Vijay Iyer

Vijay Iyer [ˌvɪdʒeɪ ˈaɪjər][1] (born October 26, 1971) is an American jazz pianist, composer, bandleader, producer, electronic musician, and writer based in New York City. He is a 2013 MacArthur Fellow. He became the Franklin D. and Florence Rosenblatt Professor of the Arts (in the Department of Music) at Harvard University in early 2014.[2]

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

Early life and education

Born in Albany and raised in Fairport, New York,[3] Iyer is the son of Indian Tamil immigrants to the United States.[4] 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.[4]

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,[5] 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). He has 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 Robert Stewart.

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.

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 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.[6]

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 their 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.[7] 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).[8] His concert works are published by Schott Music.[9]

Teaching and writing

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. Previously Iyer was a faculty member at the Manhattan School of Music, New York University, The New School, and the School for Improvisational Music.[4] His writings appear in various journals and anthologies. He is a Steinway artist and uses Ableton Live software.[10] He was the 2015-16 Artist in Residence at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.[11]

Awards and honors

The jazz album 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,[12] NPR,[13] Slate,[14] the New York Times,[15] the Los Angeles Times,[16] the Boston Globe,[17] Allmusic,[18] and PopMatters,[19] 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 DownBeat, Jazz Times, and Rhapsody, and also was chosen as jazz album of the year by NPR, the Los Angeles Times, PopMatters, and 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, the Village Voice Jazz Critics Poll, and the DownBeat International Critics Poll. The trio won the 2010 Jazz Echo Award for best international ensemble and the 2012 DownBeat Critics Poll for jazz group of the year. Iyer was named the 2010 Musician of the Year and 2012 Pianist of the Year by the Jazz Journalists Association.

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,[20] 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 2018, and his sextet was Jazz Group of the Year.[21]

In 2017, Iyer was named Music Director of the 2017 Ojai Music Festival.[22]


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

As leader/co-leader

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 Jazz Quartet, with Rudresh Mahanthappa (alto sax), Stephan Crump (bass), Marcus Gilmore (drums)
2006* Raw Materials Savoy Jazz Duo, with Rudresh Mahanthappa
2007* Still Life with Commentator Savoy Jazz 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)
2008–09 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)


As sideman

With Rez Abbasi

  • Suno Suno (Enja, 2011)
  • Things to Come (Sunnyside, 2009)
  • Unfiltered Universe (Whirlwind, 2017)

With Aggregate Prime (Ralph Peterson)

  • Dream Deferred (Aggregate Prime, 2016)

With Amiri Baraka

  • The Shani Project (Brown Sound International, 2004)

With Rafiq Bhatia

  • Yes It Will (Rest Assured, 2012)

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 Das Racist

With Dave Douglas

With Mike Ladd

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

With Steve Lehman

  • Demian as Posthuman (Pi, 2005)

With Rudresh Mahanthappa

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

With Roscoe Mitchell

With Arturo O'Farrill

  • The Offense of the Drum (Motéma, 2014)

With Pete Robbins

  • Pyramid (Hate Laugh, 2014)

With Wadada Leo Smith

With Trio Three

Compositions recorded by others


  1. Vijay, Team (2012-11-20). "About". Vijay Iyer. Retrieved 2019-09-25.
  2. "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.
  3. "Fairport High School grad Vijay Iyer awarded genius grant | Democrat and Chronicle". 2013-09-25. Retrieved 2015-04-05.
  4. Arindam Mukherjee (6 February 2010). "The Wizard of Jazz". Open magazine. Retrieved 10 February 2010.
  5. "Microstructures of Feel, Macrostructures of Sound: Embodied Cognition in West African and African-American Musics". Archived from the original on 2013-10-29. Retrieved 2015-04-05.
  6. "Holding It Down: The Veterans' Dreams Project - Vijay Iyer & Mike Ladd - Pi Recordings". Retrieved 21 October 2017.
  7. "ECM 5507_DVD". 2014-11-07. Retrieved 2015-04-05.
  8. Archived 2016-03-04 at the Wayback Machine
  9. "EAM: Vijay Iyer Joins Schott Music". Retrieved 21 October 2017.
  10. "Biografie - Vijay Iyer". Retrieved 2015-04-05.
  11. "Resident Artist Vijay Iyer Takes the Stage". The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Retrieved 21 October 2017.
  12. Nolan Feeney (December 1, 2015). "Top 10 Best Albums". Time. Retrieved September 6, 2016.
  13. "NPR Music's 50 favorite albums of 2015". December 7, 2015. Retrieved September 6, 2016.
  14. Fred Kaplan (December 15, 2015). "The Best Jazz Albums of 2015". Slate. Retrieved September 6, 2016.
  15. Pareles, Jon; Ratliff, Ben; Caramanica, Jon; Chinen, Nate (December 9, 2015). "The Best Albums of 2015". The New York Times. Retrieved September 6, 2016.
  16. Chris Barton (December 11, 2015). "2015's must hear-jazz albums carve new paths and communicate eloquently". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved September 6, 2016.
  17. "The Best Albums of 2015: Jon Garelick". The Boston Globe. Retrieved 21 October 2017.
  18. "Favorite Jazz Albums - AllMusic 2015 in Review". AllMusic. Retrieved 21 October 2017.
  19. "The Best Jazz of 2015". Retrieved 21 October 2017.
  20. "24 Recipients of MacArthur 'Genius' Awards Named". The New York Times. Retrieved 2015-04-05.
  21. "66th Annual Critics Poll Complete Results". DownBeat. August 2018. pp. 52–53.
  22. "At Ojai Music Festival, Vijay Iyer Showcases Improvisation". Retrieved 30 April 2019.
  23. Ratliff, Ben (2016-03-23). "Review: Wadada Leo Smith and Vijay Iyer Share Their Influence Through Duets". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2016-03-30.

Further reading

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