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Ornette Coleman at the SF Jazz Festival

Vijay Iyer

The airport has always been the ultimate interstitial space. Less a space, in fact, than a system: a nexus of identities, a snapshot record of movements. Accordingly, Vijay Iyer and Mike Ladd’s new song cycle “In What Language?” doesn’t occupy the space of an airport so much as appropriate its machinations. To witness this multimedia spectacle in performance is to absorb the thrumming pulse of passports, boarding passes and x-ray baggage scans.

The catch, and the motivating principle of the piece, is that the modern airport can also be an instrument of scrutiny, challenging the fabric of identity and even the very notion of self. Iyer conceived the piece, which was commissioned and produced by the Asia Society, as a response to an incident involving the Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi. In the spring of 2001, Panahi was traveling from Hong Kong to Buenos Aires on a film festival circuit when a routine layover at New York’s John F. Kennedy airport set off a humiliating sequence of events. (The director was shackled to a wooden bench for 10 hours, then deported back to Hong Kong in cuffs.) In a widely circulated email composed after the fact, Panahi wrote that he wanted to protest the actions, proclaim himself “just an Iranian, a filmmaker. But how could I tell this, in what language?”

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