Halfway through “Ghost Time,” the first of his two premieres at Merkin Hall, Vijay Iyer dashed off a series of discordant piano glissandi that evoked the improv iconography of Cecil Taylor. But the piece’s algorithmic iBook accompaniment—a striation of chirrups, clicks, and throbs—described an avant-gardism of more recent vintage. Iyer, a rigorous thinker with a player’s taste for action, bridged the gap with methodical chordal tattoos.
Tension is the hallmark of Iyer’s compositional style, which employs polyphony often and counterpoint hardly at all. His other Merkin premiere, a 10-part suite called “Mutations,” featured taut, laborious string quartet writing. Uneasy drones gave way to twitchy scraps of melody, interspersed with flutters and squeals. The quartet known as Ethel expertly handled this challenge, although the final movement’s harrowing meter (33/8, I think) prompted cellist Dorothy Lawson to wag a timekeeping finger in the air. When he wasn’t sitting out entirely, Iyer played authoritative piano solos and triggered a host of laptop effects—the latter comprising Ethel samples that served as footnotes. This process peaked when the disquieting air-raid slide of the suite’s second movement resurfaced digitally in the ninth, enabling the strings to encounter recent versions of themselves. The moment underscored issues of identity and alienation—a purposeful move, as Iyer carefully explained in program notes and an intermission Q&A.
The concert’s second half began with solo piano readings of Bernstein’s “Somewhere” and Lennon’s “Imagine”—a pair of pop songs that treat identity and alienation as hurdles to be cleared. Iyer abstracted both songs in a somber middle register, softening his percussive attack with a supple touch. He lightened up during the subsequent five-song trio set, which began with an exploratory “Alaska” and segued into a jaggedly groovy “Cardio.” The group reached full steam on “Historicity,” a free-funk epic that weighed Stephan Crump’s steadfast bass figures against Marcus Gilmore’s coyly fragmented drumming. Their closing “Composites” was a dazzler too, but for different reasons. Near the song’s end, Iyer played a handful of refulgent chords—after all the tension, a refreshing release.