Feature/Interview

Vijay Iyer’s Ritual Ensemble & In Conversation (Wigmore Hall, 10/11 Jan)

Pianist Vijay Iyer brings his Ritual Ensemble to the Wigmore Hall on Friday 10 January as part of his role as the venue’s Composer in Residence for 2019/20. The concert, which will be followed the next afternoon by a public conversation between Vijay Iyer and Professor Georgina Born, an academic and musician known for her work with Henry Cow and Lindsay Cooper, comes under the Hall’s scheme to make tickets available at £5 for Under 35s. Rob Adams previews the events:

The Ritual Ensemble The performers are (from left to right) Rajna Swaminathan, Yosvany Terry, Ganavya and Vijay Iyer
Photo Credit: Vivek Bald

Ritual Ensemble takes Iyer back to some of the earliest music he heard and some of the earliest music created in his ancestral home.

“My parents were born in India and came to live in the US, and although I began studying western classical music on the violin when I was three, some of my first musical memories are of hearing Bhajan devotional music,” he says. “This is music that is created for everyone – you find large roomfuls of people singing these praise songs in Indian communities – and it’s probably the oldest form of music making in India. For people who listen to jazz, especially, the most prominent example of this music being brought to Western audiences is in Alice Coltrane’s recordings and leading her students in devotional ceremonies.”

For Iyer, the piano became his rebellion. While studying the violin formally, he would escape to the piano to play by ear and discover the instrument’s possibilities for himself. He was, he says, about 20 when he felt comfortable coming to terms with his Indian heritage.

“I’d seen a lot of Bhajan dance music and heard a lot of Carnatic music, which features the two-ended drum, the mridangam,” he says. “So having Rajna Swaminathan, a real master of this instrument, involved in Ritual Ensemble is a key element in the group.”  

Rajna Swaminathan is one of only a handful of women who play the mridangam professionally. She studied with the mridangam maestro Umayalpuram K. Sivaraman and tours regularly with leading Indian classical musicians including her mentor, vocalist T.M. Krishna, and with the prominent Minneapolis-based Ragmala dance company. However, she is also very active in cross-cultural music and earlier this year she released Of Agency and Abstraction, her first album as the leader of the Rajas ensemble, which also features her sister, Anjna on violin, Miles Okazaki (guitar), Stephan Crump (bass), and María Grand (tenor saxophone).

The album also included guest vocalist Ganavya Doraiswamy, whose background in ancient Indian spiritual songs makes her a perfect fit for Ritual Enesemble. Like Rajna Swaminathan, Ganavya, as she is known professionally, has worked with jazz musicians including trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith, pianist Danilo Perez and bassist Victor Wooten and she has won admirers for her translations of jazz standards into Tamil. She has also featured alongside personalities from across the musical spectrum, with Placido Domingo, Quincy Jones, Zakir Hussain and contemporary flamenco producer Javier Limón all appearing in her resume.

Completing the Ritual Ensemble line-up is Afro-Cuban composer-saxophonist-percussionist Yosvany Terry. Born into a prominent musical family in Cuba – his father is violinist and chekeré master Eladio “Don Pancho” Terry – Yosvany is a classically trained musician who immersed himself in every aspect of Cuban music before moving to New York. He has since performed with Chick Corea, Branford Marsalis, Dave Douglas and Steve Coleman, among other notables, and brings improvisational fire as well as a compositional flair that has won him high profile commissions from San Francisco to Harlem.

For Vijay Iyer, the musical capabilities of his colleagues, as well as each musician’s ability to communicate directly with an audience, should make hearing Ritual Ensemble an uplifting experience.

“In the end, you hope that the music you create does its work,” he says. “You want to make music that speaks to people and maybe make a difference in their lives, and if you can do that – or even take them away from whatever concerns they have for that time you’re onstage – you can’t ask for much more.”

Vijay Iyer presents Ritual Ensemble, Wigmore Hall, Friday 10 January

Of Musicalities and Musical Experience: Vijay Iyer and Georgina Born in conversation, Saturday 11 January

LINK: Vijay Iyer Residency at Wigmore Hall: Musicality

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