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Vijay Iyer (born October 26, 1971) is an American jazz pianist, composer, bandleader, producer, electronic musician, and writer based in New York. He is a 2013 MacArthur Fellow, and became the Franklin D. and Florence Rosenblatt Professor of the Arts at Harvard University in early 2014.
Born in Albany, New York, and raised in Fairport, New York, United States, Vijay Iyer is the son of Indian Tamil immigrants to the US. He received 15 years of Western classical training on violin beginning at the age of 3. He began playing the piano by ear in his childhood and is mostly self-taught on that instrument.
Later life and career:
After completing an undergraduate degree in mathematics and physics at Yale University, Iyer attended the University of California, Berkeley, initially to pursue a doctorate in physics. Iyer continued to pursue his musical interests, playing in ensembles led by drummers E. W. Wainwright and Donald Bailey. In 1994 he started working with Steve Coleman and George E. Lewis. In 1995, concurrent to his composing, recording and touring activities, he left the Berkeley physics department and assembled an interdisciplinary Ph.D. program in Technology and the Arts, focusing on music cognition. His 1998 dissertation, titled Microstructures of Feel, Macrostructures of Sound: Embodied Cognition in West African and African-American Musics, applied the dual frameworks of embodied cognition and situated cognition to music. His graduate advisor was music perception and computer music researcher David Wessel, with further guidance from Olly Wilson, George E. Lewis, Donald Glaser, and Erv Hafter.
Iyer performs around the world with ensembles, most frequently in his trio with Stephan Crump and Marcus Gilmore, featured on three albums: "Break Stuff" (2015, ECM), Accelerando (2012, ACT) and Historicity (2009, ACT). "Break Stuff" received five stars (highest rating) in the March 2015 issue of "Down Beat" magazine, was listed as one of the best albums of 2015 in Time magazine, NPR, Slate, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Boston Globe, AllMusic, and PopMatters, and won the Preis der deutschen Schallplattenkritik (the German Record Critics' prize of the year). "Accelerando" was voted No. 1 Jazz Album of the Year for 2012 in three critics' polls surveying hundreds of critics worldwide, hosted by Down Beat, Jazz Times, and Rhapsody, and also was chosen as jazz album of the year by NPR, the Los Angeles Times, PopMatters, and Amazon.com. Historicity was a 2010 Grammy Nominee for Best Instrumental Jazz Album, and was named No. 1 Jazz Album of 2009 in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Detroit Metro Times, National Public Radio, PopMatters.com, the Village Voice Jazz Critics Poll, and the Down Beat International Critics Poll. The trio won the 2010 Jazz Echo Award for best international ensemble and the 2012 Down Beat Critics Poll for jazz group of the year. On the strength of these recordings, Iyer was named the 2010 Musician of the Year and 2012 Pianist of the Year by the Jazz Journalists Association.
Iyer is also known for sustained multi-year collaborations. In 2003, Iyer premiered his first collaboration with poet-producer-performer Mike Ladd, titled In What Language?, a song cycle about airports, fear and surveillance before and after 9/11, commissioned by Asia Society. Iyer's next project with Ladd, Still Life with Commentator, a satirical oratorio about 24-hour news culture in a time of war, was co-commissioned by UNC-Chapel Hill and by Brooklyn Academy of Music for its 2006 Next Wave Festival, and was released on cd by Savoy Jazz. Their third major collaboration, Holding it Down: The Veterans' Dreams Project, focuses on the dreams of young American veterans from the 21st century wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and was commissioned by Harlem Stage to premiere in 2012. It was released on cd by Pi Recordings in 2013.
Iyer began collaborating with saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa in 1996, resulting in five albums under Iyer's name (Architextures (1998), Panoptic Modes (2001), Blood Sutra (2003), Reimagining (2005), and Tragicomic (2008)), three under Mahanthappa's name (Black Water, Mother Tongue, Code Book), and their duo album Raw Materials (2004).
Iyer has also been active as a composer of concert music. His composition Mutations I-X was commissioned and premiered by the string quartet Ethel in 2005, and released on cd by ECM Records in 2014. His orchestral work Interventions was commissioned and premiered in 2007 by the American Composers Orchestra conducted by Dennis Russell Davies. Iyer co-created the score for Teza (2009), by the filmmaker Haile Gerima, and also collaborated with filmmaker Bill Morrison on the short film and audiovisual installation Release, commissioned by Eastern State Penitentiary (2009). In 2011 he created Mozart Effects, commissioned by Brentano String Quartet as a response to an unfinished fragment by Mozart, and he also created and performed the score to UnEasy, a ballet choreographed by Karole Armitage and commissioned by Central Park Summerstage. In 2012 the Silk Road Ensemble debuted his commissioned piece, Playlist for an Extreme Occasion, which appears on their 2013 album A Playlist Without Borders. In 2013 International Contemporary Ensemble premiered his composition Radhe Radhe: Rites of Holi, a large-scale collaboration with filmmaker Prashant Bhargava commissioned by Carolina Performing Arts in commemoration of the centenary of Igor Stravinsky's work The Rite of Spring. In 2013 Brooklyn Rider premiered and recorded his string quartet "Dig the Say". In 2014 Iyer premiered "Time, Place, Action", a piano quintet which he performed with Brentano Quartet, and "Bruits", a sextet for Imani Winds and pianist Cory Smythe. Later that year the moving images by Bhargava combined with Iyer's music was released on ECM Records. In 2015 Iyer had pieces premiered by cellist Matt Haimovitz ("Run" for solo cello, an overture to Bach's Cello Suite No. 3) and violinist Jennifer Koh ("Bridgetower Fantasy," a companion piece to Beethoven's "Kreutzer" Sonata). His concert works are published by Schott Music.
Iyer received the 2003 Alpert Awards in the Arts, a 2006 Fellowship from New York Foundation for the Arts, and commissioning grants from the Rockefeller Foundation, the New York State Council on the Arts, Creative Capital, the Mary Flagler Cary Charitable Trust, American Composers Forum, Chamber Music America, and Meet The Composer. He was named one of the "50 most influential global Indians" by GQ India, and he received the 2010 India Abroad Publisher's Award for Special Excellence. He was awarded a 2012 Doris Duke Performing Artist Award, the 2012 Greenfield Prize for Music, and an unprecedented "triple crown" in the 2012 Down Beat International Jazz Critics Poll, in which he was voted Artist of the Year, Pianist of the Year, Small Group of the Year (for the Vijay Iyer Trio), Album of the Year (for Accelerando), and Rising Star Composer of the Year. He received a 2013 MacArthur fellowship, a 2013 Trailblazer Award by the Association of South Asians in Media, Marketing and Entertainment (SAMMA), and a 2013 ECHO Award for Best Jazz Pianist (International). He was voted 2014 Pianist of the Year and 2015 Jazz Artist of the Year in the Down Beat International Jazz Critics Poll.
Iyer has also worked with Amiri Baraka, Steve Coleman, Roscoe Mitchell, Wadada Leo Smith, dead prez, Amina Claudine Myers, Butch Morris, George E. Lewis, Steve Lehman, Miya Masaoka, Trichy Sankaran, Pamela Z, Burnt Sugar, Karsh Kale, Tyshawn Sorey, Oliver Lake, DJ Spooky, Das Racist, Imani Winds, and many others. In 2014 he joined the senior faculty in the Department of Music at Harvard University as the Franklin D. and Florence Rosenblatt Professor of the Arts. Previously Iyer was a faculty member at Manhattan School of Music, New York University, The New School, and the School for Improvisational Music. His writings appear in various journals and anthologies. He is a Steinway artist and uses Ableton Live software. He is the 2015-2016 Artist in Residence at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.