Notes on Nico Muhly, Tania León, and Vijay Iyer at the Tune-In Music Festival

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The Park Avenue Armory in mid-afternoon can be a brightly lit place. At last year’s Tune-In Music Festival, the progression from daylight into twilight provided an emotional backfdrop for Inuksuit, John Luther Adams’s massive, immersive work for percussion. This Sunday afternoon concert (on February 26) was part of the 2012 edition of Tune-In, paying tribute to the music of Philip Glass through performances of his own work or the music of related artists. The mood and lighting was positively nocturnal: stark lights illuminated the arches that trace the contours of the Armory’s ceiling. Sitting and observing the surroundings, one was left with the sense that the transition back to daylight would be a surreal one; one could sit there and fall into a stark, contemplative mood.

Alternately, one could be wry. Opening the proceedings were composer Nico Muhly and violist Nadia Sirota. Viola pieces, quipped Muhly, were “the solution to an afternoon concert.” Three of the five pieces played by the duo (Muhly was on piano and electronics) came from a series of études written by Muhly for Sirota. She was at the center of most of these compositions, the exception being Muhly’s duet with a pre-recorded track on “Skip Town.” Sirota’s playing was excellent, ebullient at certain times and a powerfully precise steady tone at others. “Drones & Piano” (or at least two sections of it, based on the context in which Muhly’s introduction placed it) was exactly that: Sirota creating steady notes over which a hectic melody gradually transformed into something lovely yet unsteady. The afternoon’s third étude involved a larger electronic component — “plugging Nadia into her own body,” Muhly commented — and found Sirota unwinding a yearning melody as Muhly created celestial sounds that evoked a theremin.

The musical affinity between Sirota and Muhly carried over to the duo that followed them. Tania León introduced her piece by addressing an unseen Philip Glass, discussing what she was about to play as a sort of deconstruction of an existing work. Accompanied by percussionist Samuel Torres, León played cascading melodies on the piano, sometimes elegant and elliptical, at others harsh and jarring. Torres’s playing progressed towards a bassier sound over the course of the piece, and the pinpoint control of both musicians was sometimes dazzling. As the final note León played slowly ebbed away, Torres softened his rhythm, slowly letting it settle into silence.

After an intermission, Tirtha — a trio comprised of pianist Vijay Iyer, guitarist Prasanna, and tabla player Nitin Mitta — took to the stage. Introducing their set, Iyer commented that their ser would “respond to the global sweep that [Glass’s] music has had.” Mitta’s playing emerged as the strongest element here, adding unexpected dimensions to the three compositions and meshing neatly with both piano and guitar. Said guitar felt most at home in the pieces on the third that the trio played, “Entropy & Time,” composed by Prasanna, also featured a judicious use of vocals.

Following the trio’s set was a short rearrangement of the stage, followed by a pair of songs from Rubén González and a trio from Zack Glass, their backing bands sharing several of the same musicians. Glass’s set wasn’t helped by the need for the stage to be re-organized after González’s set, however: it stifled some momentum, and given that both González and Glass were playing relatively low-key, restrained songs, there wasn’t much energy to be found in the room. (González gamely tried to engage the audience in a sing-a-long, an offer which this particular crowd didn’t much seem up for.)

Throughout the afternoon’s eclectic selection of artists, several of the musicians proved to be charming guides through their own work — and, in some cases, the ways in which their work overlapped with Philip Glass’s. Following Zack Glass’s set, fiddler Ashley MacIsaac stepped to the forefront, introducing a reel that he had played at a party for the elder Glass the previous month. After appreciative comments about the music played earlier in the day, he noted that “what I play is definitely not modern music” before veering off into some high-speed, visceral fiddling. Then, backed by the same group that had played with González, he veered into a piece that that group of musicians had never played before (an approach that was “very modern,” MacIsaac said). Which meant that a concert that acted a de facto tribute to the musical reach and influence of Philip Glass was ending with an extended jam session — a winking discontinuity to close out a wide-ranging afternoon.