Exploring Musical Communities with Vijay Iyer

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Recently named the 2013 Pianist of the Year by the Jazz Journalists Association, grammy-nominated Vijay Iyer blends and defies genre both with his own solo and collaborative releases and with his compositions for JACK Quartet, International Contemporary Ensemble and Ethel, among others.

Drawing from Eastern and Western influences, jazz and electronica, improvised and composed music, he's performed with everyone from Pamela Z to Roscoe Mitchell and DJ Spooky. Iyer is currently on faculty at New York University, the New School and Manhattan School of Music.

Vijay Iyer writes the following of his Mixtape:

I've played music all my life, but to this day I don't really know what labels like "classical" or "new" music specifically refer to, except to the community(ies) of people who use such terms to describe what they do, and who identify/collaborate/connect with one another based on that.  If we replace the word "genre" with "community," then "classical" noticeably loses its mystical power as an identifier of musical content, and is highlighted more as a kind of network.  

Here are some pieces (from both "inside" and "outside" that classical-music network) whose approaches to sound, form and process have inspired me.


Traditional Indonesian - Ketawang: Puspawarna

Majestic, polyphonic, and formally striking music from Java. I'm obsessed with the magnificent orchestration and the time-morphing techniques, and have tried to implement baby versions of both in my band.

Gyorgy Ligeti - Piano Concerto: I. Vivace molto ritmico e preciso (Pierre-Laurent Aimard, piano; Ensemble InterContemporain; Pierre Boulez, conductor)

This piece is a clattering, wheezing, diabolical machine, robust yet transparent, with an almost fractal degree of counterpoint. The apparent "complexity" is rendered in strikingly simple ways in the score.

Pauline Oliveros - Turning Meditation

A group improvisation that is taught to and then performed by the audience. I enjoy the process of interaction and discovery, the emergent form, and the fact that somehow it spontaneously assumes nearly the same duration every time.

Robert Hood - Minus

A classic cut from Robert Hood, a pioneering electronic musician from Detroit who talks about "squeezing blood from a drum machine."  I admire the simplicity and functionality of the elements, the intricate rhythms that emerge, and the dance impulse that they elicit.  As a composer I've been trying to implement combinatorial ideas like these, which are linked to African polyrhythm. 

Bela Bartok - String Quartet No. 4: IV. Allegretto pizzicato (Emerson String Quartet)

I played this when I was fifteen and still a violinist. It was the first non-tonal work I ever really got inside of, and it opened my ears to what else was possible with texture, rhythm, synchrony, melodic fragments, a gentle push beyond standard technique, and the manipulation of tension.

Butch Morris- Current Trends in Racism in Modern America, Part II

In the last decades of his life, Butch's instrument of choice was the conductor's baton. He employed a sophisticated lexicon of gestures and cues to guide an ensemble through an exhilarating process of real-time creation and discovery. This early recording is a landmark in the development of his techniques.

Zakir Hussain - Dadra Solo

One of today's tabla masters.  The groove is alive and  tactile, and the phrasing has a melodic quality. This was created in the last decade from compositions handed down across generations.

Pamela Z - Bone Music

Pamela is a brilliant vocalist and creative visionary who has a remarkable way with technology. Here is an example of her virtuosic use of live electronic processing to build a substantial piece in real time. 

Anthony Braxton - Composition 306 (AIMToronto Orchestra)

Prolific doesn't even begin to describe Anthony Braxton's half century of output, for everything from solo saxophone to multiple orchestras. As a composer, multi-instrumentalist, improviser, bandleader, theorist, and educator, he's been a galvanizing force in modern music. This relatively recent piece conveys one facet of his vision.

Steve Coleman - Lymph Swag (Dance of the Leukocytes) (Steve Coleman and Five Elements)

Steve Coleman is a deeply influential composer-performer. This is from a project investigating the persistent, interacting rhythms of the human body. There are three different pairings in the ensemble that seemingly move independently of each other, until they resolve, twice, shocking me each time.