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Vijay Iyer and Curtis Stewart performing ”What isn’t hard to see” in the Coolidge Auditorium. Photo courtesy of Claudia Morales

Experiencing the World Premiere of Vijay Iyer’s McKim Fund Commission at the Library of Congress

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On May 9, 2024, composer/pianist Vijay Iyer and violinist Curtis Stewart of PUBLIQuartet performed the world premiere of Iyer’s What Isn’t Hard to See at the Library of Congress. The work was commissioned by the McKim Fund at the Library of Congress, which supports the performance and commissioning of works for violin and piano by American composers. As I made my way to meet the artists, I reflected that after nearly a year of preparation, the day of the world premiere had finally arrived.  

Before their rehearsal, both artists took time to rehearse alone, each immersed in their instruments.  Around 3:15 pm, they converged on the Coolidge stage. I sat in the house quietly, watching as Stewart approached the stage. The rehearsal was about to begin. 

 

(L-R) Rubén Rengel, Nick Revel, Claudia Morales, Hamilton Berry, Curtis Stewart and Vijay Iyer. Photo courtesy of Claudia Morales.

 

During their preconcert conversation, Vijay Iyer and Curtis Stewart shared their insights into their creative process. Iyer mentioned that the work began after he and the quartet rehearsed a piano quintet. Iyer and Stewart stayed behind and played some spontaneous duets. This experience reassured Iyer about their collaboration, giving him confidence in their ability to explore multiple musical options together: “I can trust that we can go on a journey together.” Stewart, in turn, felt that Iyer was tailoring his work, especially for him, a sentiment that grew from their spontaneous playing session.

Excerpt from ”What isn‘t hard to see.” In this section the composer asks the musicians to ”develop the material ad lib.”

 

“What isn’t hard to see”
creative nocturnes for violin and piano (2024), World Premiere
Commissioned by the McKim Fund in the Library of Congress 

 

  1. unsilent 
  2. two hundred nights 
  3. kite (for Refaat) 
  4. unfinished (after Fady) 

Composer’s Note:
“What isn’t hard to see” is a set of four nocturnes for creative duo. Working from different aspects of night, the notated material serves as thematic material and as a series of templates for real-time invention. The first nocturne begins in medias res, in an agitated nightscape; the second evokes tense, quiet survival. The third nocturne is dedicated to the late Refaat Alareer, whose best-known poem begins, “If I must die, / you must live / to tell my story…” The fourth nocturne and the work’s title refer to an untitled 2024 poem by Fady Joudah, the final lines of which are: “To see / what isn’t hard to see / in a world that doesn’t.” The piece is dedicated to the Palestinian people, to whom I donate my commission. – V.I. 

Vijay Iyer viewing Charles Mingus collection at the Library of Congress Photo courtesy of Claudia Morales

After the rehearsal, I continued to show Vijay Iyer some materials from the Library’s music collections. Among other treasures, he viewed a note to self from Billy Strayhorn about Duke Ellington’s harmony and a letter from Nina Simone to her friend, pianist Hazel Scott. Iyer took the time to read these documents, giggling and reading aloud some passages as he absorbed the content. This experience prompted Iyer to reflect on the role of archival material and the concept of music scores over time“One of the things that comes up often when I approach a piece of music that way as a composer, is a kind of archival pressure: How would this be played later by somebody else after you are dead?” Iyer shared his thoughts on musicians developing scores and opening the door for improvisation.  

Vijay Iyer and Curtis Stewart performing ”What isn’t hard to see” in the Coolidge Auditorium.  Photo courtesy of Claudia Morales

 

That evening, Iyer and Stewart took the Coolidge stage to premiere “What isn’t hard to see” and the audience received it with a standing ovation. The audience witnessed the fierceness, trust, passion and sensitivity of the work. Iyer and Stewart gave it their all, bringing their experience at the Library full circle.

Comments (2)

  1. Why didn’t you include a video of the performance?

    • Hello Vee,
      Thank you for the comment. It is a license limitation. We only have the license for live performance.

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