I was riding the 3 train to Harlem, heading to an interview with pianist Vijay Iyer about “A Cosmic Rhythm With Each Stroke,” his collaborative suite with trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith, when I read the following front-page headline in The New York Times:
“Gravitational Waves Detected, Confirming Einstein’s Theory.”
Dennis Overbye’s story—the most poetic piece of journalism I’ve come across in the Times in many years—gave the news about sonic evidence of, well, a cosmic rhythm: A “faint rising tone” that, physicists say, “is the first direct evidence of gravitational waves, the ripples in the fabric of space-time that Einstein predicted a century ago.”
When I last spent time with Wadada Leo Smith, he was leading a workshop for instrumentalists, during which he’d pulled out an image meant to represent a “black hole.” He wanted to investigate the idea of a black hole through tone and rhythm.
You can find my review in the Wall Street Journal of the Smith-Iyer collaboration here.
Last week in a fifth-floor gallery of the Met Breuer, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s new outpost for modern and contemporary works, trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith hunched his shoulders, bent his knees and pointed his trumpet downward. Seated at a grand piano, Vijay Iyer began playing a soft upward ripple of notes. During their duet performance, Mr. Iyer occasionally reached for the laptop resting on his piano to trigger sounds—a gentle drone at one point, a clear bassline at another—or swiveled to the Fender Rhodes electric piano, on which he displayed uncanny delicacy. Mr. Smith played trumpet as he always has: with mesmerizing focus, little vibrato and a tone that can be either boldly declarative or soft to the point of breaking.
Here was the premiere of “A Cosmic Rhythm With Each Stroke,” a collaborative suite by Messrs. Iyer and Smith, commissioned by the Met Museum and inspired by the work of Indian modernist artist Nasreen Mohamedi (1937-1990). Audience members who had walked through a second-floor exhibition of Mohamedi’s work found passages from her journals, from which titles for this suite and its seven sections were drawn. In Mohamedi’s paintings, photographs and especially her drawings, they saw hand-rendered patterns of breathtaking diligence, suggesting precise architecture or the randomness of sand drifts, or both. At the concert, they could sense connections between Mohamedi’s creations and the ways in which Messrs. Smith and Iyer sought beauty through orderly repetition and abstract flow, in how they toyed with proportions of sound and silence to explore emptiness and meaning.
Mohamedi’s work is riveting on display at the museum. Yet it loses power in smaller reproduction, as with the untitled 1970 drawing on the cover of the new ECM recording by Messrs. Iyer and Smith, “A Cosmic Rhythm With Each Stroke,” which presents their collaborative suite bookended by two other compositions. The reverse is true of the music. As reproduced through pristine studio recording, its effect is magnified and clarified. An opening section, “All Becomes Alive,” lures listeners with long declarative tones from Mr. Smith’s trumpet underscored by a hollow drone. Often, as in “Labyrinths,” Messrs. Iyer and Smith manage to conflate seemingly disjointed musical phrases with the casualness of conversation. “Uncut Emeralds” is spare and gestural, yet precisely calibrated. “A Cold Fire” sounds as if about to combust. Two sections, “A Divine Courage” and “Notes on Water,” suggest ballads tantalizingly out of reach.
If this suite is a shared response to Mohamedi’s artwork, it more so expresses the relationship shared by Mr. Iyer, 44, and Mr. Smith, 74, who is one of his closest mentors. “This album is a document of how we create together,” Mr. Iyer told me in an interview. That connection began in 2005, when Mr. Iyer began a five-year association with Mr. Smith’s Golden Quartet. In that group, Mr. Iyer was introduced to “ankhrasmation,” Mr. Smith’s musical system that is informed but not constrained by jazz, and distinguished most starkly by a rhythmic flexibility that produces exquisite tensions and releases.
According to Mr. Iyer’s liner note to the new CD, the two musicians became a “unit within the unit, generating spontaneous duo episodes as formal links.” “We had established a certain kinetic energy,” Mr. Smith said in an interview. The two musicians first performed in duet at the Stone, in New York’s East Village, in early 2015, and felt inspired to pursue the format further. Mr. Iyer’s appointment as artist-in-residence at the Met Museum introduced him to Mohamedi’s work. When the museum offered a commission to compose a piece in response, he turned to Mr. Smith as collaborator.
Mr. Smith, whose 4-CD 2012 opus “Ten Freedom Summers” was a Pulitzer Prize finalist, is among the influential masters formatively affiliated with Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. Mr. Iyer, who was named a MacArthur Fellow in 2013, stands tall among a generation whose ideas have been largely shaped by that legacy—which spanned musical genres and artistic disciplines, and blurred lines between composition and improvisation as well as between individual creation and collective expression. Such a spirit was evident in Mr. Smith’s earliest ECM recording, 1979’s “Divine Love,” and Mr. Iyer’s 2014 ECM debut, “Mutations.”
Here, sparked by the rigor and meditative power of Mohamedi’s art, that musical connection across generations finds a new frame.