“An oratorio about our virtual surroundings”

And, with great frequency, we find it necessary to become the news, to participate in it, to deliver it. Perhaps this impulse is our only defense; reality television, the blogosphere and YouTube are but a few examples. These are the new narrative forms of our life. Digital reportage, punditry, and testimony are now integral to the way we define ourselves.

That’s from the introduction to their new work Still Life with Commentator, by Vijay Iyer, Mike Ladd, and Ibrahim Quraishi. The show premiered earlier this year in Chapel Hill and Salzburg and has its first major run this week, December 6-10, at BAM in New York City. The album on Savoy Records will appear in March.

Still Life involves many of the artists who appeared in Iyer and Ladd’s tremendous 2003-04 project In What Language? with the addition of avant-garde vocalist Pamela Z. I’ve heard the music and it’s terrific; Vijay has also posted this preview on YouTube.

More on this next week, but I encourage NYC-area macacas to check this show out; it’s a big deal. And considering that the artists call the piece as “an oratorio about our virtual surroundings,” it may prove fodder for discussion here in the virtual surroundings we share.

25 thoughts on ““An oratorio about our virtual surroundings”

  1. I watched the video clip that was posted, and my first reaction is a bit skeptical. I have several of Vijay Iyer’s albums, and while I have mad respect for him and the musicians in his band, his work just doesn’t resonate with me. I feel the same way about what I just saw. It’s clear that there is sincere artistic expression there, but I don’t think the show, like Iyer’s music, would evoke any emotional response from me. Sure, there is pleasure to be gained from the intellectual exercise, but my personal taste requires more. The intellectual puzzles only get me so far and at some point I need to see/hear something I can feel and relate to.

    Still, I will continue to buy his albums because it’s important to support the desi art scene, and if I lived in NYC, I’d probably attend the show for the same reason, but nothing more.

    It’s also interesting that Iyer is another jazz musician who’s embracing breakbeats and electronic music. I’ve yet to hear jazz fused with electronic music in a mind blowing way (the closest I’ve come is Jojo Mayer’s band, Nerve), but I’m convinced it’s just a matter of time before the right artist finds the right material and makes it work.

  2. In a previous comment, I tried to articulate the method I use to judge a piece of music, or any artistic piece. In What Language, is a perfect example of a piece that I would recommend to others, but to which I didn’t have a very strong response. I definitely spent more time listening to that record than any other Vijay Iyer recording I have, and I agree with every statement on the link you provided. So, by all objective measures I should have liked the album, let me try to articulate why I didn’t. It is purely a matter of personal taste so I don’t think anyone reading this should be discouraged from checking out the album.

    First, as a matter of personal taste I’m not a big fan of spoken word. My exposure to poetry is very limited, but I prefer either reading it or listening to it without musical accompaniment. If you are going to mix music and words, I prefer that the words be set to the music as part of the overall composition as opposed to two separate layers that are trying to evoke a particular mood.

    With respect to the drum loops and such, I don’t think jazz musicians have figured out a good way to mix programmed rhythm tracks and live musicians in way that preserves the spontaneous element of jazz. At the risk of sounding corny, jazz at is best is “in the moment” and drum loops detract from this. This is why I provided the link to Jojo Mayer’s band. He is a drummer plays in such a way that it mimics programmed sounds, but the fact that he’s a live drummer allows for more interaction between members of the band.

    I would also like to see more melodic development in the music. Let me point to Miles as an illustrative example. His In A Silent Way album is one of my favorite records of all time…I’m sayin’ it’s desert island material. On the other hand, I don’t really listen to Bitches Brew and his subsequent fusion albums like On The Corner, Agharta and etc. But, once again, I like his fusion work from the 80s (albums like We Want Miles and Live Around the World). This is probably because with In A Silent Way and his 80s albums, the soloists take a more melodic approach instead of a textural approach. I prefer the former and Vijay Iyer’s album seems to take a more textural approach.

    Hope this makes sense. I think it’s a valid opinion, though it might be in the minority.

  3. This is probably because with In A Silent Way and his 80s albums, the soloists take a more melodic approach instead of a textural approach. I prefer the former and Vijay Iyer’s album seems to take a more textural approach.

