(born October 26, 1971) is an American jazz pianist, composer,
bandleader, producer, electronic musician, and writer based in New York.
He became 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.
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.
"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, 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 chamber 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. 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.
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 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.