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Vijay Iyer and Teju Cole Go Epic

Performance review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Fri Oct 26th, 2018

Opening image from Teju Cole's Blind Spot video presentation

This collaborative event with noted pianist Vijay Iyer and acclaimed writer Teju Cole was eagerly anticipated, like waiting for a full moon on a clear night. Iyer and Cole had collaborated once before at Montclair State College in New Jersey with a performance centered upon Cole’s celebrated novel Open City (2012), which won the PEN/Hemingway Award. Since a novel resembles a symphony, Iyer employed a twenty-strong ensemble of musicians, yet this time Cole’s book was a photography book with video montage projection, so Iyer enlisted a smaller ensemble with Patricia Brennan on vibraphone, Stephan Crump on bass, and Jonathan Finlayson on trumpet to create improvised music with a more meditative focus.

As a pianist, Iyer inhabits an international musical world without borders; his compositions travel in the ambiance of jazz and classical inflection as well as contemporary fusion. With his omnivorous musical vocabulary, Iyer loves to improvise in a variety of idioms, an aspect of his talent that imparted wide anticipation because Cole’s book of 150 color photographs with paired prose commentary, Blind Spot (2017), offers a multifaceted lens with global rotation as well as specific focus. As an essayist, Cole is a regular contributor to publications including the New York Times, Granta, The New Yorker, and other publications. Prose commentary here is the marketing term for what is really happening: free verse minimalist poetry in an epic poem of travelogue, autobiography, meditation, thoughtful commentary on the human condition, especially concerning death, and, yes, life.

Blind Spot opened with: “I’ve opened my eyes / this has the sound / I have sought.” Selected projections from the book appeared on a large screen behind the musicians, who play what was originally a series of improvisations that have now been codified into a mini-symphony for college tour performances. Cole has excellent diction; the musicians did not attempt to upstage his reading, all the while supporting and enhancing whatever mood Cole was coloring.

At the piano Iyer was smoothly playing cerebral runs and meditative see-saw motifs, while on double bassist Crump magically worked on one’s unconscious mind. On the soft mallets Brennan nearly invisibly backloaded mood as Finlayson frontloaded emotion with subtle, gentle nuance on trumpet.  

Cole’s photographs were superior images; the three that most embedded themselves on my mind were shelves of various globes in a shop, a vineyard in southern France, and a young boy with a black glove in a small boat. Cole drew effective contrasts between matters great and small: the death of a priest in Greece, the death of half-a-million Indonesians. But with simple eloquence he urged the audience to look at life sounds, and behavior with fresh eyes:

                                                                                       Many are the disregarded

                                                                                         who do the work of God

                                                                                                  in real time

Cole spoke matter-of-factly about his own eye operation, his temporary loss of balance after the operation, the loss of balance in the world at large. The predominant visual color was blue, the favorite color of Saint Patrick (notwithstanding more current political propaganda) and me, and millions of others around this spinning globe. Cole’s evocation of Homer’s Iliad and the voice of Edna O’Brien turned out to be central to his themes—no idle boast amid deft contrasts in the palette of his words and his wandering anecdotes of marginalization.

Most serious recent attempts at epic poetry in English have foundered: Ezra Pound’s Cantos from academic myopia, Charles Olson’s Maximus Poems from narcissistic ego, William Carlos Williams’ Paterson from lack of scope and energy, Ted Hughes’ Moortown from rural obscurity, Derek Walcott’s Homeros from eloquent ambition. Cole’s long poem moves adroitly from minimalist technique to maximalist perspective. There is modesty, empathy, honesty and accessibility to Cole’s achievement. A live presentation like this makes the words sing.

I came for the music and left haunted by words as much as music.