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Watch Sarah Rothenberg premiere a stirring piano elegy by Vijay Iyer

Sarah Rothenberg
courtesy of DACAMERA
Sarah Rothenberg performing the program 'In Darkness and Light' at the Menil Collection in Houston, May 10, 2022.

Grief can have a way of opening unexpected portals. In the summer of 2021, pianist and composer Vijay Iyer lost his father, Y. “Raghu” Raghunathan, at 87. “Several weeks after his passing,” Iyer later wrote, “I happened upon a recording of Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes and Fugues, opus 87. I couldn’t understand why at the time, but the sixteenth prelude and fugue took hold of me and would not let go.”

Vijay Iyer and his father
courtesy of Vijay Iyer
Vijay Iyer with his father, Y. Raghunathan, in 2021.

This spring I sat with Iyer at his home in Harlem, listening to Igor Levit’s recording of the Fugue No. 16 in B-flat minor. It was the final selection in a diverse range of pieces he had selected for Pitchfork’s 5-10-15-20 feature, which invites an artist to tell their story in five-year intervals, through music. “I literally had it on loop for 10 days,” Iyer said of the Shostakovich fugue, a remark that later appeared in the feature. “I would listen to only that, all day, every day. I got my hands on a score, I studied it. And then I ended up writing a solo piano piece that just premiered in Houston, called ‘For My Father.’”

Iyer was being literal when he said “just premiered.” We were speaking on May 13, three days after his piece was performed by Sarah Rothenberg at The Menil Collection, as part of a DACAMERA recital she’d titled “In Darkness and Light.” Video of the performance, which also includes Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 32 in C Minor, Op. 111 and Morton Feldman’s Palais de Mari, was recently made available online.

Iyer structured the piece as a prelude and fugue: first Orison (“In Prayer”) and then Upastuti (“In Praise”). In Rothenberg’s hands, the prelude moves in a deep, fluttering rubato, with a harmonic and kinetic signature pointing unmistakably toward Iyer. (Try playing the audio of this performance blind for someone familiar with his work.) The fugue portion is heavier with contemplation, gradually accruing rhythmic complexity and a sort of declarative catharsis.

In Rothenberg’s program notes for the concert, she traces a line between “For My Father” and Beethoven’s last piano sonata, composed precisely 200 years earlier. She turned to both the Op. 111 and Feldman’s final piano piece, Palais de Mari, as steadying beacons during the depths of pandemic isolation: “Each of these works became a place of refuge, a place to focus my internal life which was alternately turbulent, anxious, introspective, inert, at a time when outer life showed little movement at all.”

That disorienting array of emotional states is congruent with the experience of grief, of course. DACAMERA had already commissioned Iyer to compose a solo piece, and when he delivered this one, as yet untitled, Rothenberg was quick to recognize the mourning inherent in the piece. Iyer hadn’t come to its creation with that purpose in mind; it took Rothenberg to help him recognize it, at which point it was stunningly clear.

For anyone who has confronted a loss, there’s something universal in the musical message of For My Father. As Iyer puts it in his introduction to the program: “It is, at least, to my father. But it’s for everybody.”

Rothenberg is a member of the ensemble in Monochromatic Light (Afterlife), which Iyer’s regular collaborator Tyshawn Sorey will premiere next week at the Park Avenue Armory in New York. (An elegy by Sorey, “Flowers for Prashant,” was another of the pieces Iyer chose for the Pitchfork feature.) Watch this space for more coverage.

For more about Vijay Iyer and Sarah Rothenberg, visit their respective websites.

Nate Chinen has been writing about jazz for more than 25 years.