    I hear you there. It’s a great comparison. And ultimately Vijay is a percussive pianist in the school of Monk, Weston et al, not a melodic one like Tommy Flanagan or Kenny Barron. Still Life continues in the textural vein, though I think there are some formal differences with In What Language. But I’m waiting til I actually see the show this week to say more… Anyway here’s hoping that many macacas check out the show. I’ll certainly put a post up at the end of the week to provide a forum for discussion.

  4. And ultimately Vijay is a percussive pianist in the school of Monk, Weston et al, not a melodic one like Tommy Flanagan or Kenny Barron

    Very true, but the reason I can still dig Monk is that the rest of his band, especially his rhythm section, stayed inside and played pretty traditional stuff that kept the swing going. When Vijay goes outside, his band goes with him and that’s when I start to lose interest.

  5. Then again there’s outside and outside. I recently saw Cecil Taylor play and damn, next to him, Vijay’s style is as accessible as a Mother Goose nursery rhyme. Taylor (a venerable and eccentric avant garde pianist, for those of you following the conversation) refers to his approach as “playing 88 drums.” Melodic it most certainly ain’t.

    Your point about Monk is spot on. As for Vijay, I’ve seen him perform with various personnel and the results vary, swing-wise. End of the day, though, the brother is highly cerebral and highly experimental and those traits predominate. Let a hundred flowers bloom, I say.

  6. Let a hundred flowers bloom, I say.

    I couldn’t agree more. But one can’t be expected to find all the flowers equally attractive.

  7. for those of you following the conversation

    We are following, and we are also loving the discussion…Thanks, Sriram and Siddhartha!
    Sriram, when are you gigging in NYC?

  8. I could not make too much sense of the video at first viewing but am curious, nevertheless, to listen to the whole record. I am a huge fan of Iyer’s trio/quartet, though. Some of his earlier records, I thought, were more muscular and less on melody compared to his later ones. ‘Reimagining’ was more balanced, in my opinion. The thing I like about Iyer’s music is that inspite of its cerebral nature it feels “tight”, for lack of a better word. Also, rhythmically they are simply outstanding. Even when their music ventures “outside”, it somehow manages to stay short of exploding into Cecility.

  9. Sanjiv:

    I am a huge fan of Iyer’s trio/quartet, though. Some of his earlier records, I thought, were more muscular and less on melody compared to his later ones. ‘Reimagining’ was more balanced, in my opinion. The thing I like about Iyer’s music is that inspite of its cerebral nature it feels “tight”, for lack of a better word. Also, rhythmically they are simply outstanding.

    Essactly. I’m also for the blooming of a hundred flowers.

  10. Sriram, when are you gigging in NYC?

    I’d love to get some gigs in NY, and am working on it, but not having much luck. I do all the booking for the group and I’m not exactly a promotional wunderkind.

    The thing I like about Iyer’s music is that inspite of its cerebral nature it feels “tight”, for lack of a better word. Also, rhythmically they are simply outstanding. Even when their music ventures “outside”, it somehow manages to stay short of exploding into Cecility.

    You are absolutely right. Whereas I don’t listen to Vijay Iyer’s group because it doesn’t resonate with me emotionally, I don’t listen to Cecil Taylors avant garde work because it’s self-indulgent gobbeldy-gook. I would not recommend his outside playing to anyone because there is no clear artistic intention beyond his getting his musical rocks off. There is very much a sympatico within Iyer’s various ensembles and all the players are very much on the same page and as a result there is a clear intention behind their performance.

  11. I’ve yet to hear jazz fused with electronic music in a mind blowing way (the closest I’ve come is Jojo Mayer’s band, Nerve), but I’m convinced it’s just a matter of time before the right artist finds the right material and makes it work.

    That Time has come.

  12. jazz fused with electronic music in a mind blowing way

    But that, in my view, is exactly what Vijay Iyer does. Seeing him live is a treat: it’s like Thelonious Monk meets Aphex Twins.

