Vijay Iyer

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Vijay Iyer
Vijay Iyer performing in 2008
Vijay Iyer performing in 2008
Background information
Born (1971-10-26) October 26, 1971 (age 49)
Albany, New York, United States
Occupation(s)Musician, composer
LabelsAsian Improv, Pi, Artists House, Savoy, ACT, ECM

Vijay Iyer [ˌvɪdʒeɪ ˈaɪjər][1] (born October 26, 1971) is an American composer, pianist, bandleader, producer, and writer based in New York City. The New York Times has called him a "social conscience, multimedia collaborator, system builder, rhapsodist, historical thinker and multicultural gateway."[2] Iyer received a 2013 MacArthur Fellowship, a Doris Duke Performing Artist Award, a United States Artists Fellowship, a Grammy nomination, and the Alpert Award in the Arts. In 2014 he received a lifetime appointment as the Franklin D. and Florence Rosenblatt Professor of the Arts at Harvard University, where he is jointly appointed in the Department of Music[3] and the Department of African and African American Studies.[4]

Early life and education[edit]

Born in Albany and raised in Fairport, New York (a suburb of Rochester, New York),[5] Iyer is the son of Indian Tamil immigrants to the United States.[6] He received 15 years of Western classical training on violin beginning at the age of three. He began playing the piano by ear in his childhood and is mostly self-taught on that instrument.[6]

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. He 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, concurrently with his composing, recording and touring, 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, Microstructures of Feel, Macrostructures of Sound: Embodied Cognition in West African and African-American Musics,[7] 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.


Vijay Iyer at Bach Dancing & Dynamite Society, Half Moon Bay CA April 29, 2018

Iyer performs internationally with his ensembles and in collaborations. Best known among these is his award-winning trio with Stephan Crump and Marcus Gilmore, featured on three albums: Break Stuff (2015, ECM), Accelerando (2012, ACT) and Historicity (2009, ACT); his sextet with Graham Haynes, Steve Lehman, Mark Shim, Crump, and Tyshawn Sorey, featured on Far From Over (2017, ECM); and his duo project with Wadada Leo Smith, documented on A Cosmic Rhythm with Each Stroke (2016, ECM). He has collaborated with Amiri Baraka, Teju Cole, Wadada Leo Smith, Steve Coleman, Roscoe Mitchell, Oliver Lake, Henry Threadgill, Reggie Workman, Andrew Cyrille, Amina Claudine Myers, Butch Morris, George E. Lewis, Craig Taborn, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Kassa Overall, Linda May Han Oh, Liberty Ellman, Robert Stewart, Yosvany Terry, Okkyung Lee, Miya Masaoka, Francis Wong, Hafez Modirzadeh, Amir ElSaffar, Matana Roberts, Trichy Sankaran, L. Subramaniam, Zakir Hussain, Aruna Sairam, Pamela Z, Burnt Sugar, Karsh Kale, Mike Ladd, DJ Spooky, dead prez, HPrizm, Das Racist, Himanshu Suri, Will Power, Karole Armitage, the Brentano Quartet, the Imani Winds, the International Contemporary Ensemble, the Parker Quartet, Matt Haimovitz, Claire Chase, Jennifer Koh, Miranda Cuckson, Prashant Bhargava, and Haile Gerima.

In 2003, Iyer premiered his first collaboration with poet-producer-performer Mike Ladd, In What Language?, a song cycle about airports, fear, and surveillance before and after 9/11, commissioned by the Asia Society and released in 2004 on Pi Recordings. Iyer's next project with Ladd, Still Life with Commentator, a satirical oratorio about 24-hour news culture in wartime, was co-commissioned by UNC-Chapel Hill and the Brooklyn Academy of Music for its 2006 Next Wave Festival. It 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.[8]

In 1996, Iyer began collaborating with saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, 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 a duo album, Raw Materials (2004).


Iyer has been active as a composer of concert music. His composition Mutations I-X was commissioned and premiered by the string quartet Ethel in 2005. It was 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. He collaborated with filmmaker Bill Morrison on the short film and audiovisual installation Release, commissioned by the Eastern State Penitentiary (2009) in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, which is now operated as an historic site.

In 2011 he created Mozart Effects, commissioned by the Brentano String Quartet as a response to an unfinished fragment by Mozart. 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 the 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 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 he performed with the 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, were released on ECM Records.[9] 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).[10] In 2016 he premiered Emergence for trio and orchestra, with his trio with Stephan Crump and Tyshawn Sorey plus the Leopoldinum Chamber Orchestra in Wrocław, Poland. In 2017 he composed Trouble for violin and orchestra, premiered by Jennifer Koh and International Contemporary Ensemble at Ojai Music Festival, Asunder commissioned by Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, and The Law of Returns for piano quartet. In 2019 he composed Crisis Modes for strings and percussion, co-commissioned by LA Phil, Kölner Philharmonie, and Wigmore Hall, Hallucination Party commissioned by Mishka Rushdie Momen and recorded on her album Variations, and Song for Flint for viola solo, commissioned by Miller Theatre at Columbia University and premiered in Iyer's Portrait Concert there on October 24, 2019. Iyer was the Composer-in-Residence at Wigmore Hall in London, England for their 2019-20 season.

Teaching and writing[edit]

In 2014 Iyer joined the senior faculty in the Department of Music at Harvard University as the Franklin D. and Florence Rosenblatt Professor of the Arts. In 2018 he received a joint appointment with Harvard's Department of African and African American Studies.

Previously Iyer was a faculty member at the Manhattan School of Music, New York University, The New School, and the School for Improvisational Music.[6] His writings appear in various journals and anthologies. He is a Steinway artist and uses Ableton Live software.[11] He was the 2015–16 Artist in Residence at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.[12]

Awards and honors[edit]

The jazz album Break Stuff received five stars (highest rating) in the March 2015 issue of DownBeat magazine, was listed as one of the best albums of 2015 in Time,[13] NPR,[14] Slate,[15] The New York Times,[16] the Los Angeles Times,[17] The Boston Globe,[18] Allmusic,[19] and PopMatters,[20] and won the Preis der deutschen Schallplattenkritik (the German Record Critics' prize) of the year.

Iyer received the 2003 Alpert Award in the Arts, a 2006 fellowship from the 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, the 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 DownBeat 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,[21] 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 DownBeat International Jazz Critics Poll. He was critics' Jazz Artist of the Year again in 2016 and in 2018, and his sextet was voted 2018 Jazz Group of the Year.[22] He was also voted Artist of the Year in JazzTimes's 2017 Critics' Poll and the 2017 Readers' Poll.

In 2017, Iyer was named Music Director of the 2017 Ojai Music Festival.[23]


An asterisk (*) indicates that the year is that of release.

As leader/co-leader[edit]

Year recorded Title Label Notes
1995 Memorophilia Asian Improv One track solo piano; some tracks trio, with Jeff Brock (bass), Brad Hargreaves (drums); some tracks quartet, with Steve Coleman (alto sax) added; one track quartet with Liberty Ellman (guitar), Jeff Bilmes (electric bass), Elliot Humberto Kavee (drums); some tracks quintet, with Francis Wong (tenor sax), George Lewis (trombone), Kash Killion (cello), Kavee (drums)
1998* Architextures Improv/Giant
2000 Panoptic Modes Red Giant Quartet, with Rudresh Mahanthappa (alto sax), Stephan Crump (bass), Derrek Phillips (drums)
2002 Your Life Flashes Pi As Fieldwork; trio, with Aaron Stewart (tenor sax), Elliot Humberto Kavee (drums)
2003* In What Language? Pi With Mike Ladd
2003 Blood Sutra Artists House Quartet, with Rudresh Mahanthappa (alto sax), Stephan Crump (bass), Tyshawn Sorey (drums)
2004 Simulated Progress Pi As Fieldwork; trio, with Steve Lehman (alto sax, sopranino sax), Elliot Humberto Kavee (drums)
2004 Reimagining Savoy Quartet, with Rudresh Mahanthappa (alto sax), Stephan Crump (bass), Marcus Gilmore (drums)
2006* Raw Materials Savoy Duo, with Rudresh Mahanthappa
2007* Still Life with Commentator Savoy With Mike Ladd
2007 Tragicomic Sunnyside Quartet, with Rudresh Mahanthappa (alto sax), Stephan Crump (bass), Marcus Gilmore (drums)
2007 Door Pi As Fieldwork; trio, with Steve Lehman (alto sax, sopranino sax), Tyshawn Sorey (drums)
2008 Tirtha ACT Trio, with Prasanna (guitar, vocals), Nitin Mitta (tabla)
2009 Historicity ACT Trio, with Stephan Crump (bass), Marcus Gilmore (drums)
2010 Solo ACT Solo piano
2011 Accelerando ACT Trio, with Stephan Crump (bass), Marcus Gilmore (drums)
2013 Holding It Down: The Veterans' Dreams Project Pi With Mike Ladd
2013 Mutations ECM Some tracks solo piano and electronics; some tracks quintet, with Michi Wiancko and Miranda Cuckson (violin), Kyle Armbrust (viola), Kivie Cahn-Lipman (cello)
2014* Radhe Radhe: Rites of Holi ECM Film by Prashant Bhargava
2014 Break Stuff ECM Trio, with Stephan Crump (bass), Marcus Gilmore (drums)
2015 A Cosmic Rhythm with Each Stroke ECM Duo, with Wadada Leo Smith (trumpet)
2017 Far from Over ECM Sextet, with Graham Haynes (cornet, flugelhorn, electronics), Mark Shim (tenor sax), Steve Lehman (alto sax), Stephan Crump (bass), Tyshawn Sorey (drums)
2018 The Transitory Poems ECM Duo, with Craig Taborn (piano)
2021 Uneasy ECM Trio, with Linda May Han Oh (double bass) and Tyshawn Sorey (drums), released in April 2021

