Vijay Iyer: Mutations, Haus der Kunst, Munich

In the booklet of his new album, Mutations, Vijay Iyer states: “our intent, as players and observers, is to place ourselves fully in the moment with sound.” This desire was perfectly executed at the European Premiere of the record at Haus der Kunst, Munich, on 29 March. With his hands firmly attached to the piano, his head thrown back and his eyes shut, Iyer was lost in the midst of his creation; and so was the audience. The pianist-composer’s album is both captivating and mind-blowing, combing so many detailed fragments it is sometimes hard to comprehend how they slot together so perfectly.

Mutations is an intricate and intuitive piece of music, demonstrating both Iyer’s improvisational skill and his highly-developed understanding of composition. The title takes the concept of “mutation” and reflects it in the ever-changing sounds and atmospheres within the piece, taking the audience through a transformative whirlwind of piano, strings and electronics. This is a slightly new direction for the world-acclaimed jazz artist and yet his inclusion of computerised interjections is seamless, adding extra depth to the acoustic sections.

Iyer’s performance at Haus der Kunst was held in one of the gallery spaces and felt personal and intimate. The distance between the door and the stage meant the musician had to walk a good distance before he reached the safety of the platform. This journey right past the viewer’s feet placed performer and listener in the same space, removing the separation often felt in a large concert hall. With a quick nod to the audience, Iyer opened his laptop, turned to the piano and began playing the simple starting notes of Spellbound and Sacrosanct, Cowrie Shells and the Shimmering Sea. He quickly followed his first number with Vuln, Part 2 and introduced his electronic compositions, enhancing his piano playing with effective exclamations. For the first 15 minutes the musician performed solo, at times slowly considering his notes and at others accelerating into an intensity of sound.

At the heart of the performance was Mutations I –X, a piece composed for piano, electronics and string quartet. The addition of four extra bodies on stage did not alter the close connection between performer and audience. Instead, the viewer could observe in detail the musicians’ time keeping and visible enjoyment of the music. The 10-piece suite was a beautifully complicated journey that was endlessly surprising as it jumped between instruments, major and minor keys and light and dark undertones. Refusing to place an emphasis on any one sound, Iyer collaged together the various compositions, allowing them to flow into one another in a seemingly organic way.

The performance concluded with the closing track on Mutations, When We’re Gone, a fitting title for a closing number. The audience focused once more upon Iyer, his piano and his laptop, as he gently guided the concert to a close. The relatively short piece (only three minutes long) tripped along the keys, repeating a memorable hook and occasionally traversing out into musical detours. His final notes faded into enthusiastic applause, confirming once more his important place within the world of jazz. However, it would not be an Iyer concert without a moment for improvisation, which came during the encore. The primarily self-taught pianist is well-known for his natural approach to performance, and his final number proved why. Returning to the stage for the last time, he produced a five-minute exploration of every note of the piano, pushing the instrument to its limits and demonstrating the brilliance of spontaneous composition.

Iyer’s Mutations illustrates once more why the musician has won numerous awards (most recently a MacArthur Foundation fellowship) and has been described as “an American treasure” (Minnesota Public Radio) and “one of the most interesting and vital young pianists in jazz today” (Pitchfork). Producing the album with ECM’s Manfred Eicher, it captures an innovative and theoretical interpretation of sound. Composed of numerous layers and distinct parts, Mutations benefits from a live performance during which the audience can literally see the detail and expertise involved in the production of each individual section. Iyer’s concert in Munich was enthralling, a spectacular celebration of the transformative impact of music and its ability to carry the listener into a new space.

Vijay Iyer: Mutations, 29 March, Haus der Kunst, Munch.

Hannah Clugston

1. Vijay Iyer ® Bart Babinski.