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Vijay Iyer’s Ritual Ensemble at Wigmore Hall

Vijay Iyer’s Ritual Ensemble (Wigmore Hall. 10 January 2020. Review by Sam Norris) The atmosphere at Wigmore Hall prior to the UK debut of Vijay Iyer’s Ritual Ensemble was one of excitement, with a palpable sense that we were about to witness something unique. Iyer explained that the group, who were presented as part of his composition residency at Wigmore Hall, had ‘formed organically over the last four years’, facilitated by their association with Harvard University; Iyer himself and Cuban-born alto saxophonist Yosvany Terry both teach there, while it is where vocalist Ganavya and South Indian mridangam (percussion) player Rajna Swaminathan are currently completing their PhDs. The name ‘Ritual ’, he went on to say, takes its inspiration from Ganavya, who is an expert at interpreting ancient Indian spiritual songs but whose versatility across a range of musical styles has seen her collaborate with such luminaries as Danilo Perez and Victor Wooten. This perfectly encapsulates the spirit of the Ensemble, whose aim (according to the programme notes for the concert) is to ‘combine contrasting energies in pursuit of the sacred’.

Vijay Iyer’s Ritual Ensemble. Publicity photo

This spirit of genre cross-pollination was certainly abundant in the first tune, Terry’s Reuniendo la Nacion, which began with a deeply grooving, texturally fascinating mridangam solo from Swaminathan. Iyer’s entry saw him establish a dark, almost 20th-century classical tonality over the percussionist’s time cycle, creating a contrast between western harmony and South Indian rhythm which would feature in various incarnations throughout the rest of the concert. Terry peppered this blend of old and new with fluidly melodic contributions, his soft tone allowing him to blend evenly with the ensemble even when executing the most technical and harmonically detailed of language. Finally, the addition of Ganavya’s long, mellifluous vocal phrases saw the music build, Iyer’s comping reaching a McCoy Tyner-like level of intensity and Terry soaring freely over the ebbing and flowing musical backdrop. From this, the band segued into Iyer’s City of Sand, based around a creeping bass ostinato. The ensemble’s way of developing new musical material despite having relatively little harmonic information to work with was particularly organic and impressive. There was none of the (all-too frequent) sense one has elsewhere that solos over one-chord grooves can become monotonous. Here, the ensemble playing from Swaminathan and Iyer coupled with the improvisational ingenuity of Terry and Ganavya resulted in a sound which was utterly hypnotic. There were several points in this tune where the alto player and the vocalist converged, their tones blending into one as they played floating, out-of-time melodies that contrasted starkly with the stomping rhythms of Iyer and Swaminathan. It also featured Iyer’s first extended solo of the night, the pianist  improvising within the Carnatic style, while also weaving in elements of jazz and Western classical music. Swaminathan’s searching Vigil, anchored by a spacey two-chord vamp, gave Terry ample room for beboppy interjections. A stunning dialogue between Iyer and Ganavya ensued, the singer’s mesmerising delivery perfectly complemented by the pianist’s low, ominous drone and colourful, chiming two-note voicings. Ganavya’s phrasing and relentless exploration of a single tonality bought later-period Coltrane to mind. The addition of Swaminathan’s percussion helped the music to reach a visceral climax before falling into a driving, rhythmically intricate groove (Iyer’s Abundance) to end the first section of the concert. Other highlights from the rest of the gig included a staggering solo performance by Ganavya of a Bhavan devotional song, seeing her record her own accompaniment in real time using a loop pedal. Through this method she was able to construct an extraordinary tapestry of voices, improvising evermore dramatic, dynamically varied melodic phrases over the top and bathing the auditorium in her keening vocal. Swaminathan’s folksy, compound-metre Vagabonds rose steadily out of this texture, showcasing a stylistically inkeeping piano solo from Iyer and eventually building to a tense high point which gave way to another powerful vocal solo. The pianist’s emotional Entrustment, the last tune of the night, featured a well-constructed blow from Terry and some agile mridangam work from the ever-supportive Swaminathan. A final rubato section steadily building to a thumping climax provided an uplifting end to the performance, the addition of English lyrics (for the first time that night) serving as a final reminder that this is music which bridges traditional boundaries between genres. It is testament to the compositional and improvisational abilities of Iyer and his bandmates, that this single set lasting 75 minutes seemed to transcend time, retaining the listener’s attention through subtle textural shifts and well-placed melodic cues. Vijay Iyer’s Ritual ensemble is aptly named, for it produces music which nods to ancient Indian spiritual songs and whose interest is created through the obsessive repetition and reinvention of single harmonic and rhythmic ideas. This music is not easily categorizable, but it proved uplifting and totally inspiring. With thanks to Jay Visvadeva for detective work on the set-list This concert was streamed live and the video is available for a while here.  Vijay Iyer’s next Wigmore Hall composer-in-residence concert, with Aurora Orchestra conducted by Duncan Ward, is on 10 June (LINK)  

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