As sideman[edit]

With Rez Abbasi

With Burnt Sugar

  • Blood on the Leaf: Opus No. 1 (2000)
  • That Depends On What You Know (2001)
  • The Rites: Conductions Inspired by Stravinsky's Le Sacre du Printemps (2003)
  • Black Sex Yall Liberation & Bloody Random Violets (2003)
  • Not April in Paris: Live from Banlieus Bleues (2004)
  • If You Can't Dazzle Them With Your Brilliance, Then Baffle Them With Your Blisluth (2005)
  • More Than Posthuman: Rise of the Mojosexual Cotillion (2006)
  • All Ya Needs That Negrocity (2011)

With Steve Coleman

  • The Ascension to Light (BMG France, 1999)
  • The Sonic Language of Myth (BMG France, 1998)
  • Genesis (BMG France, 1997)
  • Myths, Modes and Means: Live at Hot Brass, Paris (BMG France, 1995)

With Mike Ladd

  • Mike Ladd Presents Father Divine (ROIR, 2005)
  • Negrophilia: The Album (Thirsty Ear, 2005)
  • The Nostalgialator (!K7, 2004)

With Rudresh Mahanthappa

  • Code Book (Pi, 2006)
  • Mother Tongue (Pi, 2004)
  • Black Water (Red Giant, 2002)

With Roscoe Mitchell

With Wadada Leo Smith

With others

Compositions recorded by others[edit]


  1. ^ Vijay, Team (November 20, 2012). "About". Vijay Iyer. Retrieved September 25, 2019.
  2. ^ ""Music Review: Conscience of a Composer," by Jon Pareles, The New York Times". December 19, 2014. Retrieved April 10, 2020.
  3. ^ "We are so very pleased to announce that Vijay Iyer has accepted our offer to join the Department of Music in January 2014. Vijay will be the Franklin D. and Florence Rosenblatt Professor of the Arts." Harvard Music Department Facebook page, July 12, 2013.
  4. ^ Harvard Department of African and African American Studies webpage, accessed April 10, 2020.
  5. ^ "Fairport High School grad Vijay Iyer awarded genius grant | Democrat and Chronicle". September 25, 2013. Retrieved April 5, 2015.
  6. ^ a b c Arindam Mukherjee (February 6, 2010). "The Wizard of Jazz". Open magazine. Retrieved February 10, 2010.
  7. ^ "Microstructures of Feel, Macrostructures of Sound: Embodied Cognition in West African and African-American Musics". Archived from the original on October 29, 2013. Retrieved April 5, 2015.
  8. ^ "Holding It Down: The Veterans' Dreams Project - Vijay Iyer & Mike Ladd - Pi Recordings". Retrieved October 21, 2017.
  9. ^ "ECM 5507_DVD". November 7, 2014. Retrieved April 5, 2015.
  10. ^ [1] Archived March 4, 2016, at the Wayback Machine
  11. ^ "Biografie - Vijay Iyer". Retrieved April 5, 2015.
  12. ^ Cates, Meryl (November 10, 2015). "Resident Artist Vijay Iyer Takes the Stage". The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Retrieved October 21, 2017.
  13. ^ Nolan Feeney (December 1, 2015). "Top 10 Best Albums". Time. Retrieved September 6, 2016.
  14. ^ "NPR Music's 50 favorite albums of 2015". December 7, 2015. Retrieved September 6, 2016.
  15. ^ Fred Kaplan (December 15, 2015). "The Best Jazz Albums of 2015". Slate. Retrieved September 6, 2016.
  16. ^ Pareles, Jon; Ratliff, Ben; Caramanica, Jon; Chinen, Nate (December 9, 2015). "The Best Albums of 2015". The New York Times. Retrieved September 6, 2016.
  17. ^ Chris Barton (December 11, 2015). "2015's must hear-jazz albums carve new paths and communicate eloquently". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved September 6, 2016.
  18. ^ "The Best Albums of 2015: Jon Garelick". The Boston Globe. Retrieved October 21, 2017.
  19. ^ "Favorite Jazz Albums - AllMusic 2015 in Review". AllMusic. Retrieved October 21, 2017.
  20. ^ "The Best Jazz of 2015". Retrieved October 21, 2017.
  21. ^ "24 Recipients of MacArthur 'Genius' Awards Named". The New York Times. Retrieved April 5, 2015.
  22. ^ "66th Annual Critics Poll Complete Results". DownBeat. August 2018. pp. 52–53.
  23. ^ "At Ojai Music Festival, Vijay Iyer Showcases Improvisation". Retrieved April 30, 2019.
  24. ^ Ratliff, Ben (March 23, 2016). "Review: Wadada Leo Smith and Vijay Iyer Share Their Influence Through Duets". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved March 30, 2016.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]