Fort Greene

Vijay Iyer brings Holi to life at BAM

December 23, 2014 By Benjamin Preston Special to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Vijay Iyer and a full orchestra interpret a silent film about the springtime Hindu holiday of Holi. Photos by Rahav Segev, courtesy of BAM
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It can be difficult to classify the music of Vijay Iyer, who played a three-part concert at the Brooklyn Academy Music (BAM) last week. It is certainly unlike most other things you’re likely to hear, with dramatic, looping discord building tension throughout each piece. It’s some part classical, another part jazz — but mostly, it’s him.

Iyer, a jazz pianist and Harvard music professor who holds a PhD in the cognitive science of music from the University of California, Berkeley, gives the impression that he is capable of any manner of complex thought — the more intricate, the better. Hunched, Schroeder-like, over the keyboard of either a grand piano or a laptop computer throughout much of the show, he worked with — if there is such a thing — a casual intensity, building labyrinthine musical constructions with the help of his piano, a group of similarly intense musicians and the computer.

The first piece was commissioned by BAM. After beginning with what seemed like several minutes of darkness and dead silence, the lights gradually crescendoed — along with increasingly frenetic discordant, jazzy piano riffs — to reveal a number of people lying on the floor. The horizontal assembly rose one by one, fashioning stylized hand and body movements that would be familiar to anyone who has been watching protest footage on the news of late. The piece ended with the group standing with their hands up, then out, with a final message flashed across a screen above the stage: #blacklivesmatter. 

“Mutations,” a ten-part piece that made it easy to feel like the semi-literate jock in a classroom full of Rhodes scholars, took a variety of directions in the show’s second part. “Mutation II, Rise,” did just that, with the quartet of stringed instruments present for the whole set taking turns bending tone steadily higher while alternating scattered plucked notes that sounded like raindrops falling into different-sized puddles. The computer added insistent clicking sounds to some of the movements, and sampled the string parts to create eerie loops on others.

“Mutation VI., Waves,” was the one piece in the set that abandoned the almost scary, black-sky world of the darker mutations and seemed to evoke — for me, at least — the wonder of the sea (when it’s behaving nicely.)

For anyone in the audience who wondered why Iyer’s multifaceted music wasn’t being used for a new breed of silent film, the show’s third part checked that box. “Radhe Radhe: Rites of Holi” juxtaposed music played by a full orchestra against bold-colored footage of the springtime Hindu festival of colors, which was projected on the large screen above the musicians’ heads. The film was presented in high definition, with the spurts of colored powder and bonfires associated with the holiday exploding across the screen as the drums, woodwinds, a trumpet and the aforementioned string section reeled through dance scenes with increasing intensity.

As the film’s dancers and powder-flingers progressed through their holiday, an alternate (and much less dusty) scene unfolded depicting the consummation of love between Krishna and Radha, the Hindu gods. All the while, the orchestra flew up and down Indian Thaat scales, becoming rhythmically one with the characters in the film.

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