Mutations is Vijay Iyer’s first album as a leader for ECM, and a recording that will widen perceptions of the pianist-composer’s work. At its centre is “Mutations I-X”, a composition scored for string quartet, piano, and electronics. A major piece built out of cells and fragments, it veers through many atmospheres, from moment to moment propulsive, enveloping, lyrical, luminescent, and strangely beautiful. Through thematic interactivity, the interweaving of acoustic and electronic sound-textures, and some decisive improvisational interventions in notated music, Vijay Iyer has created a multi-faceted suite whose very subject is change. Iyer gives a positive value to the concept of ‘mutation’ in this music, and variously appears in it as an interpreter of notated elements, as an improviser, and as “a sort of laptop artist, mixing in noise and different sounds,” encouraging the transformative processes:
“A mutation process drives each of the suite’s ten episodes,” Iyer explains in the liner notes. “In some sections, minute variations or fluctuations in a recurring figure ultimately elicit a structural transformation; in other movements, real-time acts governed by competing directives yield an emergent, spontaneous order. These ten coexisting entities are linked either genetically or by a kind of symbiosis.”
The suite is framed by three solo statements: "Spellbound and Sacrosanct, Cowrie Shells and the Shimmering Sea”, a solo piano reading of one of Iyer’s early compositions, and “Vuln, Part 2" and "When We're Gone", pieces created in summer 2013. The newer compositions put the piano in counterpoint with electronically generated rhythms and textures which extend the aura of the suite. The arc of the whole album is a journey over changing terrain.
Mutations was recorded at New York’s Avatar Studio in September 2013, with Manfred Eicher as producer, and casts new light on Iyer’s creative range. In recent seasons Vijay’s personal approach to jazz and improvising has resonated with both press and the public, and multiple poll wins and awards including, most recently, a MacArthur Foundation fellowship, have raised his international profile. Yet important aspects of his work have remained undocumented on disc. Over the last ten years Iyer has written music for chamber ensembles of various formations, much of which “involves different approaches to improvisation as well as notation. I’m happy to have this chance to let it be heard alongside other work I have been doing that’s more in a jazz vein, or more connected to the jazz community.”
For Iyer working with ‘classical’ instrumentation is less a departure than a continuation. “I studied violin for 15 years and played in string quartets and orchestras. The sound of the string quartet has been in my head for as long as I can remember. Some of ‘Mutations I-X’ was written on violin, some of it on piano, some of it on the computer.” I also wanted to put a certain amount of agency in the musician’s hands to get them feeling like they could stir things at times and contribute something to the musical landscape. Basically to help them to feel like it was theirs as much as it was mine.” A key question here and in other works of Iyer’s: “How do you set people free inside the form that you’ve created?”
“Mutations I-X” was written and premiered in 2005 and has been rebuilt and effectively revised with each subsequent performance, by “working with the same notated elements but pushing the real time element more and more.” At Avatar the musicians “had a kind of a breakthrough, particularly apparent in ‘Movement VII’, which itself is a kind of sculpted, open improvisation. The string players are given a set of instructions and what I call a gesture palette, a palette of notated material that they can draw from spontaneously. They can dip into and grab a fragment of it and interpret it. So, what I decided to do in these final moments when I was with them in the studio was to do a take where – instead of using that one page of notation – I used the entire piece as a sort of palette. All the material that they had been playing constantly for that period was now in their heads and in their bodies and they could express it in different ways, incorporate it into the active listening, and build something with it. It was great to hear and experience that, because it became something new that I didn’t even foresee.”
Vijay Iyer was born in Albany, New York. He studied mathematics and physics at Yale, and received an interdisciplinary Ph.D. in the cognitive science of music from the University of California, Berkeley. He has been on faculty at Manhattan School of Music, New York University, and the New School, and is the Director of The Banff Centre’s International Workshop in Jazz and Creative Music, in Alberta, Canada. In January 2014 he joined the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard University as the first Franklin D. and Florence Rosenblatt Professor of the Arts.
Iyer’s many musical collaborators have included Steve Coleman, Wadada Leo Smith, Roscoe Mitchell, Butch Morris, George Lewis, Amina Claudine Myers, William Parker, Graham Haynes, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Rez Abbasi, Craig Taborn, Ambrose Akinmusire, Liberty Ellman, Steve Lehman, Matana Roberts, Tyshawn Sorey, Miya Masaoka, Pamela Z, John Zorn, Mari Kimura, DJ Spooky, Karsh Kale, and Talvin Singh. He has also worked with poets Mike Ladd, Amiri Baraka, Charles Simic, and Robert Pinsky. His compositions have been commissioned and performed by The Silk Road Ensemble, Ethel, Brentano String Quartet, JACK Quartet, the American Composers Orchestra, Hermès Ensemble, the International Contemporary Ensemble, and Imani Winds.
The ensemble heard on Mutations was assembled especially for this album. Miranda Cuckson has worked closely with composers including Elliott Carter, Boulez and Lachenmann. Her recording of Luigi Nono’s ”La lontananza nostalgica utopica futura” was named a Best Classical Recording of 2012 by the New York Times. Michi Wiancko’s recent album releases include works by French composer/virtuoso Émile Sauret. She leads her own band Kon Michi. Kivie Cahn-Lipman is the founding cellist of the International Contemporary Ensemble. Violist Kyle Armbrust also plays with ICE, as well as with the Argento Ensemble and the Orchestra of the League of Composers. He has worked with Steve Reich, Elliott Carter and Charles Wuorinen, amongst other composers.
Vijay Iyer has recorded for labels including Asian Improv, Red Giant, Sunnyside, Savoy Jazz, Artist House, ACT and, most recently, Pi Recordings, which issued Holding It Down, a collaboration with Mike Ladd, setting poetry by veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts. He first recorded for ECM in 2007, as a member of Roscoe Mitchell’s Note Factory on the live album Far Side. Further ECM recordings with Vijay Iyer are in preparation.