Vijay Iyer
Eastern State Penitentiary; Philadelphia, PA

[09-11-2010]

On May 17, 1929, Al Capone got snagged in Philadelphia for packing heat and ended up spending 9 months in the city’s Eastern State Penitentiary (ESP). As one of the country’s first gangster-celebrities, his release date was a raging media spectacle. On the scheduled morning, mobs of people lined up around the massive compound to catch a glimpse of the murderous anti-hero. Their anticipation, however, was never satiated. To the crowd’s dismay, Capone had already been released. The event concluded with only Sartrean nothingness where living, breathing spectacle was expected.

Avant-garde filmmaker Bill Morrison, most well known for his film Decasia, accidently stumbled upon this never-before-seen archival footage in 2008 and transformed it into a mirrored, kaleidoscopic, 12-minute piece that shows the empty streets evolving, slowly blooming to life as gawkers swarm the anticipatory doors through which Capone was expected to pass. Pianist Vijay Iyer, whose Historicity sat at the top of almost every year-end list for 2009’s best jazz album, was asked to provide a score for the film. This collaborative audio/visual project, Release, has been on display since March 2010 at ESP — which stopped being a prison in 1974 and became a museum in 1994 — where the installation is housed in a cell adjacent to the one where Capone spent his sentence.

On September 11, as part of this ongoing installation and Philadelphia’s Live Arts Festival, Iyer wheeled in a Steinway and gave a solo performance in ESP’s circular chamber. Located at the center of the prison – the optimal surveillance position — this main chamber contains eight long rows of cells radiating from it like sunbeams. Navigating the dark tunnels to reach the quasi-panopticon-turned-performance-space was an eerie experience, as guests were given the freedom to explore the guts of the cells in order to intimately feel the horror that will always haunt the space.

Despite Iyer’s charm and warmth — he stood and bowed for claps and spoke in detail on the significance of the pieces — the lingering terror was unshakeable. When operational, the chamber had held a piano used for musical purposes, namely for choir rehearsal and, on one occasion, when the prison band was conducted by North American composer Conrad Susa. Iyer’s playing summoned these ghosts, and while many arguably expect a solo piano concert to be soothing and tranquil, his delivery was oftentimes panic-inducing due to its precision and density. However, those familiar with Iyer’s research and publications on the relationship between cognition and music — he holds a PhD from Berkley in Technology and the Arts, a degree created especially for him — have come to expect and enjoy the cerebral experience that he aims to produce.

Many of the nine pieces he performed were from his recent solo album, Solo. On “Autoscopy,” a piece motivated by a prison escape as metaphor for the soul’s out of body experience, he created heavy but playful patterns with repetitive phrases and slight variations. The quick shifts in mood and tempo evoked the frantic mind in the planning stages of an escape or the mad dash away from confinement and toward freedom. In what was sadly an instance of missed contextualization, Iyer subtly dedicated “Remembrace,” a piece from a recent collaboration with Rudresh Mahanthappa, to victims of September 11. Asking the audience to overlook their present location, namely one where the screams of torture and the sadness of solitude were pervasive and embedded, was somewhat of a demanding stretch.

His interpretation of Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature” was particularly impressive, as he chose to meditate on the dark transition out of the chorus, and then improvised on the two droning bass chords. For the penultimate tune, Iyer chose Solo’s “One for Blount,” which takes its inspiration from Sun Ra’s earth-name, Herman Blount. This composition, equally capable of dancehall excitement or avant-garde genre-stretching, exemplifies Iyer’s technical and compositional capacities. For the finale he performed a thoughtful version of John Lennon’s “Imagine.” By intensifying the pace and shifting to a minor chord arrangement, he emphasized the shadowy traces that are normally brightened by Lennon’s lyrical optimism. The reversal was especially suitable and effective, momentarily allowing the audience to connect with the gloom of those who were so recently chained where they voluntarily sat.

[Photo: Jennie Shanker]