“I’m a living, working artist who is interested in asking broad, interdisciplinary
questions — about what music is, how we make it, and how we listen —
in order to reimagine what music can do in the world, and then to put those
ideas into practice.”
— Vijay Iyer
By Victoria Mariconti
Praised by the music review Pitchfork as “one of the most interesting and vital young pianists in jazz today,” the Grammy-nominated performer and composer Vijay Iyer (ΦBK, Yale University, 1992) has emerged as a leading engineer of contemporary music. In less than two decades, Iyer has recorded eighteen albums and written an ever-expanding repertoire of his own compositions. His latest project, Mutations (March 2014), features his work for a chamber ensemble of piano, string quartet, and electronics. Iyer’s tireless, inspired work has not gone unnoticed. In 2013 he was selected as a MacArthur Fellow, and in 2012 he was distinguished with a windfall of awards, including a Doris Duke Performing Artist Award and a record-setting five titles from the Down Beat International Critics Poll: Jazz Artist of the Year, Pianist of the Year, Jazz Album of the Year, Jazz Group of the Year, and Rising Star Composer.
Today, Iyer is typically situated as a pianist of the jazz genre, but his manifold talents and activities have consistently broken barriers between different fields and musical styles. In 1992 he graduated magna cum laude from Yale with degrees in physics and mathematics. Iyer entered the University of California at Berkeley to complete his doctorate in physics, but upon realizing that music was his true calling, he switched to a self-designed program of technology in the arts to study music cognition. This inter-disciplinary endeavor culminated in 1998 with Iyer’s doctoral dissertation, Microstructures of Feel, Macrostructures of Sound: Cognition in West African and African-American Musics. Since then he has devoted himself to composition and performance, but he has continued to develop his ideas outside of academia through more than fifteen articles in music publications.
Iyer further distinguishes himself as a groundbreaking musician by contributing his gifts to serve American and international communities. In September 2012, Iyer and poet-performer Mike Ladd premiered Holding It Down: The Veterans’ Dreams Project, commissioned by the Harlem Stage performing arts center. In the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks and the wars that followed, Iyer, Ladd, and project director Patricia McGregor collaborated to musically and lyrically explore the experiences of veterans of color. Participants were interviewed about their dreams, ranging from their innocuous surrealist fantasies to their most harrowing combat nightmares. In an interview for the National Endowment of the Art’s blog, Iyer discusses the added layer of artistic responsibility imported by the veterans’ first-person contributions:
“When you’re dealing with veterans in a performing arts environment, it’s not just a project that’s about them, or that’s depicting them… it is them. So you have the reality of their presence erupting into the work, kind of intervening in this artistic experience. So it’s a different kind of feeling, which, for me, was always an important component of this project.”
This and other collaborations have earned Iyer a spot on GQ India’s list of the “50 Most Influential Global Indians.”
Iyer’s next project brings him back to New England and academia. This fall he began his appointment at the Harvard University music department as the Franklin D. and Florence Rosenblatt Professor of the Arts. In an interview with the Harvard Gazette, Iyer expressed his enthusiasm to integrate his explorations of music cognition and his socially conscious music making with an added layer of student mentorship:
“I especially look forward to connecting all of what we do to the world beyond the University, because a life in the arts means a life of service to those around us…. I’m a living, working artist who is interested in asking broad, interdisciplinary questions — about what music is, how we make it, and how we listen — in order to reimagine what music can do in the world, and then to put those ideas into practice.”
Regardless of discipline or enterprise, Vijay Iyer continues to embody the meaning of, “Love of learning is the guide of life.”
Victoria Mariconti is a senior at Boston College majoring in music. She became a member of Phi Beta Kappa in her junior year. Boston College is home to the Omicron of Massachusetts Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.