When Emil Kang came to work in Chapel Hill as the university's first executive director for the arts, he spent much of his first six months on the job talking to people about what he needed to do—how the University of North Carolina fit into its surroundings, how he could raise its performing arts profile and what artists he should recruit. One person's name reoccurred: young jazz composer and pianist Vijay Iyer.
"He said to me, 'You have to hear him,'" Kang says, recalling a conversation with Joseph F. Jordan, the director of the university's center for black culture and history. Jordan was a friend of Iyer, and ultimately the person who convinced Kang to listen.
The end result arrived in 2006, the first season of Carolina Performing Arts. UNC hosted the world premiere of Still Life With Commentator, a collaboration between Iyer and poet and performance artist Mike Ladd. It went on to be re-created and recorded at Brooklyn Academy of Music.
This year, in its seventh season, Carolina Performing Arts presents a new, more extensive Iyer premiere, RADHE RADHE: Rites of Holi. The 2006 program featured video by Prashant Bhargava, who designed the cover for Iyer's album Panoptic Modes. In March 2012, Bhargava filmed the Holi festival in Mathura, India, the fabled birthplace of Lord Krishna. This new piece combines that footage with a score composed by Iyer, which The International Contemporary Ensemble will perform live.
The 35-minute film and accompanying music create one of 15 commissioned performances for The Rite of Spring at 100, UNC's centennial celebration of Igor Stravinsky's initially controversial masterwork. When Kang began work on the series, he approached Iyer, who saw similarities between the Stravinsky behemoth and the Holi festival. Revelers dance in the streets, sing, chant, beat drums, and throw colored water and powder on each other for more than a week—all in raucous celebration of spring.
"It's super-intense, almost kind of dangerous," Iyer explains. "There are a lot of people smashing into each other. It's kind of like a mosh pit."
Kang saw the connection, too.
"Rite of Spring is known for many things," he says, "but in particular, it's known for Stravinsky's use of color and music and sound and timbre—and the primitive quality and nature of movement, the whole idea of [going] back to our original state of being."
So Iyer approached Bhargava, who, since their earlier work together, had garnered acclaim with his 2011 feature film Patang, set during a massive kite festival in the Indian city of Ahmedabad. (Patang will screen Monday, March 25, at 7 p.m. at UNC's FedEx Global Education Center.) Bhargava insisted on going to Mathura, the birthplace of the Holi festival, to work. In northern India, where RADHE RADHE was filmed, celebrants have a special reverence for the love of Krishna's goddess lover, Radhe.
"She's kind of looked at as this cosmic queen," says Bhargava. He heard the phrase "Radhe, Radhe" chanted over and over during several wild days of filming. "It's a very male energy. The piece became a spiritual, sexual awakening, in terms of the connection toward her."
Bhargava arrived with a director of photography, some unobtrusive cameras and a lot of gall. He returned with 30 hours of what Kang labels incredible footage. He spent the next six months tightly cutting it to Stravinsky's piece to form a narrative.
While Bhargava adhered, albeit creatively, to Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, Iyer went his own way. At times, he even incorporated some of the musical audio from the film, such as chanting, drumming and singing.
"It's more about what's really happening during Holi," Iyer says. "What helps is that the overall structure of Rite of Spring has some kind of more mysterious moments, and some celebratory dance moments, and some rather dire moments where something very harrowing is going on. And of course, it ends in sacrifice."
Raised in Rochester, N.Y., Iyer is the son of Tamil immigrants. He taught himself piano by ear after years of classical violin training. He didn't officially decide to make his career in music until he was 23, after six years of studying physics on a Ph.D. track at Yale and the University of California-Berkeley.
He now tours and records regularly with bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Marcus Gilmore, but he also writes music with alto saxophonist Steve Lehman and drummer Tyshawn Sorey in Fieldwork, a project he describes as a "laboratory." In 2011, he recorded the album Tirtha with a South Asian chamber trio. Such bold creative decisions propel him: Last year, he won five awards in the DownBeat International Critics Poll, a feat unprecedented in its 60-year history.
For Kang, RADHE RADHE is just another example of how Iyer, 41, exemplifies the multimedia-minded younger artists of today. That's why he continues to have "a lot of aesthetic conversations" with this modern jazz pioneer.
"Jazz, obviously, needs to be revered, and tradition needs to be preserved," says Kang. "But we also need to be blazing new trails."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Spring colors."