When Vijay Iyer publishes a piece of writing — which he does fairly often, considering he’s a jazz musician — he tends to hit you early on with a big, serious word that you likely wouldn’t know. The opening lines of his essay “New York Stories,” written last year for Red Bull Music Academy magazine, say that social interactions in the city can be understood as “simple combinatorics.” The opening sentence of Iyer’s liner notes to his latest release, “Mutations,” informs you that genetic variations are “stochastic.” Hmm. You don’t say?
The first thing you appreciate about a new word like that is the sound it makes when it hits your brain. Sto, chas, tic — rhythm. Next, you worry: Should I know that word? And then, presumably, you look it up. When you read the sentence over again, it feels different: new information, new context, new sound.
A pianist, composer and 2013 MacArthur Fellow, Iyer’s concerts can work as lessons as much as performances, although his main goal is the same as any musician’s: enliven, push, liberate. When he plays with his longstanding trio — among the few standard-bearing groups in jazz today — he unfurls a dense but limpid command of the keys and a way of feeding friction with momentum. Across two decades of work, he has commingled art forms as easily as he’s hopscotched music genres.
Iyer’s struggle has always been to give intellect a heartbeat. “I guess I find myself thinking of music in terms of sensation,” he says via phone from his home in Manhattan. “Which is another way to say it’s about the body.”
Thursday, Iyer will present a two-part concert at Strathmore titled “Music of Transformation,” showcasing separate experiments with Western classical music. It comes near the end of a year of beginnings: In January, he started teaching at Harvard University, where he was recently appointed to a professorship, and in March, ECM Records released “Mutations,” his first effort for a high-profile label.
The eponymous, 10-part suite from that album will make up one half of “Music of Transformation.” Written for piano, electronics and string quartet, it uses tremulous repetitions and seeping expansions to evoke the process of genetic variation. Throughout the suite, he invites moments of improvisation from the quartet’s musicians, although they’re small and hard to spot. And that’s entirely the point.s
Classical performers aren’t traditionally expected to improvise, Iyer says, but “they’ll make choices about how to do something in terms of tone, articulation. They’re sensitive on the micro level with pitch and rhythm. I wanted to harness that skill that they had and point it in a different direction: actually get them interpreting each other, rather than using the page as an intermediary.”
A similar spirit of suggestive exchange imbues “Radhe Radhe: Rites of Holi,” a collaborative work for film and 13-piece ensemble that will comprise the other half of the Strathmore show. Commissioned to commemorate last year’s 100th anniversary of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” — and performed only once to date — it zooms in on the annual Hindu ceremony of Holi while tracing the 12-chapter arc of the original “Rite.” (A DVD will be released this month, also on ECM.)
The filmmaker, Prashant Bhargava — like Iyer, a first-generation Indian American — traveled to Mathura in northern India to immerse himself in the week-long outpouring. At Holi, bonfires, upended gender roles and eruptions of pastel paints conjure a fantasy memory of the romance between the god Krishna and his beloved Radha.
“Holi itself is a rite of spring in India — something very cathartic, where people are going to it with a state of exuberance and releasing energy,” Bhargava says. In the film, which makes the bold choice of using an actress to portray Radha in certain scenes, “the people bring her to life, and then her actions feed the perspective that the locals have. So there’s an energy going back and forth.”
Although Iyer wasn’t present at the filming, he listened to audio that Bhargava had captured during the festival and incorporated the ecstatic, upward-bouncing rhythms of Holi ritual into the piece. “I could get a sense of what people responded to,” Iyer says, marveling at the point-blank intensity of Bhargava’s footage. “I was getting intimate with people in the way you do when you dance with them, getting into the rhythm of their body and trying to build something.”
When Iyer signed on with ECM last year, producer Manfred Eicher decided to focus on the pianist’s underappreciated work with contemporary Western classical. It might have seemed like the last undocumented frontier in a career that has known few boundaries. More likely, Iyer has another handful of other concepts at the ready.
Vijay Iyer was raised in Fairport, N.Y., a Rochester suburb, where he took violin lessons and taught himself the piano after falling in love with Thelonious Monk. He graduated from Yale, then earned an interdisciplinary PhD from the University of California at Berkeley. His dissertation examined cognitive and physical responses to the music of West African and African American musics. At Berkeley, he was mentored by the trombonist and early electronic musician George Lewis, a historian and member of the fabled avant-garde collective AACM. Later, Iyer developed a close relationship with the saxophonist Steve Coleman, whose collective of theory-minded, pan-Africanist musicians, known as M-BASE, was the symbol of intellectual art brut in jazz during the 1980s and ’90s.
“They’ve basically asserted a sense of mobility across what people perceive as genre, and insisted on a much broader conception of what music is and can be,” Iyer says of Lewis and Coleman and the movements they helped lead. “Tied to that is a sense of ritual.”
Since releasing his debut in 1995, Iyer has taken up their mantel, including free improvisation, longform composition, projects of musical and lyrical activism, hip-hop beatmaking and experimental Indian music. Last year, he and poet Mike Ladd released “Holding It Down: The Veterans’ Dreams Project,” a relentless and stirring investigation of the scars of American wars, particularly relating to veterans of color. In a performance at Washington’s Atlas Performing Arts Center, Iyer crafted illusory clouds and tinny rhythms that seemed to fill only half your ear, all the more haunting for their refusal to interrupt your thoughts or satisfy their own narrative.
“As a wielder of sounds, he has a masterful control of his world, and it’s all well integrated,” says Guillermo E. Brown, a drummer, vocalist and electronic musician who’s worked extensively with Iyer and Ladd. “In Vijay’s case, the whole is both acoustic and electronic. And in my experience, that’s a new way of working.”
Russonello is a freelance writer.
$20-$55. Thursday at 8 p.m. at Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda. 301-581-5100. www.strathmore.org.