  13. DDJ,

    I’ve never heard of that group, I’ll check them out. And Mr.K, I’ve only seen Vijay Iyer live once, and it was his acoustic quartet. If I get a chance to see him play electric live, I certainly will. As far as his electric recordings, I’ll say again that my opinion of his music is just my personal taste, it doesn’t do anything for me. That’s not to say that I would fault anyone who finds it interesting.

  14. Nice post.

    Having admired all kinds of musical experimentation , I tend to go with melody now. Or, is it age? :-) . I cannot stand to listen to Chick, Zawinul, Hancock anymore. But I know I will never tire of my only Ruben Gonzalez CD or my Ramsey Lewis vinyl.

    This Vijay Iyer opera – a little Glassy, no?

  15. Greetings, all-

    Big thanks to Siddhartha for posting the info. I sincerely hope that this dialogue encourages people to come.

    FYI, here’s a NY Times blurb that gives a bit more description of the work.

    Hope to meet some of yall macacas sometime.

    With my best wishes,

    Vijay Iyer

  16. Sriram, I’m interested in hearing your critique of Jaga Jazzist, I personally find them to be the most exciting development in jazz in quite a long time.

    I picked up a complilation of random electronica on a whim a few years and found discovered an obscure NYC outfit that goes by the name Droid. What separates them from the glut of uninspired wannabe-crossover acts is their shunning of samples and loops- they only use live instruments and a keyboard. They’re more drum and bass than jazz, but still worth a listen. Check them out here.

    I’m definitely enjoying this discussion, For those seeking to learn more about jazz and Indian classical fusion, check out these links: Sitar in Jazz (A fairly comprehensive but poorly formated article)

    John Mayer Different guy indifferent as to your body being a wonderland.

    Biddu Orchestra (Indo-jazz-disco group at least partially responsible for “Kung Fu Fighting”)

    Rich a la Rakha (Buddy Rich and Alla Rakha jugalbandi from 1968)

  17. Nice post Sid. Regarding:

    I’ve yet to hear jazz fused with electronic music in a mind blowing way

    Warning, these guys have no brown connection as far as I know. Check out Detroit-based Jeremy Ellis aka Ayro for starters. Maybe light on the jazz but heavy on the funk and soul tip. He is an amazing keyboard player.

    Also definitely give Mark de Clive Lowe a listen — Londoner with more solid jazz chops than Jeremy Ellis.

    Both perform live improvised electronic music — creating Akai MPC beats on the fly overlaid with jazzy Fender Rhodes licks and much more. I’ve yet to see either live but their shows sound mind-blowing.

  18. Sorry some of the links above got screwed up, just delete the Sepia Mutiny URL in front and they should work.

  19. I don’t know if this is related, but has anyone heard jazz trained musician Kadri Gopalnath’s album, Southern Brothers? It’s Carnatic music to saxophone. The only thing really jazz about it is the sax effect, but yo, it’s smooth like a baby’s butt. Yah that’s my expert review.

  20. I remember my parents taking me to see him in concert when I was a kid. This was upwards of 20 years ago so I don’t remember anything about it other than the fact that I saw a dude playing carnatic music on the saxophone.

  21. FYI (no, this is not spam)

    I got an email from BAM re: discounts if you’re planning to go to these particular events: Save 50% on Advance Tickets With Promotional Code 7340!

    $10 (instead of $20) $17.50 (instead of $35) $22.50 (instead of $45)

    Simply use the code when you login to BAM.org or when you call BAM Ticket Services at 718.636.4100.

  22. Siddhartha:

    FYI I had a radio piece this morning about this show and the hybrid arts scene it comes out of. The word “macacatronics” appears — spoken unsolicited by one of my interviewees!

    Sorry, this is a really late reply, but I noticed this comment just now. I heard the interview from the link on your website and I choked on my drink when the guy said “macacatronics”. Your disclaimer is hilarious because my first reaction when he said it was: Oh my god, Siddhartha is spreading “macaca” ALL OVER New York! I just figured you had suggested it to him first… ’cause seriously, who on earth besides we here ever use the word??

    And really, I’m not that into the word “macaca” but “macacatronics” sounds ass-kickingly cool. You should do something with it – I mean, if anyone should label a genre “macacatronics” it should be you.