer: piano,synthesizer, programming and live sequencing; Liberty Ellman: guitar; Okkyung Lee: cello.