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Vijay Iyer: Vijay Iyer: Mutations

John Kelman By

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There are times when it's possible to chart an artist's success through his association with record labels. Vijay Iyer—who, over the past 20 years, has built a reputation for genre-defying, forward-reaching music—spent the early part of his career on independent US labels including the highly regarded Pi Recordings, Savoy Jazz and Sunnyside Records. But it was with his move to Germany's ACT Music label and a series of trio and solo recordings, including the Grammy-nominated Historicity (2009), that the pianist began to garner even more attention. Still, as good as his four ACT recordings were, looking at the label's overall purview it's no surprise to find him relocating elsewhere in the same city of Munich, to the more highly esteemed ECM Records. Simply put, Mutations is a recording that Iyer could never have released on ACT, and it's that very freedom to explore less-traveled terrain—and the opportunity to work with an active producer in Manfred Eicher and his acute attention to sonic translucence—that makes this, hopefully, the beginning of a long and creatively fecund relationship.

On the strength of Mutations, it's clear that Iyer's relationship with Eicher is already bearing significant fruit. Focusing more on composition—though improvisation is by no means far away—at Mutation's core is the ten-part, 45-minute title suite, a dark, otherworldly piece of music for piano, string quartet and electronics. The suite is bookended by three pieces for solo piano and, in some cases, electronics: the crepuscular opener, "Spellbound and Sacrosanct, Cowrie Shells and the Shimmering Sea"—first heard on the pianist's 1995 Asian Improv Records debut, Memorophilia—is revamped from its original trio format into a solo vehicle, intrinsically providing Iyer more room for self-expression, especially when it comes to time; "Vuln, Pt 2" follows and, with the introduction of electronics that provide shimmering color and a subtle pulse, acts as a perfect segue into the Mutations suite; the closing "When We're Gone," with Iyer's sparely delivered abstrusities and subtle, panning electronic chimes, is the perfect coda to an hour-long journey through terrain defined by melodic cells or kernels and the manner in which subtle shifts—sometimes planned, other times a function of in-the-moment decision making when it comes to how and when to incorporate them—cause the very mutations that give the suite its title.

"Mutation I: Air" begins with a single bowed note, gradually joined by the rest of the string quartet to gradually build to a brighter, minimalist-oriented piece of counterpoint, a soaring violin line eventually emerging over the propulsive underpinning only to become subsumed as yet another kernel to be morphed, gradually, into something else, in this case a combination of long-bowed notes that drag the tempo down towards its conclusion. "Mutation II: Rise," is aptly titled; after a brief intro of delicately percussive electronics, the strings enter, beginning in a low register and gradually ascending until various members of the string quartet begin to inject oblique lines atop the persistent soaring of their partners. Iyer makes his first appearance in the suite on the equally well-titled "Mutation III: Canon," a contrapuntal miniature where thematic constructs and repeated phrases move in and out of the mix—one moment dominating, the next, supporting.

The ambitious nature of Iyer's work on Mutations may seem new, based on his extant discography; the truth, however, is something else. The MacArthur Foundation Fellowship recipient—often referred to as "the genius grant," and for good reason—has worked with classical instrumentation throughout his career—not just writing for them, but studying violin for 15 years and playing in string quartets and orchestras. It's a history that gives Iyer the deeper understanding which makes him particularly qualified to engage in these activities, even though he's been unable to record any of this work until now. The Mutations suite was, in fact, written in 2005, but has changed considerably over time, as Iyer explains, "by working with the same notated elements but pushing the real time element more and more."

"Mutation VII: Kernel" is, perhaps the best example of how Iyer combines compositionally defined constructs with the more unfettered possibilities of improvisation. Described, by Iyer, as "a kind of sculpted, open improvisation," the members of the string quartet are free to take compositional kernels and interpret them in ways that make each performance not just a new experience but, for the pianist/composer, "something new that I didn't even foresee."

Mutations is a landmark recording from an artist who, while already possessing an admirable discography, has clearly been limited to more decidedly jazz-oriented concerns. Representing a significant musical shift, if Mutations is but the first sign of the greater freedom ECM plans to afford Iyer, the only vaticinator of what's to follow will surely be its complete and utter unpredictability.

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