Musicians often feel constrained by genre definitions, but they do serve a purpose: to provide the listener a safety net, a minimum set of expectations. When a musician known for one genre — jazz, perhaps — experiments in another — contemporary classical, let’s say — that safety net splits open.
When that artist plays fast and loose with multiple styles, as pianist Vijay Iyer did in his stirring, cerebral Thursday night concert at Strathmore, it disappears completely.
The “Music of Transformation” concert was in two parts, distinctly different but both framed as contemporary classical music.
The first was a performance of “Mutations,” the 10-part suite for piano and string quartet that also occupies (and names) Iyer’s newest album. The first movement, “Air,” was fairly true to expectations, with the quartet playing a spiky but mellifluous and often lovely classical form.
The curveballs began with the second movement, “Rise”; woozy string drones were met with electronic clicks and whinnies supplied by Iyer. The third brought in a piano improvisation; the fifth, a frenzy by the quartet that was replaced by an eerie electronic soundscape (complete with heavily distorted human voices).
The eighth movement came the closest to Iyer’s brand of jazz, an uptempo piece with even-eighth-note rhythms and tumbling, legato piano figures.
The 10th was more like a singer-songwriter confessional, with the string players tapping out percussion grooves on their instruments and Iyer emitting lyrical phrases that someone like Tori Amos could have made into a pop song.
The concert’s second part consisted of the 35-minute film “Radhe Radhe,” a sweeping, multihued documentary film of the Hindu celebration of Holi. Iyer and the 13-piece International Contemporary Ensemble performed the score live onstage.
This music fused contemporary Western classical, film music and traditional Indian rhythms (sometimes all at once, sometimes in discrete sections) — but even that wasn’t eclectic enough. Although it was one continuous piece, it shifted frequently with the film’s visual cues.
It gained speed, rhythmic punch and dissonance (plus a slinky, high-register bassoon line, a la Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring”) when crowds onscreen gathered in vivid color to dance or push their way into the festivities. It slowed, thinned, became sensuous and piano-driven with the long, luxuriant shots of a bejeweled young woman gazing off-camera. And it built to an impossible frenzy (including recorded Hindi chants) as a bonfire raged in the film’s climax.
While probably too episodic and beholden to the film’s editing to stand alone, the piece was spellbinding, even rousing, when paired with the visuals. Either way, it was not for listeners who need the safety net before they’ll make the musical leap.
West is a freelance writer.