92nd Street Y’s commitment to the presentation of new music was center stage on March 1, 2014, when Vijay Iyer’s new composition, “Time, Place, Action” received its New York premiere at 92Y’s Kaufmann Concert Hall. The piece was performed by Iyer and the Brentano String Quartet, for whom it was written. An audience of 413 attended the concert, which also featured two works by Beethoven: the String Quartet in D major, Op. 18, No. 3, and the String Quartet in E minor, Op. 59, No. 2.
Co-commissioned by 92Y, “Time, Place, Action” is a multi-movement piano quintet—dedicated to the memory of poet Amiri Baraka, who died this past January 9—that 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.”
In his review of the performance, Nate Chinen of the New York Times praised the collaboration between Iyer and the Brentano String Quartet, writing, “Not long into [the performance], there came a moment of deep, transfixing confluence between the composer and his partners for the evening, the Brentano String Quartet. It arrived in a largely improvised second movement, as a single sustained note slowly morphed into something as layered and ephemeral as a rolling cloud bank. Mr. Iyer’s first piano chord brought a bolt of clarity, and with it a blush of instant communion.”
92Y is grateful to New Music USA for its generous support of our long-standing commitment to new classical compositions. We look forward to continuing to serve as a leader in commissioning and presenting new works in the upcoming 2014-2015 season.