Born in Albany, New York, October 26, 1971
Time, Place, Action for Piano and Strings (New York premiere, 92Y co-commission)
Composed in 2013–2014; 30 minutes
Although he is best known as a jazz pianist and composer, Vijay Iyer defies easy categorization. He once described the saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell, a founding member of the avant-garde Art Ensemble of Chicago—in terms that apply equally to himself—as “an intrepid sonic explorer in poignant performative dialogue with his instrument, creating music out of the experiential process of making sound.” In Iyer’s view, the experience of sound in time is as fundamental to the improvisatory tradition of jazz as to the more meticulously codified forms and procedures of Western and Indian classical music.
The son of Tamil immigrants to the US, Iyer was pursuing a doctorate in physics at the University of California at Berkeley when he made the decision to devote his life to music instead. Since then, what he calls the “aliveness” of jazz as a communicative art form has been the driving force behind a diverse body of work that ranges from the multimedia work Holding It Down, based on the dreams of veterans of color from America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, to the jazz trio album Historicity, and the classically inspired Mozart Effects, written for the Brentano String Quartet in 2011. His first classical recording, Mutations for string quartet, piano and electronics, will be released on ECM Records (his first for that label) on March 4.
Iyer’s new multi-movement piano quintet, Time, Place, Action—which is dedicated to the memory of poet Amiri Baraka, who died this past January 9—characteristically blends elements of improvisation and written-out music. As Iyer explains in a note, he aimed to put “the spirit of real-time invention in dialogue with the meticulous interpretative art of the string quartet.” Both the skeletal piano part and the strings’ more precisely notated music allow the players considerable freedom of expression. He goes on to write:
What the two approaches have in common is a focus on the experience of sound in time; the priority in both cases is not only the articulation of form, but also a heightened attention to moment-to-moment interaction and the flow of aural sensation.
That zone (between score and experience, let’s say) is where this piece is meant to dwell. In the best cases, composed material offers an opportunity for the performers’ own dynamic, interpersonal expressions of tone, texture, rhythm and energy, which are then put to use to highlight aspects of the compositional shape. These embodied realities of music—the human actions in time and place, which we as listeners hear, react to and empathize with “from the inside,” as one neuroscientist put it—make performers more than mere interchangeable conduits for a composer’s intent. As a composer, I embrace those human realities; for me, composition is meant to serve performance, not vice versa. By highlighting the intentionality of the sound-making process, I strive to embrace each performer’s selfhood.
In this piece, notated sections open up and transform through various real–time decision processes. The piano part is specified mostly in a skeletal form; as in much of the music I play, my role here consists of choices made and executed in the moment, in dialogue with the details of the composition. The harmonic language, derived from various overtone and undertone series related to the open strings, seeks to maximize resonance; this alternates with a more gestural vocabulary derived from my improvisational language. The overall shape is a mix-tape: a series of juxtaposed episodes through which a larger story emerges.
Time, Place, Action was commissioned jointly by Da Camera of Houston, 92nd Street Y, Chamber Music Society of Detroit and San Francisco Performances for the Brentano String Quartet and Vijay Iyer. The world premiere was given this past February 15 in Houston.
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