Half my lifetime ago in a classical music chat room for teenagers, I found out about Matt Haimovitz playing Bach cello suites in clubs. Sometime in the past decade, I encountered the piano improvisations and compositions of Vijay Iyer. Their careers are paradigms for my pursuits of contemporary and classical music in unexpected places and improvisation at the piano. Last weekend to celebrate my wedding anniversary, I heard these musicians together in concert and pre-concert conversation at Mt. Gretna Playhouse.
Haimovitz opened the concert with his exquisite timing that emphasizes dissonance and registral shifts in J. S. Bach’s Prelude from the Cello Suite No. 3 in C major, BWV 1009. He mentioned that the low pedal tones were an element Iyer sourced for his response to the prelude, Run, the piece which followed. Iyer’s work used a spectral approach, making the cello sound more like an electronic filter for repeated notes than a string instrument. It has been a long time since I have heard such precision of bow placement and bow pressure, and it was thrilling in this unamplified environment. When the first half of the concert closed with the Prelude and Fugue from Bach’s Cello Suite No. 5 in C minor, BWV 1011, I realized that Haimovitz’s control in Iyer’s piece informs how he brings clarity to the polyphony of the 18th-century work.
In Iyer’s solo playing, I recognized that his accomplished piano improvisations use the same methods as my less experienced ones: texture, register, articulation, ornamentation, amount of pedal, and other features are explored one-by-one until time or an idea compels a subtle, gradual change or a sudden, drastic shift. As Iyer deftly varied the musical relationships between his hands, I heard these methods more clearly in his live renditions of Thelonius Monk’s work and his compositions than I have in listening to his recordings.
Until this concert, I had never heard a classical cellist say, “I have to channel Charles Mingus.” Haimovitz emulated the bassist twice in the evening: for composer David Sanford’s reflection on Bach’s suites, As Far, and an arrangement of Money Jungle, a 1962 collaboration between Mingus, Duke Ellington, and Max Roach. In the performance of the latter, I sensed the lack of drums and the weaker pizzicato resonance of the cello in comparison to the bass, but I relished the cello’s solo col legno and the piano’s cascading chord clusters.
Though this was their premiere performance together, both artists have extensive collaborative experience. This was evident as Iyer closely followed the expanding colors of Haimovitz’s melody while playing a minimalist accompaniment in Philip Glass’s piece and as they journeyed together through the diverse moods of Billy Strayhorn’s Blood Count.
There are two truths about music that I sometimes forget: 1) I love making music. 2) Music is more about community than category or genre, a paraphrase of Iyer’s remarks. I can get mired in the tedium of shaping slurs and the finickiness of distinguishing between marcato and martellato. Sometimes, I temporarily lose the ability to process and participate in conversation after spending more than three hours in the isolation of creation and notation. I know that music is more about my being than my doing and that it is about bringing people together, whether they are musicians who were alienated from each other by genre and performance practice as Haimovitz observed or listeners who forgot how to share the same physical space and time with each other because of too much time in headphones. Being in the presence of these artists who cherish each other’s skill and imagination reminded me to keep taking opportunities that have meaning for me and through them to see who I become and who comes to listen or to collaborate, year after year.