Congratulations to pianist Vijay Iyer, who is among the 2013 class of 24 MacArthur Foundation Fellows. Each fellow receives what has come to be called a “genius grant”—a no-strings-attached stipend of $625,000 (increased from $500,000) paid out over five years.
Cecilia Conrad, vice president for the MacArthur Fellows Program, said in a press release: “This year’s class of MacArthur Fellows is an extraordinary group of individuals who collectively reflect the breadth and depth of American creativity. They are artists, social innovators, scientists, and humanists who are working to improve the human condition and to preserve and sustain our natural and cultural heritage.”
Having listened lately to Iyer’s new collaborative CD with poet Mike Ladd, “Holding It Down: The Veteran’s Dreams Project” (Pi Recordings), having read his writing in music magazines and more specialized publications (such as John Zorn’s “Arcana” essay collections), and having spoken with Iyer through the years on the sorts of issues—musical, political and philosophical—that course through much of his work, I believe he genuinely aspires to Conrad’s description.
For a long time, the MacArthur fellows drawn from jazz’s ranks, such as Max Roach and Ornette Coleman, had amassed iconic bodies of work by the time of their awards, which arrived late in life. But for the past several years, the foundation has made a clear effort to focus on younger musicians. I recall one MacArthur official talking about that shift of perspective to me in an interview, and describing a focus on “those who are creating a new jazz language for the 21st century.” I had some initial discomfort with that shift. Yet when I think about recent fellows—pianist Jason Moran, for instance, saxophonist Miguel Zenón and drummer Dafnis Prieto—I see wisdom to the approach, or at least something vital getting nurtured with both cash and prestige.
As for “Holding It Down: The Veteran’s Dreams Project”: In their previous collaborations—2004’s “In What Language?” and 2007’s “Still Life With Commentator”— Iyer and Ladd achieved the rare and difficult feats of considering timely political issues through challenging music. They’ve made it work as both performance pieces, and as stuff that holds up on CD. This is the third in a post-9/11 trilogy, with librettos drawn from the experiences of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans.
This trilogy is just one corner of Iyer’s ouevre, but it’s an enlightening one. When Iyer and Ladd decided to create a collaborative work about globalization and personal identity with the airport as the guiding metaphor, they knew they were treading on explosive territory. But that was the spring of 2001—before the September 11th attacks, before the mania surrounding national security and air travel set in. “In What Language?” debuted as part of the Asia Society’s “Crossovers” Program in 2003, taking its title from an incident that was widely cited on the Internet but not well-reported in popular media. In early 2001, while in transit at New York’s Kennedy Airport, the Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi was wrongly detained by INS officials. Sent back to Hong Kong (his point of departure) in handcuffs, Panahi lamented his inability to tell his story to his fellow passengers: “I’m not a thief! I’m not a murderer!” he said shortly afterward. “But how could I tell this — in what language?” Iyer, an American musician of Indian descent and Ladd, a writer and performer of biracial descent, used Panahi’s question as their impetus.
“As a fellow brown-skinned traveler,” Iyer told me in a 2004 interview, “I felt a need to amplify and address Panahi’s question — the need to assert one’s humanity in the fact of ignorance and oppression became the driving force behind this project.”
Iyer has of course risen to wide acclaim through his own recordings, both solo and as a bandleader, and his presence in the collaborative group Fieldwork. His music has long addressed questions of identity, whether regarding genre (as in his comingling of pop, jazz and classical repertoire on recent recordings) or in more personal and global terms. Especially in his earlier music, Iyer incorporated South Indian rhythms, and sought to find both contrast and consonance between those and jazz’s ore commmon, African-derived beats. As he once explained to me:
“In West African music — one primary source for jazz — simple rhythmic elements tend to be placed in dialogue or in counterpoint. Whereas rhythmic elaboration in Indian music tends to be more linear — it’s much more naked. In the percussion ensemble music of South India you get a lot of unison flourishes. In African drum ensembles, there’s a stratification of rhythms, so that there’ll be different rhythms working against each other.”
Yet years ago he also told me, “I didn’t want to become the guy that fuses jazz and Indian music. But I see who I am as another valid outcome of the Asian-American experience. Whether it’s a simple story or not. I should just be honest about that.”
Iyer’s identity is no simple story. Raised in upstate New York, he began his infatuation with music with violin lessons at age three. Soon, he gravitated to the piano. A self-taught player and composer, Iyer embraced jazz improvisation in his teens. Although he performed his music throughout college, his studies focused on hard science. After undergraduate studies in math and physics at Yale University, he earned a Masters Degree in physics at the University of California at Berkeley.
At Berkeley, Iyer’s divergent paths found a natural intersection. His resulting interdisciplinary PhD., in music and cognitive science, were expressed in writings with titles such as “Microstructures of Feel, Macrostructures of Sound: Embodied Cognition in West African and African-American Musics.”
Iyer made a beeline for New York City after his studies, and was quickly hired by cutting-edge improvising musicians. He worked with avant-garde pioneers such as Roscoe Mitchell and Cecil Taylor. He enjoyed long stint with saxophonist Steve Coleman, who had a profound influence on Iyer’s rhythmic conception.
Iyer is due congratulations on another count: In January 2014, he will join the Harvard University Department of Music as the Franklin D. and Florence Rosenblatt Professor of the Arts.
Man, I’d like to audit his class.
Photo: Courtesy of the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation